“Do you have a minute for trans rights?”
Every summer for over a decade, in nearly every major American metropolis, innocent window shoppers, bohemians, and tourists have been accosted by clip-boarded assailants from Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT non-profit organization, inquiring imperiously: “Do you have a minute for gay rights?” In more recent years, “trans” has also been used alongside “gay,” and by June 2016, it seemed that “trans rights,” as conceived by mainstream organizations like HRC, had reached a milestone when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter declared that trans people could serve openly in the military.
Yet on July 26, 2017, in a reversal that shocked many, President Donald Trump announced, via Twitter, a complete and total ban on transgender people in the armed forces. The policy was about as well thought-out as most of Trump’s policies, leaving the Pentagon surprised, and his press team scrambling to answer simple questions like, “What happens to transgender people currently serving?” Speaking to Teen Vogue, Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, accused Trump of “issu[ing] a direct attack on transgender Americans… denying some of our bravest Americans the right to serve and protect our nation.” Ellis’s words suggested the matter was and is straightforward: Trump is a transphobe and the military ought to be a place that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender identity.
On one level, of course, Ellis was completely right: denying anyone the opportunity to serve in the military on the basis of their gender identity is unfair, and though it shouldn’t need to be said, discrimination is bad. But the push for trans inclusion in the military, much like the push to include women and gays and lesbians, can’t simply be framed as a matter of “inclusion” versus “discrimination.” That’s because, given the brutal history of United States military action, we also have to ask important questions about the meaning of participating in unjust institutions. Singling out the issue of inclusion without examining the institution itself produces morally incoherent stances. It can be akin to asking “Should women be allowed to serve in death squads?” or “Is the Mafia unfairly ethnocentric?” or “How can we racially diversify the board of Goldman Sachs?” In each instance, discussing the question requires one to accept the institution itself.
Queer radical activists and thinkers like Karma Chávez, Dean Spade, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore have argued that the fight for inclusion in the military, when seen only in terms of representation, not only elides questions about war, but also the issue of who serves to begin with. It has long been the case that the most vulnerable populations—queer, trans, and the poorest among us—are disproportionately the ones who end up becoming cannon fodder, while the children of the wealthy get to stay at home. After the racial desegregation of the armed forces, for example, even when there was greater “equality” among soldiers of different races, it remained necessary to analyze the economic and social factors that actually drove people of color into the military. Martin Luther King, in the speech against the Vietnam War that alienated him from those who saw race as separable from other questions of power, made the links explicit:
It became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home [through redirecting money to war that could be going to social programs]. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
One cannot break off a single piece of the system, i.e. equality in enlistment practices, and ignore the rest of it. When proponents of inclusion rhapsodize about the human rights of LGBT people, we have to ask: what about the human rights of people abroad, many of whom are also doubtless LGBTQ, killed by American bullets and bombs? Setting aside who makes up the armed forces, we have to ask: what do they actually do? The United States military is probably the most destructive force on earth today. Our actions in Iraq alone destroyed the country, led to the death of 500,000 Iraqis, and destabilized the region. In April, Trump, in a vulgar display of strength, dropped the so-called Mother Of All Bombs (MOAB)—the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used—in Afghanistan, where our longest war (16 years) marches on with no end in sight. In Yemen, the Saudi-led, US-backed coalition has killed hundreds of civilians and deployed US-supplied white phosphorus, which burns human flesh down to the bone. Our actions in Syria, covert and overt, have fomented chaos, intensified the violence, and prolonged the suffering. And that’s just a small sampling of recent history in the Middle East alone…
It’s not just other countries that are dealt devastation. The US military has been noted for its failure to deal adequately with sexual assault, even going so far as to kick out service members who have been assaulted after they have complained. According to TIME,“[t]housands of victims have been pushed out of the service with less-than-honorable discharges, which can leave them with no or reduced benefits, poor job prospects and a lifetime of stigma.” As Drew Cordes points out, sexual assault is perpetrated or shielded by top military personnel, and it was even recently reported that several members of a task force appointed with preventing sexual assault in the military are being investigated for rape and sexual assault.
Add to all this the discrimination faced by most trans people and the fundamental gender inequality in the military, where women are still considered disposable sexual objects, alongside ongoing issues like racism and mental health concerns. The result is a toxic environment that makes already vulnerable trans soldiers even more susceptible to social, cultural, and mental crises. This is not even to mention what actually happens to soldiers on the battlefield, and the many combat veterans who struggle with a lack of healthcare, PTSD, and homelessness upon leaving the service. As Cordes concludes, because “the US will happily throw your body in harm’s way,” one may wonder whether the equal right to be mistreated and subjugated in a violent, hierarchical institution is worth fighting for.
