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What Role Should the Military Play in the Fight for Transgender Rights?

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While President Trump’s ban on transgender people from military service has been widely criticized even by fellow Republicans, it has reignited a debate within the LGBT community. Some have questioned whether the discourse on transgender rights should be broadened to include a critique of militarism. “Trump’s transphobia is disgusting, like his defense budget,” trans activist and scholar Dean Spade wrote yesterday. “The liberation we are working toward requires that we fight for vets and everyone else who gets exploited and abandoned for U.S. military imperialism, but not that we participate in rhetoric that celebrates the U.S. military as an employer or ties trans well-being to military service.” We speak to Dean Spade, who is a professor at Seattle University School of Law, as well as Fiona Dawson, creator of the media project TransMilitary. She attended the protest outside the White House on Wednesday following Trump’s announcement.

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StoryJul 27, 2017The First Openly Transgender Infantry Soldier in U.S. Army Speaks Out on Trump’s New Military Ban
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about President Trump’s order to ban transgender people from the military, I wanted to turn to a clip from a short 2015 New York Times mini-documentary called Transgender, at War and in Love, directed by our next guest, Fiona Dawson.

LOGAN IRELAND: My name is Logan Beck Ireland. I’m 27 years old. And I’m a senior airman in the United States Air Force, currently stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. … There’s not a lot of people that know that I’m transgender. It’s very much on a need-to-know basis. Currently in Afghanistan, there’s only a handful, and those people are of higher rank than, of course, the people that I came here with from my home station.

INTERVIEWER: How often do you give yourself a shot?

LOGAN IRELAND: So, it’s every Friday.

When the other guys ask me what being transgender means, I basically say that it’s just being assigned female at birth. Your mind does not come in alignment with your body.

After doing it every week for over three years, you just kind of get used to it. And that’s it.

What I like about this deployment is I can be my authentic self, I’m just another guy, whereas back home I’m still seen as female and I go by female regs and standards. Here, in Afghanistan, a war zone, it’s like a vacation to me, because I can be myself, in such an austere environment.

I will need to tell my commander back in Altus that, look, I am transgender. I stand to lose everything. I stand to lose my career, my future, my foundation. It takes away the service that I’ve done and that I feel very proudly to have accomplished. It takes all that away.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from Transgender, at War and in Love. And we’re joined now by Fiona Dawson, who directed the short documentary, also the creator of the media project TransMilitary. On Wednesday evening, she attended the protest outside the White House against Trump’s announcement to ban transgender servicemembers. Also with us, Dean Spade, longtime trans activist who founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York. Dean is now a professor at Seattle University School of Law.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Fiona Dawson. Your response when you heard and read the tweets of President Trump yesterday, taking, to say the least, many by surprise?

FIONA DAWSON: Yes, thank you for having me today, Amy.

I was absolutely shocked. We had not anticipated this whatsoever. And I think it’s just another example of how this president is just waking up each morning and just shooting off tweets, left, right and center. But what is—it’s incredibly disruptive to our country to be living in this state of affairs.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Dean Spade, talk about your response yesterday when you read what President Trump said.

DEAN SPADE: Of course, I was, you know, similar to Fiona, very concerned about, in general, the kind of parody presidency we seem to be having, the use of Twitter. It’s all concerning. I think that, in particular, Trump’s assertions about trans healthcare are very counterfactual and kind of feed into some typical transphobic stereotypes that exist widely, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: Fiona Dawson, can you talk about what exactly this would mean? Again, I put this to Patricia King. Does this mean the military will go from base to base, barracks to barracks, and take out the thousands of people who are serving in the military and toss them out?

FIONA DAWSON: We’re going to have to deal with this moment by moment. The reality is that right now we don’t know what it is going to mean. And I think when we’re living in this environment of uncertainty, it’s very—a difficult and challenging place for servicemembers now. As you know, the numbers are more than 15,000, who are just going to keep going to work every single day. And Patricia King is an exemplary example of that.

What we have to come to understand is that yesterday was a series of tweets. A tweet is not an executive order, and nor is it changing policy within the Department of Defense. This is something that was thoroughly examined and was deemed that there was no scientific reason why trans people can’t serve. This is also unprecedented. Typically, a president will allow military leaders to make these types of decisions. This is inappropriate for President Trump to come and try and tell military leaders how to lead their troops.

