Trans writer, campaigner, and mental health worker Sam Hope explores why there will always be trans people in the military, and why Trump’s tweets banning trans soldiers could signal a risk to everyone’s health.
It is quite common for trans people to enter the military, for complex reasons, and often before they have a full inkling that they are trans at all. Some trans guys are lured by the line “the army will make a man out of you”. Some trans women are lured by that same line, but for the opposite reason. But of course, you really cannot make a man out of a trans woman, as they soon discover, because trans women are women. And still manage to be great soldiers.
There’s also a structure to the military, and a uniform that can ease anxiety about gender expression. People have complex motivations and there are many reasons why we do what we do, but suffice it to say, trans people have always been a valid part of the military.
With Donald Trump’s new ban on transgender people in the military, what happens to people already in the army when they realise, or admit to themselves, that they are transgender? Or that they need to transition, if they already knew they were trans. Perhaps the intention is to reintroduce the idea of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. In other words, there will always be trans people in the military – they are just not allowed to admit to it.
This also goes for folk at the other end of transition. There are young people now who have completed transition by the time they are 20. Will they be able to conceal their trans history and go on to serve? And what will it mean, psychologically, for all these people to hide and repress who they are in a society that is supposed to be becoming increasingly enlightened?
People have complex motivations and there are many reasons why we do what we do, but suffice it to say, trans people have always been a valid part of the military.
It seems only minutes ago that America was holding up its acceptance of LGBTQ+ people as a sign of superiority over countries it is antagonising. Donald Trump weaponised LGBTQ+ issues in support of his Muslim travel ban. It sticks in many throats that America is billed as “the land of the free” at the same time as restricting the lives of trans folks to work, or even to simply use the toilet.
Of course, exactly because of the continuing and growing intolerance towards them, many trans people are forced into an increased awareness of the injustice and inequality of western society. Well, white trans people are – because trans people of colour already knew about it.
Perhaps this is a good thing. Trans people see what others do not – that our society is built on a foundation of inequality and hierarchy, and many view military might as the engine that drives this inequality – between citizens within a country, and globally between the haves and the have nots.
So unsurprisingly, Twitter’s response to Trump’s announcement of a military ban for trans people is a mixed bag. Trans people are frightened of what Trump’s ban signifies, but some are reminding everyone that ethically, we should also be aware of the problems with the military. Perhaps not denouncing individual young people for joining up, but cautious of a system that defends gross inequality with gunfire.
Meanwhile many, like former soldier turned whistleblower Chelsea Manning, are focussing in on what they see as the real story.
The story is: healthcare. Because the clear risk to life and safety in the US is through the inequalities of the healthcare system. Making people feel they are more at risk from terrorists than from mental illness or cancer is a clever trick, but of course not true. Many also feel that military operations like the ‘war on terror’ create great tax expense but yield little benefit other than to arms dealers or construction companies.
It sticks in many throats that America is billed as “the land of the free” at the same time as restricting the lives of trans folks to work, or even to simply use the toilet.
Trump cited “expensive” trans healthcare as the reason for denying trans people military service. Let’s just leave aside the ridiculous assumption that healthcare is in the future of every trans person, rather than either a) in the past or b) never. Let’s focus on this message about healthcare. This is not just an issue for trans people, but has ramifications for all people with medical conditions and disabilities. It has become acceptable for a US president to say that it is okay to discriminate against people on the basis of their healthcare needs, that it is okay to make an assessment of potential healthcare expenses prior to employment. Once this precedent is set, it could lead to some terrifying outcomes. People with healthcare needs could become third class citizens.
So when did it become a “luxury” to have your life saved or to have any meaningful quality of life and health? When did paying taxes mean so little in terms of benefit to the average citizen, whilst funding an immense military/prison-industrial complex that has done nothing to address the real vulnerabilities the world really faces in 2017? Vulnerabilities like inequality, and climate change.
Trump’s actions today do not stand alone, but are part of a systematic dismantling of social cohesion. While people who are far from thinking of LGBTQ+ rights as an issue may wonder “why should my dollars go on trans healthcare?”, their own needs will also be sidelined as part of the same overall policy. Manning is saying it does not have to be this way, that society can choose if their taxes go on guarding another man’s pot of gold or on creating a society where everyone is supported to thrive, be healthy, and meet their full potential.
It has become acceptable for a US president to say that it is okay to discriminate against people on the basis of their healthcare needs, that it is okay to make an assessment of potential healthcare expenses prior to employment.
It is perhaps unfair to condemn young trans people for wanting to join the military, for the reasons given at the head of the article. Trans people’s civil rights and equality to join the military if they choose, are important. How appalling and astonishing, in 2017, in the richest country in the world, to see civil rights going backwards like this.
But over-reliance on expensive force over humanitarian discourse to solve problems is something we all seem to know is not the answer. Perhaps people will see the global benefit to caring for citizens, and take up Chelsea’s cry: “healthcare for all!”
Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)