Yesterday morning, President Trump announced that he plans to reinstate the ban that prevents transgender Americans from serving in the military. It was a surprise for most of us—the Pentagon included—but the President managed to squeeze the announcement into his tweeting schedule between brags about the previous night’s rally and attacks on his own attorney general.
The reasons Trump cited to support his decision are pretty thin. He claimed that the military couldn’t possibly shoulder the medical costs, even though the military spends 50 times as much money on bands as it would on health care for trans servicemembers. He also noted that allowing transgender servicemembers would be a “disruption,” which is a pretty weighty claim to make on behalf of a force of people who are trained to deal with actual explosions.
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This announcement is, of course, a direct attack on the rights of trans Americans who are already serving in the military. It will force them back into the closet, make it impossible for them to get adequate health care, leave them vulnerable to assault, or rob them of their livelihoods. It’s also an attack on trans Americans who aren’t serving. It’s a clear statement about the value the government places on their skills, and on their lives.
American rhetoric tends to talk about servicemembers as if they’re all Captain America: Hyperpatriotic superheroes fighting evil for no reason besides their love of country. To be clear, servicemembers are often heroic, and they do a brutally difficult job. But at the end of the day, they’re doing just that: a job. And it’s a good job, with a livable wage that often provides housing and access to higher education. The catch—and it’s a big one—is that in exchange for that job, servicemembers have to be willing to trade the government their lives.
LGBT Americans have been making this trade with the government for generations. There isn’t much data on LGBT Americans in the military, at least in part because there isn’t much data on LGBT Americans at all. But many of us know there’s a home for us there, the same way we just know that Tegan and Sara’s new records will never be quite as good as “The Con.”
My high school best friend knew it. It wasn’t easy to be queer where we grew up—families tend to stick around our Rust Belt town for generations, and their old Catholic hearts are slow to change. Most folks meet social shifts with denial or quiet disapprovals, but his parents were the type of Christian who thought they could save us from ourselves. They tried to save him from his gayness every chance they got. First they tried sneaking up on him any time he left the house—including at least one incident that involved hiding in bushes—to manufacture public confrontations that were halfway between impromptu sermon and public exorcism. When they realized they couldn’t literally scare him straight, they cut him off financially. It was better to have no son than to have raised a queer.
He dropped out of college when his parents cut him off. He didn’t have the money he needed to get a degree, so he did what young Americans in need of a career have done for hundreds of years: He joined the military.
Trans Americans desperately need to have that option available to them. According to a report by the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress, half of transgender Americans earn less than $24,000 per year. One-third of black trans women earn less than $10,000 per year. Trans Americans are more likely to be rejected by their families, to be homeless, and to be forced into underground economies than the rest of the population. In some ways, that makes the military—a career that comes with a built-in family—a particularly good option for a lot of trans Americans. That option is something that trans Americans, as citizens of this country, are entitled to pursue. And it’s something that President Trump promised both LGBT Americans and veterans that he would support.
Whether Trump keeps his promises or not, trans Americans are going to fight for this country. They’ll do it in the military, even though the president just issued a declaration that orders them back in the closet. And they’ll do it right in front of the White House, with their signs raised and their heads held high, when the president tries to stop them.