So we don’t know what’s going to happen right now. And I think it’s telling that the Pentagon is referring back to the White House for comment. So, we’re just going to have to see how things evolve in the next few days.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean Spade, I wanted to talk to you about your comment on Facebook. You said, “The liberation we are working toward requires [that] we fight for vets and everyone else who gets exploited and abandoned for U.S. military imperialism, but not that we participate in rhetoric that celebrates the U.S. military as an employer or ties trans well-being to military service.” Can you elaborate on this?

DEAN SPADE: Yeah, Amy. I’m concerned about the ways in which this debate gets pitched, kind of puts trans people on one side, usually framed as kind of like willing soldiers with absolutely no critique of U.S. military imperialism or of the U.S. military as an extremely exploitative and abandoning employer, right? We know the statistics about vet suicide rates, the abandonment of vets in terms of access to real mental healthcare. You’ve widely covered the sexual assault levels in the U.S. military. There’s lots of new data about the U.S. military as one of the largest polluters, or maybe the largest polluter, on the planet.

So when we lose our critique of militarism and of the U.S. military in this debate, what happens, in my view, is that trans people become sort of a symbolic space in which to have basically pro-military advocacy and PR. And so, to me, the military inclusion campaign, both for lesbians and gays and for trans people, has often fallen into that trap, only representing the military as a great place to work that does wonderful things to protect our country, which is not, I think, a progressive view. And it rebrands the military as a site of liberation and progressive politics, which it’s fundamentally not. The U.S. military—right?—is, you know, one of the largest sources of violence on the planet Earth.

And so, my question is sort of: How can we have a more complex conversation about the fact that, yes, trans people are poor and underemployed and need real jobs, but their option should not be one of the most dangerous and exploitative jobs possible? That’s not actually, I think, what a trans collective liberation is actually about. And so I’m kind of concerned about the way this conversation tends to get framed.

AMY GOODMAN: Fiona Dawson, your response?

FIONA DAWSON: I have great respect for Professor Spade, and I know that we do have some common ground. However, we have some significant differences on how we view this issue.

Through my experience of coming to know many trans servicemembers and just listening to their personal stories, I realize that the military is a very important employer and a way of them providing for their families, being able to access healthcare, be able to access housing and be able to live the life that most Americans want to live. You know, trans people are twice as likely to be unemployed, and yet twice as likely to join the military. The people that I know have not been coerced or forced to join the military. This is a job that they want to do. And I think Patricia King was a wonderful example just now, where she has now served for 18 years. And I think that you have to come to know and understand servicemembers and realize that this is a place where they fulfill their hopes and their dreams, and they just happen to be transgender. They join the military for the same reasons that cisgender people join the military.

And the debate about imperialism and whether we should have a military should be taken outside of the debate about whether trans people should be able to serve or not. And that is the issue that we need to focus on, is the equal opportunity in this country to be able to serve in the military.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Spade?

DEAN SPADE: I’m just afraid that that feels politically naïve to me, in the sense that—of course, you know, I care about the trans people in the military and the other trans people, too, and I’ve also worked a lot with vets who are struggling to not get their benefits through the VA and who are homeless. And I’ve seen the realities of what that job is like for many people in the United States. And so, one of my questions is: What does it mean when we only frame the story as the set of people who want to endorse the U.S. military right now and who are serving? I mean, what kind of sort of lost opportunity is that?

And also, Amy, in your intro, you mentioned the Politico story and the ways in which we’re coming to learn that perhaps this is less about Trump’s like invested transphobia, which of course he is happy to throw trans people away, but it’s more about his desire to build his wall and his desire to get his huge defense budget passed. So I think we need to ask, like: How are trans issues being used politically, and are—is it really about trans people’s well-being or not?

Whenever we look at this question, we have to say, you know, how has the U.S. military had a history of recruiting very vulnerable populations who face limited economic opportunity. And Fiona may not see that as coercive, but I think I feel differently, when I have spent my career working with very low-income trans people struggling to have housing and employment and basic health services. And the idea that we are framing it as you should have to join the military to get basic housing, health services and employment is really concerning to me.

