LGBTQ Activists Demand an End to the Pinkwashing of Militarism

Fifty years ago, the Stonewall uprising — whose leaders prominently included Black trans women and trans women of color — took the fight for LGBTQ liberation to the next level. It was a rebellion against police violence and the state-sanctioned oppression of LGBTQ people. This type of state-sanctioned oppression includes imperialism and war all over the world, which is why many LGBTQ activists are also challenging the actions of the U.S. military.

Given this history, on the anniversary of Stonewall, it’s worth looking at whether the focus of many mainstream LGBTQ organizations matches the movement’s grassroots base.

In 2017, Donald Trump deemed trans people “unfit” to serve in the military and disruptive to military service, and banned their enrollment, causing an uproar across the nation. Securing housing, work and livelihoods are major factors that motivate trans people to enlist. Yet for all recruits, and disproportionately for trans people, the military is fraught with dangers, including sexual assault. A recent study by the Society for Social Work and Research found that trans service members were 29 percent more likely to report being sexually assaulted than straight and cis personnel.

Available data show that the armed services are the largest employer of trans people. Trans service members have spoken out about their relationships to the military and how Trump’s ban has made them more vulnerable. Some have been extolling countries that include trans people in the military. This scenario, in which trans people are enlisting in a hostile and deadly institution as a means of survival, is further complicated by the colonial role American militarism has played on the global stage.

Activists opposing the ban tend to skirt discussing the fact that U.S. warfare more often than not is incredibly racialized. Queer, gender-nonconforming and trans people of color are often targeted by U.S. state violence — both domestically, via the police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and abroad by the military. What does it mean for politicians and mainstream LGBTQ organizations to be discussing the harm done by the trans military ban without also acknowledging the harm done by the military itself, which includes harm to trans people? Acknowledging that many trans people join the military for economic reasons, what does it mean for politicians to focus on the trans military ban without also recognizing the ways in which the U.S. keeps trans people in poverty, both at home and in the countries that its military targets?

Increasingly, queer, trans and nonbinary survivors of militarism are speaking out about the violence perpetrated against them by the U.S. military.

“I realized that as a queer person, as a survivor of war, it just hit me … ‘Oh wow, my people can also be the people who are bombing me’,” said Mirna Haidar in response to concerns over Trump’s ban. Haidar is a queer, nonbinary survivor of both Israel’s multiple attacks on Lebanon and war in the Ivory Coast.

Having been exposed to the violence of Israeli incursions, Haidar, who is a law student at the City University of New York (CUNY) and steering committee member of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, feels that standing on the right side of history means rejecting all militarization while recognizing that people join the military in the U.S. for economic reasons.

Israel is foremost among the countries being held up as a role model for the U.S. when it comes to trans inclusion in the military. According high visibility to LGBTQ members of the Israel Defense Forces has been a crucial part of deflecting attention from Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians, who are portrayed as uniquely homophobic and transphobic. Israel, on the other hand, is portrayed as a haven for queer and trans people. This exemplifies a strategy known as “pinkwashing,” which is being used by movements vying for ethno-religious supremacy, such as Zionism in Israel and Hindu Nationalism in India, to demonize marginalized people, particularly Muslims.

In addition to legitimizing state violence, pinkwashing also posits that queer and trans identities do not exist among the communities being demonized. Palestinian American activist Izzadine Mustafa has pointed out that pinkwashing obfuscates the racism of the states that wield it, doing harm to LGBTQ members of the communities they marginalize. “When I go home to Palestine,” he told Gay City News in 2017, “the Israelis don’t see me as LGBTQ; they see me as a Palestinian — and they’re really racist about it.”

Haidar has had to contend with pinkwashing efforts from both the CUNY Law School and established LGBTQ advocacy organizations. When Army recruiters appeared on campus, Haidar complained that the CUNY administration was not prioritizing the needs of students who are war survivors in what should have been a safe space. The school did not offer accommodation, citing that it was legally obligated to host the military, lest the school lose federal funding. Still, the administration of the law school asked to meet with Haidar to discuss their objection to the Army’s presence. Bizarrely, the administration decided to inform Haidar that they could join an amicus brief with the civil rights group Lambda Legal to sue the government to include trans people in the military.

“They called me in as a survivor of war, to sit with them as a queer person and to call on my queer identity … to say, ‘As a queer person I want more trans people in the Army,’ and that was mind-blowing to me,” Haidar said, commenting on how the administration appeared to simultaneously miss their perspective and also attempt to co-opt their identity by funneling them into legal work to which they were ethically opposed. “In their minds, my identity as a queer person and the solidarity that is assumed [of] people who join the military was something that trumped my identity as a survivor.”