At the end of October of last year, a federal judge temporarily blocked Trump’s proposed ban, writing in her opinion that it “does not appear to be supported by any facts.” Subsequent court rulings have required the military to accept transgender recruits beginning January 1 of this year. The Trump administration has decided not to appeal the ruling. But trans inclusion in the military will continue to loom large in the public roster of LGBT issues, particularly as the legal battle continues to play out. The emphasis is also likely to be sustained by LGBT groups that, having won the Holy Trinity of causes (gay marriage, hate crime legislation, and the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) are looking for something new to get behind and fundraise around. HRC has jumped on the issue, despite a spotty prior record of fighting for trans people. (In 2007 they were the largest LGBT organization that declined to oppose a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that excluded trans people.) After decades of neglect, trans issues have suddenly become immensely fashionable in the gay non-profit industrial complex.
The way that “Gay Inc.” determines national LGBT lobbying priorities is important to remember, because it is a reminder that these political battles inevitably exclude certain populations whose interests may differ from those of the elite, such as those who want to have their human rights respected without having to clamor for “representation” or prove themselves exemplary and unthreatening citizens. We already saw this in the fight over gay marriage. First, of course, there are plenty of LGBT people who couldn’t care less about marriage, or who see it as a bourgeois institution they want nothing to do with. But it’s not just that the fight for marriage wasn’t a universally shared priority; it actually disadvantaged those LGBT people uninterested in marriage. One of the major arguments in favor of gay marriage emphasized equal access to healthcare. Yet as Forbes reports, since the legalization of gay marriage in the United States:
…growing numbers of employers have eliminated domestic partner health coverage and been requiring same-sex couples to be married before an employee’s partner can receive health care benefit… The rationale is that there’s no need to continue to offer domestic partner coverage now that same-sex partners can tie the knot.
Since everyone could marry, they had to marry, meaning that gays and lesbians were forced to enter into matrimony if they wanted insurance coverage. In this way, the long-standing queer political demand for universal healthcare—one made constantly by queers during the AIDS crisis—was erased, in favor of a different demand: equal access to marriage as a route to health.
It is perverse to make people participate in an institution they deplore in order to access resources that should be guaranteed to all. That should make some of the arguments for trans access to the military even more disturbing. It’s the source of a stable job, free healthcare, and funding for college, and many people join for those reasons. But what can possibly be good about a society where trans people must sign up for the possibility of losing life and limb in order to be guaranteed such basic entitlements?
Some might be untroubled by the agenda-setting role of elite organizations. “So what? Why does it matter who made inclusion a priority? Discrimination is both unlawful and immoral, and some people are getting benefits.” How benefits are distributed among LGBT people matters just as much as whether they are given to LGBT people as a whole. It’s crucial to remember that political energy is finite. All time and resources being spent on one issue is not being spent on another. When military inclusion is brought to the fore, issues like universal housing are shunted to the side, putting conservative issues like military diversity over matters that truly benefit far larger numbers of people. We can’t ignore the specific power structures that gave rise to the push for inclusion, or ignore the ways in which money and political self-interest guide the direction of movements.
Issues do not enter and exit the public stage at random, but they are introduced by people with particular sets of interests. Opportunism can even be present in the resistance to trans inclusion. Donald Trump doesn’t, of course, care in the least about trans people. But he may also be motivated by something more than pure, seething transphobia. In fact, according to Politico, Trump’s sudden decision to announce the transgender service ban was motivated by a desire to salvage a House spending bill containing funding for his border wall. Trump, who has never previously shown much of an inclination to launch right-wing cultural crusades on LGBT issues, dropped mention of the subject when it ceased to promise any political dividends.
Likewise, we have to look at the sources of support for the inclusion initiative. In a prescient 2013 interview, Dean Spade, a trans advocate and lawyer, pointed out that the issue was merely bubbling somewhere in the background until it was taken on by one Jennifer Pritzker. If that last name sounds familiar, it should: a scion of the infamous, Chicago-based Pritzker family, she is described as the world’s first and only transgender billionaire. Pritzker, a retired lieutenant colonel, served in the military for an extensive period of time: 11 years in the army and 16 more in the National Guard. In 2003, she founded the Pritzker Military Library, and in 2015, her organization gave $1.35 million to an LGBT think tank at UC-Santa Barbara in order to found the Transgender Military Service initiative, aimed at bringing the topic to greater public discussion.
Spade observed that the Pritzker push for military inclusion distracts from more pressing issues facing trans people:
The campaign for military inclusion not only does nothing to support the grassroots work addressing the most urgent issues trans people face, it is actually likely to harm this work. As the Pritzker money pushes a national conversation on trans military service, all the red herrings used against trans people will play out in the national media. The right wing will have a field day with questions about how trans people use bathrooms and showers, whether government money should pay for gender-related health care, and whether and when we have to report our genital statuses.