So, I think it’s vital, actually, that we look at this is a broad, big-picture way, which does not mean not, you know, supporting people who are currently struggling with their jobs in the military or as vets. But I think we really are missing the ways that trans issues are being sort of used as a political symbol, rather than this coming from an actual concern about trans people’s well-being.

AMY GOODMAN: Fiona Dawson?

FIONA DAWSON: I agree that you should not have to join military to access these things, but the reality is that people are. My main mission is building LGBTQ equality in this country. And when you see a Harris poll that says that 78 percent of Americans think that being a military officer is a prestigious job, 64 percent of Americans would encourage their child to become a military officer, you realize that our trans servicemembers are a way of relating to cisgender Americans who don’t know that they might know a trans person. It’s a way of people coming to understand who trans people are. And I feel that the military is a place that can unite people.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to some quotes of some conservative Republican senators, like Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. When asked about this, what seems to be the announcement of a change of policy, he said, “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people and deserve the best we can do for them.”

Senator John McCain—of course, himself a vet—of Arizona said, “Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to consider serving. There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military—regardless of their gender identity.”

And Iowa Senator Joni Ernst’s office said, “While she believes taxpayers shouldn’t cover the costs associated with a gender reassignment surgery, Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity.”

What about this, Dean Spade? While you’re questioning the whole issue of the military, separating the military costs of gender reassignment surgery, whether the military should pay for this?

DEAN SPADE: I mean, you know, I think that’s a really concerning framework. You know, a lot of my broader work has been about access to trans people’s healthcare needs in Medicaid, access to trans people’s healthcare needs in their other job healthcare plans. And so, this is kind of a classic political move. Again, I think trans people are used often in this way politically.

So, a lot of people on the right will use trans people as kind of a moral issue and try to stir up fear and concern, which is often focused on our healthcare needs, because there’s a lot of like stereotyping and misunderstanding there. So, I think that’s—we see that happening. We see people on the right, you know, in the backdrop of this story, wanting to stir up their constituents and frame themselves as morally right and distract from the fact that they’re actually politicians representing the 1 percent, not their constituents.

And on the other side, we see people on the left, which includes, you know, I think, institutions like the U.S. military, but often also politicians, who want to make themselves look progressive by saying something bland about trans equality or trans people serving in the military. But when it comes down to the main issues facing trans people in the United States, like violent policing, extreme rates of incarceration, poverty, they’re—on all the policy issues that most matter to trans people’s survival, they’re not there.

So I think it’s interesting to notice how both the left and the right uses the figure of the controversial figure of trans people to their political expediency, but without actually getting into what trans people really need most and what would—for the life and well-being of the most trans people.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristin Beck, the 20-year veteran of the Navy SEALs, including SEAL Team Six, which killed Osama bin Laden, challenged President Trump Wednesday over the ban. She’s the first transgender Navy SEAL. She told the news site Business Insider, “Let’s meet face to face and you tell me I’m not worthy. Transgender doesn’t matter. Do your service,” she said. Fiona Dawson?

FIONA DAWSON: I commend Kristin Beck for coming out and challenging Donald Trump in this way. I also would implore Donald Trump to actually meet the servicemembers that are essentially under his leadership—you know, numbers more than 15,000. And I would love for him to meet Logan Ireland and Laila Ireland, who are in the short film that you showed the clip of, and many of the other servicemembers in groups like SPARTA. And, of course, you know, we have our feature documentary coming out in January that is also going to feature more trans servicemembers, who had the courage to go inside the Pentagon and share their personal stories with top brass officials over the last couple of years. So these servicemembers have been putting themselves on the line for years and years and years. And I think it’s completely disrespectful for Donald Trump just to fire off these tweets yesterday without truly knowing who these people are. And I think that he should meet trans servicemembers.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Fiona Dawson, co-director and executive producer of TransMilitary, speaking to us from D.C., and Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, professor at Seattle University School of Law, speaking to us from Seattle.

This is Democracy Now! The resistance rolls on. We’ll speak with three disability rights activists who have been protesting and lobbying around the healthcare bill. Stay with us.

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