In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily allow President Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military to take effect, few news reports have stopped to consider why trans individuals enlist in the first place.
The fact that, by percent, there are twice as many transgender people in the military than in the civilian population is a symptom of the difficulty that transgender people have in accessing affordable housing, a living wage, health care and other basic needs. It is unacceptable that military enlistment currently stands as one of the few avenues to career training, steady income, educational opportunities and health care for many low-income LGBT individuals. These recruits often make the tough and potentially dangerous choice to serve without other viable options.
Meanwhile, politicians and office holders in some US cities have suggested they would hire banned trans recruits as police officers in their cities. These trans soldiers can now join the ranks of other former US soldiers who patrol cities as police officers.
Advocacy for these sorts of “solutions” to the ban on trans people in the military distracts from the broader economic inequality and structural anti-LGBT violence that drives trans people into military service in the first place. They also falsely suggest that if we “support” trans people, we must also support the buildup of troops and domestic police forces.
This framework is deeply misleading. Instead, we must insist on the necessity of responding to the ban in a way that is simultaneously antiwar and pro-LGBT. Of course, LGBT individuals’ civil right to enlist is unimpeachable, and many individuals feel they must make that difficult choice. But our community as a whole must not get drawn into a broader defense of military or police service as a cure-all to our social problems.
Moreover, when progressives advocate military enlistment or police service for trans people in an attempt to appear pro-LGBT, they paper over violence against not only LGBT people, but also people of color, poor people, immigrants and sex workers who make up part of the nation’s vibrant LGBT community. Early leaders of the LGBTQ liberation movement like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera understood this well. Let us not forget that Pride — led by these Black trans women sex workers — was originally a protest against police violence and brutal incursions into queer spaces like the Stonewall Inn and Compton Café.
In our outrage about the ban, we must not forget the important work that LGBT activists and scholars have done to show us that the inequalities shortening our lives will not be solved by the military or police. War, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are the fundamental causes of the socioeconomic inequalities and violence we see and experience today.
Though advocating for the civil right of military enlistment may seem like a solution to inequality and violence against LGBT people, it is a Pyrrhic victory that is damaging in the long run. The military must not be our singular path to liberation. More important than protecting LGBT people’s civil right to enlist is ensuring everyone’s human right to not need to enlist.