Sarah Jane Maher, a trans veteran who spent 16 years in the armed forces and now works as a therapist at the Women’s Growth Center in North Baltimore, notes that the narrow discussion around trans inclusion in the military harms trans communities in the U.S. as well. Unable to afford college, the education benefits offered by the Army were a major lure drawing her to the military. Maher is a first-generation college graduate in her family. Leaving high school, she was unaware that scholarships or even student loans were an option for her.

The other reason she joined, however, was a sense that she was trans, though she did not at the time have the words to describe this experience. Maher wanted to “establish masculinity” in her life. At that moment, she thought that going into “this hypermasculine system would do [her] some good.”

After 9/11, Maher was deployed as a mechanic to Afghanistan, Qatar and Germany. Following these deployments, she left the Army in 2012 and began her involvement with antiwar politics. She says her work as a mechanic had allowed her some distance from the violence of military operations. Around the time she was discharged, she began to reflect critically on her role in the U.S.’s wars.

“When I was deployed, I was fixing aircraft for the Air Force. That just seemed so innocuous. I was fixing planes; they were probably going to be used to transport sick people. I picked up that narrative, not really realizing that these planes were going to be used to move troops and ammunition and other material,” Maher said.

However, when she was discharged, Maher began to learn more and break down the narrative into which she’d been indoctrinated, realizing the real consequences of U.S. militarism. Last year, Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimated that at least 480,000 people have been killed as a direct result of the U.S.-led war on terror. A little over half of the dead are thought to be civilians.

“Coming to the realization of all the damage that was done by our actions,” Maher joined the antiwar organization Veterans For Peace.

Maher decided to go to graduate school for social work. There, she began to learn about systems of oppression, a body of knowledge that was crucial to her decision to oppose U.S. wars. “I began to see the military-industrial complex as a system of oppression and economic enslavement of people … taking advantage of people from a socioeconomic background that aren’t at all privileged.”

Coming out as queer and trans was another factor. The world no longer perceived her as a cis white man, Maher notes, allowing those systems of oppression to “dig their hooks” more deeply into her life. “You’re not going to find a veterans’ service organization where a trans woman can walk in the door and be welcome,” she explains. “No matter what awards and decorations I throw in their face, they are still not going to want to see me in their space.”

Even antiwar spaces can often be hostile to trans people. Maher recently left Veterans For Peace after witnessing antiwar demonstrators shout over trans protesters who were rallying against Trump’s hostility toward trans communities. She is currently in the process of joining About Face, a newer group that was once known as Iraq Veterans Against the War.

For Maher, opposition to the trans military ban is important, even as we challenge militarism itself. This is because excluding trans people from joining the Army amplifies discrimination in the workforce, she says.

“I don’t think trans people should be able to serve in the military — I don’t think anybody should be able to serve in the military. But on the other hand, it’s a touchstone issue,” Maher said. Excluding trans people from the military opens the door to other employment discrimination.”

Maher says that confronting the economics of warfare might be a way to connect the fights to improve conditions for trans people in the U.S. and to support those who have been victimized by this country’s wars. One route to this is reducing the military budget in order to subsidize housing and other forms of support for trans people.

Tory Smith, an organizer with the War Resisters League, is working on a set of strategies to reconcile support for trans veterans with strategies that won’t erase the experiences and needs of queer and trans people who suffer because they are targets of militarism and empire.

Smith believes that the recent rejection of police presence at Pride events serves as an indication that more trans and queer community organizers may be ready to oppose other forms of state violence, such as war. Smith told Truthout that War Resisters League is attempting to reach out to intersectional racial justice organizations in order to build a political program that focuses on the connections between militarism, transphobia, racism and colonialism.

Though still in its early stages, one of the primary goals of this work is to develop a counter-recruitment strategy aimed at trans people who might consider enlisting to escape economically unstable circumstances. In 2014, War Resisters League released a pamphlet entitled “What Every Girl Should Know About the US Military.” The piece was aimed at informing young people considering military careers about the information Army recruiters tend to gloss over during outreach, such as the institution’s terrible track record with sexual violence directed against women and trans people. Smith is considering “What Every Girl Should Know” as the basis for an upcoming information campaign focused more pointedly on the risks military service holds for trans people.

Though Smith, Maher, Martinez and Haidar all have distinct responses to Trump’s ban, their responses are united by a common conviction: Opposing militarism is central to guaranteeing that trans people can survive and thrive everywhere. On the anniversary of Stonewall, it’s worth taking some time to consider the intersections of empire, heterosexism, transphobia and transmisogyny — and how to resist these forces in solidarity with the people most impacted by war and oppression.