A protest against Trump's trans ban. / Ted Eytan

Swords Into Marketshare

Why trans inclusion in the military is the wrong fight

A protest against Trump's trans ban. / Ted Eytan
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On July 26, 2017, President Trump announced (on Twitter, of course) that he would ban trans people from serving in the U.S. military, one year after Obama had repealed the ban. Immediately I imagined spectacular celebrations in cities across the country, where trans people—and anyone else with a conscience—would gather to welcome this news with extravagant opposition to militarism in all its forms. Maybe gender transgression could bring down the state, after all!

At last, here was step one in a three-point plan for dramatic structural change, handed right to us:

Step 1: Ban trans people from serving in the military.

Step 2: Ban everyone from serving in the military.

Step 3: Ban the military.

With just these three simple steps, we could free up the resources to fund everything we’ve ever dreamed of in this country—universal housing and health care, a guaranteed minimum income, safe houses for queer and trans kids to escape abusive homes—you name it. With redistribution of the hundreds of billions of dollars allocated to the military every year (nearly half the entire federal budget), surely the slogan “A better world is possible” could become more than an aspirational refrain.

Unfortunately, though, the dominant institutions that have branded themselves as the “LGBT movement” have long been obsessed with accessing state (and straight) power, rather than challenging structural violence. Since the early-1990s, when ending the ban on openly gay soldiers became a central goal of this movement, so-called LGBT leaders and their allies have draped themselves in the stars and stripes as the United States has obliterated Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and who knows how many other countries—all this while funding the Israeli war on the Palestinians, propping up countless despotic regimes, plundering indigenous resources, poisoning the land, air, and water, and indoctrinating youths into a lifetime of brutality and trauma.

Many queers certainly know about surviving trauma, right? And yet the primary focus of the LGBT movement has been fighting for the “right to serve” the imperial agenda of the U.S. military, and not the necessity to challenge its tyranny at home and abroad. On the day after Trump announced his impending ban, I turned on Democracy Now, my daily news source, and watched an interview with a woman described as the “first infantry member to reveal she is transgender.” I watched in horror as she extolled the glory of the U.S. military for fifteen minutes, without any serious questions—“I love my country, and I just want to be able to continue to serve,” she stated, on what is arguably one of the most important and wide-reaching anti-war left news sources in the world.

On her eighteen years of military service, including three tours of duty in Afghanistan, she added: “In the military, we focus on job performance. And that’s the only thing that matters, it’s how well you can do your job.” No one asked: As someone whose job is literally to gun people down, what exactly do you mean by job performance?

After this interview, a trans man currently stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan declared, “What I like about deployment is that I can be my authentic self, I’m just another guy . . . it’s like a vacation to me, because I can be myself, in such an austere environment.” Unlike the opening segment, this was not a live interview. It was a preapproved clip from a New York Times documentary about trans soldiers. Everyone in charge of the segment watched it ahead of time, and said hey, this is something really cool to feature! Are we to believe that Democracy Now sees a tour of duty in Afghanistan as a vacation from transphobia?

Now that the left sometimes incorporates queer and trans voices, they are more often than not the most conservative.

For decades, the left ignored queer and trans lives, and now that it sometimes incorporates our voices (yes, I was once a guest on Democracy Now), they are more often than not the most conservative. The Democracy Now segment was atrocious, but the rest of the left, when covering this issue, is often just as bad. Take one recent Mother Jones headline, “Transgender Cadets Are Still Waiting for Their Chance to Serve”—or this one from the Huffington Post: “Senator Who Lost Both Legs In Iraq Blasts Trump’s Military Transgender Ban.” At least after broadcasting twenty minutes of trans voices aggrandizing military service, Democracy Now allowed trans activist scholar Dean Spade to articulate substantive critiques—but only in conversation with the filmmaker who thought it was inspiring to spotlight a trans guy who thinks war is a vacation.

Over and over again, we hear the same pro-war rhetoric about trans inclusion in the U.S. military alongside in-depth coverage of U.S. wars that terrorize people around the world. It’s as if the left doesn’t even notice the contradiction.

The never-ending presence of pro-military gay, queer, and trans people in anti-war left media is symptomatic of structural homophobia and transphobia that routinely manifests in this kind of regressive tokenism. These are the same voices that the press and politicians court as self-appointed spokespersons for the branded “LGBT movement.” This retrograde reformist ruse has its power base in the D.C. lobbying group misnamed the Human Rights Campaign, which has long centered on marriage and military inclusion, rather than challenging dominant institutions of oppression. For this comfortable power elite, the lead issues are always tax breaks and inheritance rights, instead of universal access to the fulfillment of basic needs. After the ban on openly gay soldiers in the U.S. military ended in 2011, and gay marriage became law four years later, the assimilationist LGBT movement had succeeded at its two core goals, and was looking for new funding sources, and another “issue” that would enhance its status within the status quo.