Indeed, that is exactly what did happen, as trans inclusion in the military captured the imagination of liberals and leftists, and the country was roiled by persistent efforts to block trans people from using public bathrooms. But it’s worth asking why we have the particular kinds of conversations we do, and who cares the most about shaping them. And, without saying that Jennifer Pritzker is “unrepresentative” of trans people—which would presume an essentialist notion of trans identity in which some people are more trans than others—one can point out that without the financial and political clout of the “world’s first and only trans billionaire,” trans inclusion in the military probably would not have become an item that flew to the top of LGBT groups’ agendas.
But if Pritzker represents the “perfect” trans person for the elite political class—wealthy beyond comprehension, and willing to push for conservative causes—it’s also instructive to consider the fate of a trans person who doesn’t have this kind of power and influence: Chelsea Manning.
Let’s grant that we’re all better off having had Manning serve in the military. But she was such an asset precisely because she did not “participate” in the institution according to its rules, but took it on, blowing the whistle and exposing government wrongdoing, including the murder of Reuters war correspondents by US armed forces. Manning’s class background made military enrollment a natural fit. With a troubled home life, Manning took the Faustian bargain that so many smart, poor kids are tempted into, entering the Army to take advantage of the GI bill and hoping to pursue a PhD in Physics.
But that, as we know, was not to be. Manning found herself in an untenable position, with access to explosive information about her government’s complicity in murder, and sought to make things right. Initially sentenced to 35 years in prison, she was subjected to conditions described by the UN special rapporteur on torture as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.” She was placed in solitary confinement for nine months before her trial, then punished with solitary again after a suicide attempt. (As her time in solitary was beginning, she responded with another suicide attempt.) The threat of additional solitary confinement hung over her for minor infractions including possessing contraband like expired toothpaste and an issue of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover. And it was only after the ACLU sued the federal government that Manning was provided with hormone treatment for her gender dysphoria. To the end of Manning’s imprisonment, the military denied her the right to grow out her hair in an effort to further feminize her appearance, a treatment recommended by a psychologist.
As all of this was occurring, many gay and trans organizations remained deafeningly silent. Some prominent LGBT military advocates openly condemned Manning as a “liar” and a “traitor” (and intentionally misgendered her). HRC tweeted about Chelsea Manning once, when she was released, and issued few statements about her persecution. One HRC press release about her concluded in the final sentences that “What should not be lost is that there are transgender servicemembers and veterans who serve and have served this nation with honor, distinction and great sacrifice. We must not forget or dishonor those individuals. Pvt. Manning’s experience is not a proxy for any other transgender man or woman who wears the uniform of the United States.” The obvious insinuation was that not all transgender people serving in the military are traitors.
Individual transgender military activists were at least showing their true colors in angrily denouncing what they saw as Manning’s betrayal of the country. They believe in military culture and values, and since Manning was punished for matters unrelated to her gender identity, it did not matter that her transgender status was worsening the impact of punishment. She was a traitor first and a transgender person second. HRC’s inaction, on the other hand, may have come more from financial self-interest than a sincere belief in American empire. Back in 2013, reporter Christopher Carbone speculated in the Guardian that the quiescence of LGBT groups about Manning’s plight was motivated, in part, by their financial ties to the defense industry. He pointed out that HRC is funded by military-industrial corporations like Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Northrop Grumman, all of which have made HRC’s list of Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.
Manning’s treatment at the hands of both the military and LGBT organizations proves the fallacy of seeing “inclusion” as a coherent political issue, one that self-evidently benefits LGBT people equally. Inclusion or not, one’s fate as a trans person is going to be far more determined by whether one poses a challenge to American empire or dutifully allows the US to use one’s body to further its national interest.
It can be awkward to criticize the existing paradigm on inclusion issues. Trump’s public actions have shifted the discussion: because many of his policies (and his supporters) are so openly transphobic, and because trans people face many other forms of discrimination elsewhere, it has become difficult to claim a more complicated position against trans inclusion in the military without seeming to be tacitly supporting the right’s anti-trans bigotry. There is an expectation that everyone should strike a defensive posture in a moment of crisis: you’re either with us or with the transphobes.
Even progressive-left outlets like Democracy Now! routinely feature voices promoting the liberal agenda of inclusion. In a November 2017 segment, responding to the recent federal ruling rejecting Trump’s ban, two guests on the program—a transgender marine and the director of GLAAD’s Transgender Rights Project—waxed poetic about “people who are currently serving in the military, who have been serving for decades, proudly and courageously” and “the fundamental constitutional right to serve our country.” But the last thing we need is a left that parrots all of the right’s deceitful patriotic bromides about how wonderful and courageous and noble everyone in the military is. The left’s message should be clear: the military is a terrible place in which to seek inclusion. It is built around hierarchy and violence. Making it a slightly better place for LGBT people is of limited worth.
