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“Transgender Troops” Should Be an Oxymoron

Is the US military’s plan to allow transgender troops a civil rights victory?

Allowing trans people to serve openly in the US military only furthers the violence of one of the central institutions of global oppression. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

On July 1, 2016, the Pentagon will announce a lifting of the ban on trans people serving openly in the US military, according to a USA Today article widely cited in gay media outlets. While this has been hailed as a victory for trans rights, it’s hard to imagine anything further from the truth. Allowing trans people to serve openly in the US military only furthers the violence of one of the central institutions of global oppression.

Allowing trans people to serve openly in the US military only furthers the violence of one of the central institutions of global oppression.

Let’s not forget that the US military is currently bombing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and who knows how many other countries around the world. Let’s not forget that the US has a long history of supporting despotic regimes, currently ranging from Saudi Arabia to Honduras, Uzbekistan to Equatorial Guinea. Notice a military coup anywhere in the world? Chances are high that the US is supporting it. And, let’s not forget that the US is bankrolling the Israeli war on the Palestinians, and supplying the weapons. Let’s not forget that, after hundreds of years of genocide against Indigenous people within its illegitimate borders, the US still treats Native lands as dumping grounds for hazardous waste. Let’s not forget that the trillions of dollars in US military funding siphons resources away from literally everything that matters in this country, from education and health care to housing and social welfare.

In the US, trans people are routinely kicked out of their families of origin, harassed in school and at work, persecuted by religious leaders and politicians, and attacked on the street simply for daring to exist. Trans people are often denied access to basic services like housing and health care, fired from jobs or never hired in the first place, and forced to flee the places where they grew up, simply to survive. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are brutally murdered at an astounding rate. In the few public spaces trans women and gender nonconforming people have created to survive, they face daily harassment by law enforcement and other bashers, and are often imprisoned for the crime of their own survival, where the persecution and brutality often escalate.

What, then, would an end to the ban on trans people serving openly in the US military serve to facilitate? More of the same: endless war, plundering of Indigenous resources, both in the US and abroad, and a militaristic orientation that sees oppressed people as cannon fodder for US imperialism. It would also serve the continuation of anti-trans violence in the US, where the rise of legislative transphobia now means that even using the bathroom that corresponds to your gender identity is now subject to a sensational national debate.

It’s no surprise that both the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National LGBTQ Task Force, the nation’s two largest LGBT lobbying groups, immediately hailed the news that the Pentagon would soon welcome trans soldiers. These are two organizations that have spearheaded the conservative shift in LGBT politics over the last several decades, which became most noticeable in the early 1990s, when gay inclusion in the US military became the central issue for gay establishment struggle. The militaristic status quo in LGBT politics has only become more pronounced as the mainstream LGBT agenda has centered on access to marriage as the only means to obtain basic resources that should be available to all, such as housing, health care and the right to stay in this country (or leave) if you want to. Even when speaking about anti-queer and anti-trans violence, an issue that arguably affects most queer and trans people, LGBT powerbrokers call for strengthening the racist, classist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic legal system through hate crimes legislation.

Like the debate over gay marriage, this insincere public spectacle will serve as cover for continuation of the same devastating militaristic foreign policy.

In fact, the success of gay establishment goals is not the counterpoint to the rise of legislative transphobia, it is part of the cause. The gay marriage/military inclusion movement systematically excluded anyone not deemed acceptable enough for Fox News, in order to win rights only for those willing and able to conform to straight white middle-class norms. Forget about fighting for universal access to basic needs — let’s just focus on tax breaks and inheritance rights for the wealthy. Forget about trans people, people of color, the poor, the homeless, the disabled, people with HIV/AIDS, youth, elders. Forget about migrants of all kinds — not just from other countries but also queers fleeing US cities and towns where they still can’t live without fear for their lives.

Organizations like HRC and the LGBTQ Task Force are not part of the solution to transphobia; they are part of the problem. That some gay people (and a few trans people) now benefit from participation in institutions of oppression (willingly or unwillingly) doesn’t mean those institutions have changed. It means those institutions have changed gay, queer and trans politics, depoliticizing an entire generation and leaving us all to suffer the consequences.

In 2011, the Pentagon formally allowed gay soldiers to openly serve their country by bombing and oppressing poor people of color around the world, and, in 2015, the Supreme Court struck down prohibitions on gay marriage. These decisions were the crowning achievements of the gay establishment, and after they became law many elite gays suggested that the end of the LGBT movement had arrived. What more could be necessary, after all, once rich gay people obtained the same ability to shelter their assets as their straight counterparts?

How far we have come from the original goals of gay liberation as it emerged in the 1960s and 1970s — an end to the oppressive state, organized religion and the nuclear family — a rejection of war, racism, white supremacy and imperialism, and a fundamental redefinition of relationships beyond mandatory monogamy and sexual prudishness. While “Gay Power” was one of this movement’s original cries, gay power today means accessing the full resources of the state in order to further oppress and marginalize anyone in the way of gentrification, unquestioning consumerism and assimilation into straight privilege.

While there has long been a class divide in gay and queer politics, trans people have overwhelmingly been forced to the margins. But now we even see the emergence of a trans elite — in fact, it was military veteran Jennifer Pritzker, described as the first trans billionaire, whose family’s notorious fortune is built on real estate speculation and insider trading, who jumpstarted the fight for trans inclusion in the US military. In 2013, Pritzker gave $1.35 million to the Palm Center, which then created the Transgender Military Service Initiative, and suddenly an issue that was barely talked about before claimed national headlines.

For decades, the gay establishment has been dominated by the agenda of the wealthy, one that views identity as an endpoint. Gay becomes simply another way to adorn every hideous hypocritical institution and camouflage its violence — gay marriage, gays in the military, gay cops, gay priests, what’s next? Oh — let’s get trans people into the mix, the gay establishment tells us, after pushing trans people out of a movement they started. (Remember the Stonewall Riots in 1969, credited with launching the modern-day LGBT movement — when trans women of color, street queens, bulldykes, hustlers, and, yes, even a few “respectable” gays and lesbians, fought against the cops for control over queer bodies and lives?)

Let’s push for an end to the US military and its imperialist, bloodthirsty agenda.

After the July 1, 2016, announcement that the Pentagon will allow transgender people in the US military, each branch of the military will have a year to implement the policy change. This will certainly give rise to endless media debates about trans people’s bodies and lives. While politicians, pundits, demagogues and “experts” across the limited political spectrum allowed in public forums debate whose body is allowed where, and which type of gender transition will be sufficient enough for which battle-front fatigues, they will actually further transphobia instead of challenging it. And, like the debate over gay marriage, this insincere public spectacle will serve as cover for continuation of the same devastating militaristic foreign policy, the same vicious aggression at home and abroad.

Soon trans people will be able to openly serve their country by pushing buttons in Nevada in order to destroy Pakistani villages, or flying into countries around the world in order to support tyranny. Transgender, like gay or LGBT, will become another appendage to legitimize state terror. This isn’t progress — becoming part of the violence only creates more violence. We need to get back to the original goals of gay, trans and queer liberation — an end to police state control of queer and trans bodies and lives; gender, sexual, social and political liberation, not just for queers, but for everyone, both in the US and around the world.

Let’s push for an end to the US military and its imperialist, bloodthirsty agenda — or, at the very least, dramatic cuts in the resources allocated to it. Otherwise, the deep structural changes we need in this country will never be possible.

Copyright, Truthout and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. May not be reprinted without permission.