For years, trans and queer activists have demanded that the “T” in LGBT stand for something more than window-dressing in the gentrified gayborhoods pushing out anyone not willing or able to conform to white middle-class norms. But now that the T has become more visible we are treated to the horrifying spectacle of trans military service as the ticket to acceptance.

The issue of trans inclusion in the U.S. military wasn’t even on the table until Jennifer Pritzker, described as the first trans billionaire, donated $1.35 million to the Palm Center to establish the Transgender Military Service Initiative in 2014. Apparently $1.35 million is the magic number to get your issue at the center of a so-called movement, because suddenly trans inclusion in the U.S. military became the next big thing on the LGBT agenda. (If Pritzker’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s a member of the notorious Pritzker family, with a fortune built on real-estate speculation and insider trading, that got family scion Penny Pritzker named as Barack Obama’s secretary of commerce.)

The fight for trans inclusion in the military borrows from more than two decades of rhetoric in support of gays in the military, but in many ways it may be worse, since trans people don’t even have a fraction of the access to power that gay people had twenty-five years ago, when the gays-in-the-military debate moved into the center-stage of national politics. Trans people are routinely kicked out of their families of origin, harassed in school and at work, persecuted by religious leaders and politicians, and attacked on the street simply for daring to exist. Trans people are often denied access to basic services like health care and housing, fired from jobs or never hired in the first place, and forced to flee the places where they grew up simply to survive. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are brutally murdered at an astounding rate.

How does the LGBT movement respond to this frightening pattern of systemic violence and exclusion? By holding up military service as the path to assimilation— what better way to prove that trans people are “healthy” and “fit for employment” than by participating in war for corporate profit? We are told that military service is a “human right,” as if the human rights of the people in villages obliterated by drone bombings don’t matter. And now we are told that the U.S. military is the largest employer of trans people, and trans people need those jobs! Never mind that this assertion is based entirely on a study that analyzed a demographic survey of a sample of trans people, and then extrapolated numbers of trans people serving in the military. That’s all—suddenly, because one question in the survey asked respondents whether they had ever been in the military (but not when, or why), we hear the military described as some kind of haven for trans people instead of a vicious institution that siphons resources from everything that matters.

Rather than calling attention to the structural conditions that make military service a tragic option for some people desperate to escape, internalize, and ultimately further oppression, the LGBT movement aggrandizes military service as the gold standard for bravery. Why are people on the left parroting the absurd unproven speculation that the military is the largest employer of trans people as if this is fact, bolstering militarism instead of challenging it?

No one should have to become part of a murderous institution in order to escape a scary home, pay for college, or get out of a dead-end town.

Why base a whole study on guessing how many trans people are in the military, anyway? Because military inclusion was the only goal. Otherwise there would be estimates of the number of trans people in other industries, or even in other branches of the government, right? A far more telling point of reference would be to look at the number of trans people locked up in the U.S. prison system, and compare this to the military, since these are two gargantuan, over-funded bulwarks of the prison-industrial complex. If, as present records indicate, there are approximately 1.3 million people on active duty in the U.S. military, and approximately 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons at any given time—and, we know that trans people, and trans women in particular, and especially trans women of color, are overrepresented in prison systems, then I guarantee that there are far more trans people in prison than there are in the U.S. military. But who wants to give me $1.35 million to come to this conclusion?

There’s so much cognitive dissonance when people say they support trans inclusion in the U.S. military, but not war. What, exactly, do they think the military is for? The same noxious strand of magical thinking takes hold when people say that the military helps trans people to escape poverty—and then fail to account for the countless ways in which the military creates poverty, and then pushes marginalized people to serve. No one should have to become part of a murderous institution in order to escape a scary home, pay for college, or get out of a dead-end town. Nevertheless, this is what the LGBT movement heralds as progress.

What if we had an LGBT movement that helped trans people trapped in the military to leave—to unlearn their violent indoctrination and find sustainable ways of self-support and communal care? What if we had an LGBT movement that centered on getting trans people—and everyone else—out of prison, instead of into the military? If only the left could tell the difference between tokenism and transformation, we would be much closer to achieving meaningful structural change.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award, and the editor of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book.

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