Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and Don’t be Trans
History is being made today for the lesbian, gay, bi, and respective non-heterosexual communities. The US Military policy Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) officially has been repealed. Everyone is celebrating, and I’m celebrating too, but I have to admit I’m more jaded than joyful. Today as the LGB military is coming out, trans* military is being left out.
As an activist rooted in the anti-war/anti-military movement, even I recognize the significance of the USA’s largest employer (the federal government) removing a grossly discriminatory policy that theoretically places sexually queer people on equal footing with non-queer people. That’s a big deal. And I think it is an even bigger deal that this momentously important event for the “LGBT” community completely leaves off the T. One would like to believe that if high schools can create gender identity and expression inclusive policies then congress can too, but apparently not. An early Department of Defense report on DADT, referenced by several blogs and articles, stated: “Transgender and transsexual individuals are not permitted to join the Military Services. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has no effect on these policies.” After media attention the report was removed from the government’s website. According to the US Military, trans* people are “unfit to serve” primarily (categorically) because of our good friend, Gender Identity Disorder. As mentally ill people, trans* communities are not medically fit to serve.
A common thought about DADT, or now in this case with trans* people in the military, is that the “military problem” isn’t really a problem because it is better if our people don’t join up – it’s better to protect our precious queers. I can’t help but think this sometimes… or most of the time… but I force myself to remember that there are people out there who actually like the military (like a pre-teen Midwest GenderQueer who associated fighter pilots with a desirable yet (continually) unobtainable masculinity – thank you Top Gun). My freshman year of college, I met a guy who was determined to have a military career; he said it was his calling. He was also gay. This was years before I came out but even a “straight girl” could see how problematic the situation was. I remember asking him why he wanted a job where he would have to hide who he was his entire life. He looked very sad, yet very determined and said “It’s not ideal, but I can do it.” Now he doesn’t have to, but no such luck if it were me.
Revisiting the “military problem,” in my experience people think that it is easy to fix: If you don’t like the military, then don’t join. This is the number one pillar upholding the classist, global mirage that choosing to join the military is always a choice. Speaking strictly for America, our economic system promotes dependency and servitude towards positions in power. We tell our people to succeed, but don’t enable them to do it. With jobs disappearing and public funds being non-existent, we’re left with a mass population of the under-educated, unsupported, and unemployed. Our trans* community is especially vulnerable because, like other oppressed groups, we are more likely to be poor, unemployed/underemployed, and more likely to lack personal and/or societal support and resources. In other words, we are a population in need and in comes the secure, sturdy military to solve all our problems. I have personally known several young trans* folks who can’t pay for groceries let alone for college; who may struggle to get a job because they are gender non-conforming; sometimes they are trying to escape an unaccepting home; maybe they are desperate to get money to physically transition… They are people willing to give up everything to get a better life, and that’s exactly what they do by joining up. It was not a choice for them. They felt they had no other options, and perhaps they didn’t. Being trans* in the military has it’s own unique issues that no one talks about. A fascinating 2008 study by Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) showed that all military branches have trans* people, the Army being highest at 38%. The survey also showed that 40% of trans*military personnel stated they were unhappy with their lives. If you’re trans* in the military you live in fear of being outed (resulting in losing your job, your home, and/or friends and chosen family). You can’t transition in any form, medical or otherwise, and rigidly sexist uniform codes forbid expressing your actual gender (you can even be court-martialed for “cross-dressing”). If you’ve taken hormones or had surgery before enlisting but don’t report it (which you wouldn’t because it would keep you from being admitted) you will be discharged when it was inevitably found in your records. The military has no protections against harassment over gender expression or perceived gender identity and if you went to complain to a higher up (that is, if it wasn’t the higher up who was harassing you) their solution is to tell you that “if you aren’t trans, you have nothing to worry about.” You also can not confide in religious or medical personnel because, as military employees, they are not required to practice confidentiality on the subject. Quiet the opposite; they may be required to report it.
I also believe that repealing DADT won’t change much for your average LGB (or perceived to be LGB) military employee. It’s against military law to harass, beat, and rape people, but it still happens; and like everywhere in society, it is extremely under-reported and often left without any reprisal. Rules changing doesn’t mean that people change, and people are who you see every day. Just like any place of business (and it is a business) without an aggressive campaign of combined education and no-tolerance policies the military will never be a safe place for anyone, “gay” or not. We must continue to address the military industrial complex for what it is, as an institutional system of oppression that preys upon our poor, our young, our disenfranchised, and our communities of color. It is a presence that manipulates the global society in order to serve a small percentage, and that is the top 1% of the US elite.
What bothers me more than the issues within the military is the greater “LGB” community’s reaction, or lack their of, to the exclusion of trans* communities. I’m so glad today is here so I won’t be invited to another “Yay DADT! All Our Problems are Over!” facebook event; after months of it I’m fed up. Yes, we should be celebrating, but its downright lousy to rub it in trans* people’s faces saying “we don’t have to worry anymore” and “problem solved.” If you’re going to go that far you might as well just call today what it is, yet another “We Forgot You, Again” day, or “We Matter More” day. And yes, I do have to remind people that our problems are not over. I’m not a downer, I’m an activist. I’m not bitter, I’m fucking furious. The LGB community knows what it’s like to be ignored, passed over, discriminated against, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of taking their rights and privileges for granted. The LGB community makes strides with the help of the trans* community, the trans* community is booted out, and what should be our joy becomes a part of our pain. But in of every disappointment there is room for action. It holds me together when people do speak out and recognize that we are not done yet. We must continue to work, continue to fight, and never be satisfied until we all are equal.
I’ve heard today described as “the light at the end of the tunnel.” If this is your truth, I celebrate joyously for you. And as you reach that light at the end of the tunnel, I hope you remember that some of us have been left behind and we are still working in the dark.