Trump, Truman, and why Transgender People should be allowed to serve.
This does not even rank as the most dangerous action taken by the administration this week; efforts to strip millions from healthcare and to roll back Title IX sexual assault protections pose far more immediate danger than tweets that have yet to be implemented through policy. What is remarkable is the day the President chose to make this announcement: on the 69th anniversary of President Truman desegregating the armed forces, President Trump chose, in a new way, to re-segregate them, by denying fifteen thousand current service members the right to continue their service.
I suspect in the upcoming days, people will try to minimize President Trump’s tweet calling for the ban of transgender service members. Some will point out that his words carry no legal weight, or may suggest that he is simply trying to stir a debate and spin a news cycle. While this may be true, it does not change the fact that the Commander in Chief would be willing to cavalierly impugn the service of thousands of his own soldiers, and threaten their jobs and fundamental rights as a means of scoring a political point.
I also suspect that soon we will see what has been a familiar pattern during this administration. Many conservatives will attempt to continue their game of having it both ways with Trump. They will try to keep an arms length from the President and his tweets, but then in the coming days will criticize liberals in their reactions, minimize the importance of the issue and then, under some veil of rational objectivity, argue that perhaps there is something to the argument that transgender people should not continue in the military. They, just as much as the President, are wrong. There is no case to be made to ban transgender people from continuing their service.
President Trump and his supporters claim that banning transgender people from the military is supported by the military, helps better chances for military victories, saves medical costs, and is less disruptive to military unit cohesion. Absolutely none of those claims are true.
The Pentagon is not in support of such a measure, did not encourage it, and was not even aware that President Trump was going to announce it. On the civilian leadership side, Senate Armed Services Chairman Republican Senator John McCain is opposed to the measure, along with ranking Democrat Jack Reed. To suggest that America’s military leadership was calling for this ban is disingenuous.
There is little evidence that transgender people cannot serve in combat, let alone in “any capacity,” at the President suggested. The President did not explain what changed about transgender soldiers that suddenly made them unsuited to carry out their duties they have already been carrying out for years. Even conservative critics who may have religious objections to the concept of gender fluidity or characterize the transgender identity as a mental disorder cannot explain why transgender military personnel who are subject to the same training, screenings and standards of other recruits are unable to preform as soldiers. Furthermore, one could concede virtually every argument on the transgender debate to the right, and that still does not disprove that transgender soldiers have historically been able to serve just as well as any other soldiers. Israel currently has transgender people serving and has one of the greatest fighting forces in the world, and the United States has as many as fifteen thousand transgender people serving, including in combat roles, and every day they help ensure victory, including the day President Trump announced his plan to ban them from continuing to serve.
The amount of medical costs saved, compared to the service provided by these brave service-members, is marginal. President Trump announced a fifteen-billion-dollar military budget increase; surely that could absorb these costs. As it stands, the Pentagon spends more than five times amount per year providing Viagra to service members as it does in paying for transgender service members’ medical expenses. For a President who cares little about bringing down the debt or curbing defense spending, it is remarkable that he chose this as the one area to save money on, when it comes at the expense of thousands from being able to serve. As often in politics, this isn’t really about the money.
The final claim Trump made was that transgender people serving in the military is disruptive. What is remarkable about the claim is that he makes it as if there were not currently thousands of transgender people currently serving proudly in the military. They did not imagine themselves as disruptive when they woke up this morning and put on their uniforms, calling him their commander in chief. They did not suppose they were disrupting the military when they enlisted, trained, and said goodbye to their loved ones as they were shipped overseas. They did not believe they were being disruptive to America when they risked their lives for their country, giving their commander in chief and his supporters the very freedom to call them disruptive and demand for their ban. What I imagine would be disruptive would be to, after years of loyal service, end the careers of thousands of service members, deny the dreams and ambitions of countless more by discharging them from their service and sending them home without honor. They were willing to make a sacrifice that their President (and myself) was not willing to make, and yet they are being told they are not good enough to service; not because they are bad soldiers or bad people, but because of who they claim to be.
You do not have to agree with being transgender as a legitimate identity to realize that this is a big country, and that people are going to believe and even identify in ways we don’t always agree with, but that that is not an excuse to deny them their fundamental rights, or a chance to serve. Such thinking is short sighted, small minded, and runs counter to the values and history of the America I know.
Every generation, there has been a group of Americans who longed to serve their country they loved but were denied because their differences would prove too “disruptive”; African-Americans, women, gays, Catholics, immigrants, Germans, Jews, Japanese, and others. And, sure enough, every time integration was disruptive; some in the unit felt uncomfortable, some officers had troubled adjusting, some politicians used it as an issue to rile up voters, but every time the unit got over it, the country moved on, and America continued to boast the greatest fighting force in the world.
In the end, President Trump is selling America and our military short. Our people, and our armed forces, have never been homogeneous; we have always, in the words of Whitman, contained multitudes. We are not fragile; we do not break or become irrecoverably “disrupted” by living or serving alongside people who are different from us. I refuse to believe the same military that bled at Gettysburg and waded onto the shores of Normandy is too fragile to handle the continued presence of transgender service members. We are made of tougher stuff than that.
After all, America was born out of disruption. It’s part of who we are. Disruption is the story of the thousands of African-Americans who fought in the Civil War to set others free, even against the wishes of many politicians and officers. It’s the story of the segregated Tuskegee Airmen, who fought for a country who wouldn’t fight for them; of Lenoard Matlovich, who fought in an army that said his love was less real; of Ann Dunwoody, who enlisted in a military that had no desire to give any women a seat at the table, and left it as a four star general. And it’s the story of fifteen thousand transgender service members; who, facing scrutiny and prejudice, disrupt people’s prejudices and comfort zones for a chance to risk their lives in order to stand for their country, even when their country won’t stand by them. This disruption that Trump and others fear is part of what unites the differing multitudes that call themselves Americans; a vast people uninhibited in disrupting what has been, in hopes of replacing it with what ought to be. That’s the America Harry Truman knew, and the America that Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand.
There is one bright side to this new debate over transgender service in the military. For almost every minority group in America that has struggled to be included and treated equally, the path towards equality ran through military service. That’s why Frederick Douglass passionately argued for African-Americans being able to serve in the military during the Civil War, despite the fact that most Northerners did not think they would make for good soldiers. He argued that blacks, more than being able to “stop a bullet as well as a white man,” could exemplify the same dignity and honor of a white soldier, making their equality self evident.
The same will be true in the debate for transgender service members. More than being able to “stop a bullet” as well as another soldier, transgender have shown and if given the chance will continue to show the same excellence, skill, courage, and devotion to their country as any other soldier. Like all soldiers, they sacrifice much and risk all, from enduring long months apart from family to being willing to lose their lives in service to the country they love. They are not “mentally ill,” “perverse,” “confused,” or any of the other slurs cast their way. They are American heroes, capable of the noblest of deeds and deepest altruism we know. Most remarkably, they are doing all of this for a country that will not even fully recognize their rights, and for a commander in chief who does not even want their service. That is what’s remarkable; that Trump and others want to ban a service they don’t even deserve, yet transgender service members still want to fight for their right to serve anyways.
Let that be the moment years from now when we say transgender rights and equality became a self evident truth. Even when America was showing transgender people our worst prejudices, transgender service members continued to serve, and showed America at its very best.