Yesterday morning, President Trump declared that transgender people will no longer be able to serve in the U.S. military.
As the country began tweeting away in response to Trump’s decree, one oft-cited statistic caught a lot of people by surprise:
This figure, taken from a report compiled by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA, suggests that trans Americans are among the most eager to serve their country militarily, despite the Pentagon officially ending the ban against open transgender service a little more than a year ago.
While I wasn’t necessarily shocked by this notion of a strong transgender presence in the military—given a lecture I attended at a science and sexuality conference in 2015 in which a director from the Transgender Veteran Program asserted V.A. hospitals will care for an increasingly large number of trans people with each passing year—I was curious what trans men and women, including trans veterans, thought of the statistic.
So I reached out to Sophia Hawes-Tingey, a U.S. Navy veteran, software engineer and the first transgender candidate to run for a mayoral seat in Utah; Mey Rude, a queer trans woman living in LA and an editor at Autostraddle, a digital feminist platform known for its original coverage of all things LGBTQ; and Ryan Sallans, a subject in our Families in Transition series (alongside his brother Greg) and the author of the extraordinary memoir Second Son, as well as an occasional consultant to the military on LGBTQ issues.
Here’s what they told me…
That statistic sounds about right. I’m actually surprised it isn’t higher, for the very reason that when male-to-female transgender people are trying to escape their identity, they buy into this whole concept that joining the military will make them a man. For people who are born female-bodied but identify as male, the military serves as a place where they can “prove themselves” and have an opportunity to serve in a male-identified role and “become more male,” which can be incredibly meaningful.
I served in the U.S. Navy under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during Operation Desert Storm, from 1989 to 1993. I felt incredibly alone and isolated. Having grown up in a culture isolated from trans issues, I didn’t even know what I was going through for as long as I could remember. In the military, my sense of isolation was only increased. I came from a religious upbringing and the AIDS crisis had just peaked, so I wanted to keep everything to myself. It made it hard to associate with the people I served with, even though we were there to have each other’s backs.
That, in turn, made it hard to function as a unit. Because when you’re in a small group that depends on each other for survival, how well you know each other and can work together matters. If you’re already in the habit of hiding things from one another, you can’t build the trust you need to become an effective force. For that reason, this policy will weaken our armed forces, not strengthen them.
It’s heartbreaking when the person who’s supposed to be the foremost role model in this country is sending the signal that if you’re transgender, you’re not good enough to serve or put your life on the line. What’s worse is Trump’s policy won’t stop people from serving. Instead, trans people in the military are going to go underground and hide.
The statistic [the Williams report uses] comes from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey which had 83 percent white respondents. That’s incredibly important to point out. Trans people of color [TPOC] have much higher rates of homelessness and poverty and simply don’t have as much access or time to fill out surveys like this, so we’re almost always vastly underrepresented in studies.
More largely, my patriotism isn’t military service, although I don’t blame poor kids of color for joining. My patriotism is tearing down borders and shutting down prisons. My patriotism is free health care for everyone and food as a human right. My patriotism lifts up black people, Muslims, immigrants, people with disabilities and queer people. My patriotism doesn’t touch guns or bombs, and it never will.
So I don’t think this is the issue we should rally around. Rally around the fact that black trans women are getting murdered at a record pace. Rally around the fact that we can get fired for being trans. Rally around the fact that we can’t go to school safely or exist in public safely.
I know we can all care about multiple issues at once, but I’ve never seen so many cis people upset about trans folk losing a right.
Any person that chooses to serve in the military not only puts their life on the line, they sacrifice their relationships with their family and communities. The Williams Institute Report estimates that we currently have 15,500 transgender military service members who are in active duty serving our country and protecting our nation. Current studies show that transgender service members are physically able and valuable assets to our country. They also show that costs for covering transition-related care is minimal. Not to mention, if we look historically at memos provided by the Department of Defense, they’re in agreement that transgender military service members shouldn’t be banned. As a diversity and inclusion trainer who has worked with the military, I can personally state that transgender service members do not cause disruption.
Beyond this tweet that people are viewing as policy, the other grave concern is the social impact the president will have on transgender inclusion beyond the military. To call transgender people “disruptive” is to suggest that we should be fired because of our gender identity, which only deepens the stigma that fuels hate and transphobia.
My bigger question, however, is, when did we as a country start allowing a random tweet to become the law? A tweet does not dictate policy, but we’re reacting as if it does. This isn’t the appropriate channel to communicate a change in policy.