In the rush to criticize Trump over the trans ban, people on the left ended up affirming the consensus that the military is a positive force in civic life. In an interview on Democracy Now! about the the inclusion of gays in the military, Lieutenant Dan Choi declared that “War is a force that gives us meaning. War is a force that teaches us lessons of humanity and allows us to realize something about our society.” Yet, shockingly, host Amy Goodman — who founded the show with the tagline “The War and Peace Report” — went on to write op-eds praising Choi, like “Lt. Choi Won’t Lie For His Country,” describing Choi getting an affirming message from an Iraqi doctor “whose hospital [he] helped rebuild.” (“Rebuild after what?” we might ask.) Whenever a marginalized group seeks inclusion in an institution, even if that institution is Raytheon and the members of the marginalized group in question are wealthy amoral militarists, the left is willing to suspend its usual critique of those institutions.
LGBT activists and their liberal supporters like Rachel Maddow are fond of using the words of Theodore Parker—paraphrased by Martin Luther King, Jr. and usually misattributed to him—to discuss what they imagine as progress in LGBT rights: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This positions trans inclusion in the military as the natural efflorescence of a slow but steady upwards growth of the flower of LGBT liberation. In writing about and discussing the issue of trans inclusion in the military, liberals and lefties have been swayed and in some sense silenced by the rhetoric of inclusion, love, and belonging. It’s possible, of course, to say that, notwithstanding left political ideals about war and the military, trans people who wish to serve should be allowed to. But critics of inclusion aren’t saying they shouldn’t be allowed. We are simply pointing out that only focusing on inclusion means ignoring even more pressing problems, namely the death and violence wrought by the institution itself.
Trans people face significant inequalities. In this, they are not unlike the many other marginalized communities in the US. But the difference for trans people is that many can face instant expulsion from their families and communities the moment they announce themselves as trans. That frequently comes about at a later stage in life, and can cause sudden economic precarity, made even more difficult as they attempt to access expensive hormones and treatments. Trans people are disproportionately prone to suicide, precisely because of this exclusion and deprivation. They are more likely to be murdered, especially those whose lack of career options forces them into dangerous forms of street-based sex work. Trans access to culturally sensitive healthcare—the kind where they are not routinely humiliated and poked and prodded like circus animals—is abysmal, and the situation is much worse for the many who are incarcerated. None of these conditions of systemic inequality and brutality is addressed by compelling people to enter an already violent institution like the military, and they are not alleviated by any gestures towards diversifying the place.
The relevant questions in discussing trans inclusion in the military ought to be: what are the likely material benefits, what are the likely material harms, and what are the consequences of discussing the presence of trans personnel only in terms of a matter of fairness to the included, without consideration of the larger forces that benefit from that inclusion? Inclusion can be symbolically powerful, and nobody should scoff at symbols. (Danica Roem’s recent ascent to the Virginia House of Delegates and Chelsea Manning’s bid for Senate, for instance, are both deeply powerful markers of necessary change.) But the symbolism can actually have perverse effects: when a vulnerable group is granted inclusion in an unjust institution, that institution is stamped with a kind of imprimatur of fairness and legitimacy. It suddenly becomes much more difficult to criticize the unjustness of that institution or make a systemic critique: “Our country can’t be that racist. We had a black president.” There is a reason that the Israeli Defense Forces proudly showcases the stories of Arab Muslim and Christian soldiers who serve within its ranks: symbolic inclusion is a fine way of masking systemic exclusion.
Did we celebrate Obama’s historic candidacy? Of course. But we were also skeptical of the way his identity could serve to make his policies appear more progressive than they actually were, the way the symbol functioned to deflect attention from the reality. Obama was a Deporter in Chief who loved his drones and showed endless fealty to Wall Street. Black Americans as a whole did not do well during Obama’s presidency, and the black wealth wiped out in the financial crisis was never restored. Yet progressive outrage about this was muted by the fact that Obama’s presidency made the country seem more racially just than it actually was. If inclusion actually produces perverse consequences for all members of the marginalized group except the few individuals who are welcomed into the inner circle, it is worth wondering whether it can be counted as a “benefit” to the group at all.
Failing to challenge the premises of inclusion means forfeiting crucial political terrain. And it doesn’t disrespect the humanity of trans people to point out the conservatism of demands for inclusion in atrocious institutions. Selective attention to injustice poses a far greater risk to LGBT people than does the refusal to spend one’s time agitating for equal participation in empire.
This article originally appeared in our Jan/Feb 2018 print edition.