Last week, President Donald Trump supposedly banned trans people, via Twitter, from serving in the armed forces. Missing from so much of the ensuing fiery debate around trans soldiers is a sense of nuance and an appreciation for how this affects all trans people.
In different ways, the right, the left, liberals, and centrists have all bungled the discussion by either myopically fixating on just the military, or imputing so much strategy to Trump’s thoughtless tweeting that they end up amplifying hateful narratives.
Despite our lusty valorization of soldiers, a uniform was never a shield from prejudice. Ask the legions of Black veterans who returned from the first and second world wars to Jim Crow America, or the Latino/a immigrants who were expelled from the country after serving its armed forces. Nor do we have the best track record of taking care of veterans of any background. Further, the fact that military service is often the only way out of poverty for so many is an indictment of the peculiar perversity of our inequalities: You may find a measure of relief, even health care, but only if you subject yourself to all the terrible, soul-destroying realities of war.
For all of this, however, it would be a mistake for progressives to consider this a tempest in a camouflaged teapot. Whether or not trans people can serve in the military, unfortunately, affects all trans folk—even those of us who will never enlist. This issue sits at a nexus of thematic, political, and legal questions concerning transgender rights as a whole.
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After all, soldiers are among the most valued citizens in our warlike society (culturally, if not materially). Thus, if trans soldiers are an onerous burden, then what does that make the trans sex worker fighting for relief from overpolicing? Or the single trans parent on Medicaid? Or the Black trans woman who must argue for her right to life? Or the transgender girl trying to go to class without being bullied? For progressives, feminists, and the wider left, this should be our point of entry into this debate: This is not just about being a soldier for its own sake.
The notion that we are frivolous, disordered, and hypersensitive, affects every aspect of our lives. It inspires hatred and contempt toward us; it makes firing us (or never hiring us in the first place) attractive. It reinforces the idea that we are a disposable, unnatural product of “political correctness.”
Further, Trump’s tweets—and the furious defense of their message on the far-right—were also focused on the question of health-care access for trans people. Although the president did not get specific about his concerns, he was almost certainly fixated, given the cis public’s lurid fascination with the subject, on sexual reassignment surgery (SRS). Is it too costly? Is it socially valuable? Is it frivolous? All the usual cis obsessions about our right to life, with SRS as the defining feature of both our existence and our interaction with professional medicine is as dehumanizing as it is inaccurate. As important as SRS is to some of us, and as worthy as it is of coverage, “health-care access” is about so much more than that. Those focusing on it in response to the president’s statements are being, at the least, willfully ignorant.
For instance, simply being able to see a doctor who isn’t confused by our bodily configurations, and who can be trusted with the intimacies of a medical examination, is a question of access. So is having a doctor who can monitor and track your hormone usage; this is a nontrivial part of what enables hormone replacement therapy to be conducted safely and effectively, available for the cost of standard blood-work. Sexual and reproductive health—for trans women who want to preserve sperm, or trans men who want to bear children, say—is also of paramount concern. So is access to a health-care provider who can test for and treat any sexually transmitted infection. Depending on the person, a provider who can furnish us with prescription contraception is also vital—as is being able to afford all of the above through adequate insurance coverage. For feminists, the answer to any moral quandaries on this issue should be even more obvious: It’s all about bodily autonomy, just like every question about abortion access, contraception, and freedom from forced sterilization.
There are, in short, myriad issues regarding trans health care that have nothing to do with SRS.
But this was never a question of expense, which analyses have regardless reported as negligible in the context of Department of Defense spending. This is about our basic humanity and whether it is institutionally recognized. Constructing us as burdensome is but one broad step on the road to eradicating us, after all.
Still, it’s important to put Trump’s tweets in context. The prejudice he expressed against us was one of reckless indifference; unlike his Pepe-loving, #MAGA-spewing followers, it appears unlikely that he has a special, burning personal hatred for us. It’s just that like so much else in this administration, his shortsighted, impulsive incompetence will have such murderous results that the question of intent becomes almost irrelevant. Still, said incompetence is noteworthy to understand as a reminder of what we’re dealing with, and to note that the worst impact of Trump’s tweets will result not from his animus, but from others (even nominal opponents) doing the dirty work for him.
Consider the Economist‘s tweeted take on the matter, summarizing a recent article about it by saying “Just as Democrats ponder how to win back blue-collar voters, they find themselves defending trans rights.” This framing—which pits trans people against an imagined unity of bigoted (white) working-class people—is deeply invidious. The Economist calls it a “neat wedge.” Even if this analysis is critical of Trump, it underscores and reinforces the terrible logic Trump promulgated. His staff, in their rush to make sense of what had happened with his tweets on trans soldiers, decided post hoc that it was a good election strategy: “Make the Democrats own this!” they howled, while what passes for their communications staff sent out an email blast that included a link to a blog post arguing “the most important factors in preparing a strong military are not hormone therapy, surgical sex changes, or politically correct education.”
That’s the new line. All the while, the Economist and others suggest that Trump did this to deliberately make the Democrats defend a cause supposedly unpopular with voters they’re trying to reach. Except that wasn’t the proximate cause in the slightest.
The day we stop pretending Trump is a mastermind, or anything other than a hyper-reactive, painfully short sighted self-indulgence machine is long overdue.
What had actually happened with this ban was less straightforward and more in keeping with Trump’s Keystone Kops style of governing. As Politico reported, conservative Republicans in the House have been trying to pin an amendment to the budget appropriations bill that includes funding for Trump’s precious border wall. They won’t pass it without an amendment that prevents Veterans Affairs health care funding from being used for transgender health care. Last week, the legislators pulled an end run around the Department of Defense and Secretary James Mattis and told Trump that if he got rid of trans care by fiat, they would drop their amendment and pass the appropriations bill. Seeing a short term advantage, Trump tweeted—and in the process went entirely too far by simply declaring trans people to be banned entirely, which was far more than the GOP representatives asked for.
But, as is often the case with emperors in want of clothing, his mistakes dictate the reality we live in, and his sycophants are now retroactively attempting to claim this attack as a stroke of tactical genius. From Fox News on down through the fiefdoms of conservative media and the hordes of Twitter trolls, they’ve now ratcheted up their transphobia and blasted anti-trans propaganda across every wire and airwave they could find, forcing us all into a fever pitched, national debate over our very humanity.
But Trump neither knows nor cares what blue-collar voters think—and lest we forget, trans people are a frequently poverty-stricken constituency in our own right.
This wasn’t about courting the Rust Belt; it was an embarrassing blunder that opened up a needless turf war with the Pentagon (which has historically handled major decisions about staffing) and dropped a bomb of uncertainty on the very bill he was trying to get passed.
What was accomplished, albeit without clear intent from Trump, was the crowdsourcing of prejudice against us. Perhaps the only presidential accomplishment Trump can claim so far is the successful appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which was manna from heaven to conservatives and the extreme right. Beyond that, his executive orders have been hobbled by the courts and neither he nor his party can pass meaningful bills. But even his most abortive, ill-considered, and hasty moves have led to inflaming mass prejudice—whether among uniformed officers of the law, or random transphobes on the street.
It is this which we on the left should watch out for, and refuse to abet by amplifying the belated spin of his desperate staff. This policy should be straightforwardly opposed, no less.