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Biden Reverses Trump’s Trans Military Ban, But Assault on Rights Continues at State Level

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President Joe Biden has signed an executive order repealing the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military and ordered the Pentagon to review the files of troops who were forced out because of the ban and to immediately halt discharges of transgender troops now serving. Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, calls it “an incredibly important development,” but warns the attack on transgender rights is continuing at the state level, with a raft of new legislation targeting trans people in education, healthcare and more. “We have this significant backlash to the very notion that trans humanity is going to be recognized,” says Strangio. “It is truly painful to hear a movement that essentially, at its core, believes that being trans is wrong and should be eradicated.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden has signed an executive order repealing the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military. Biden also ordered the Pentagon to review the files of troops who were forced out because of the ban and to immediately halt discharges of transgender troops now serving. On Monday, Biden spoke about the issue as he signed the executive order.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: What I’m doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform and essentially restoring the situation as existed before, where transgender personnel, qualified in every other way, can serve their government in the United States military.

AMY GOODMAN: Newly sworn-in Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed support for lifting the trans ban during his confirmation hearing last week.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN: I support the president’s plan, or plan to overturn the ban. I truly believe, Senator, that, as I’ve said in my opening statement, that if you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve. And you can expect that I will support that throughout.

AMY GOODMAN: On his first day in office, President Biden also signed an executive order to extend federal nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people. And Biden has tapped Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s top health official, to be assistant secretary of health. Levine appears poised to become the first openly transgender official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

As LGBTQ groups praise Biden’s actions in his first week in office, right-wing lawmakers in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and other states are pushing a number of new anti-trans bills. On Monday, the Montana House passed a bill banning trans student athletes from participating in school sports, and another bill to limit healthcare options for trans youth.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s governor has declared a state of emergency over gender-based violence following at least 60 incidents of femicide reported in 2020. Six of the murders were of trans women.

To talk more about all of this, we’re joined by Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project.

Chase, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let’s start off with this executive order of President Biden. Can you talk about its significance?

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. Thanks, Amy. Thanks, Juan. Good to be back.

So, you know, if we go back in time to the beginning of the Trump administration, some of the very first things that he did was to target transgender people, first in schools and then, if we recall in July of 2017, by tweet, he decided to ban open trans service in the U.S. military.

So, finally, after years of litigation, after trans servicemembers being in this precarious position, Biden and Secretary of Defense Austin yesterday lift the ban on open trans service, allowing any qualified individual who is transgender to continue serving in the military, and directing the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to implement a process whereby not only trans people can remain in the military, but can enlist, and then also ensure that trans people are able to access healthcare while serving in the military, and that anyone can have their records marking their gender updated to accurately reflect who they are.

So this is obviously an incredibly important development. One of the most aggressive examples of de jure discrimination against trans individuals by the Trump administration is now gone.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Chase, for those who see the military as a career, this issue of executive orders basically determining whether trans people can serve is basically — it could go back and forth. What are the prospects for some kind of a congressional decision on this issue so that we don’t have to depend on the whims or the viewpoints of a particular administration?

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. I think, in many ways, over the past 10 years and more, really, we’ve seen, because of the failure of Congress to act in so many ways, the power of the executive expand substantially and so much being done by executive order and directives to federal executive agencies. I do think when it comes to the issue of open trans service — you know, if we recall, even under Obama, there was a ban on open trans service. It didn’t get changed until the end of the second Obama term, in 2016, but after years of review.

I think what we’re going to end up seeing is that after four or eight years of open trans service, that it is going to just be something that we accept as a matter of course, whether or not Congress acts, because the reality is, is that trans people have been serving in the military for decades. And the question is: Are we going to let them serve openly and proudly, or are we going to force them into the shadows as the Trump administration had done? But the reality is, is I do think this is going to be relatively uncontroversial over time, because we already have tens of thousands of trans servicemembers and hundreds of thousands of trans veterans. And so, I think this is an important step in taking away some of the most explicit forms of discrimination that we had seen under the Trump administration.

And I think one important thing to note is that it really wasn’t about the military. I mean, this was announced by tweet. Defense Secretary Mattis, who was defense secretary at the time, really had no idea that this was going to happen. And this was part of a larger project to expel trans people from public life, to enact discriminatory measures. And so, that’s really the battle that we’re fighting against, not only at the federal level, but, of course, in many ways, across the country. So, whether or not Congress acts, I do think once we have sort of policy implementations from the federal agencies, the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, I do think that we’re going to see open trans service and that after eight, 10 years, it’s going to be something that we accept as a general matter.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to trans activist and author Dean Spade, who was speaking on Democracy Now! after then-President Trump banned transgender people from military service.

DEAN SPADE: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Chase Strangio, can you respond to Dean Spade?

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. You know, I don’t think that, at least from my perspective, I’m hailing this as liberatory, as a progressive intervention, in the same way that I look at formal equality as sort of an incredibly constrained and limited part of the path towards true justice. I also think we have to keep in mind that while we may critique — and should — the larger project of U.S. militarism and the U.S. military, it remains the largest employer in the United States. And what the ban did was take away the employment benefits that people had worked decades for, their ability to support themselves and their families. And this was really about taking away people’s autonomy, taking away people’s autonomy over their labor.

And so, while I share Dean’s larger critique of U.S. militarism, I think that as we abolish and destabilize these harmful institutions that are wreaking havoc across the globe, that we can’t do so at the expense of the lives and well-being of individuals, many of whom are coerced, because of systematic racism and poverty, into the institutions themselves. So, from my perspective, this is a critical moment in ending de jure discrimination, revaluing the labor and bodies of people who have been working incredibly hard and were relying on benefits that, for better or worse, that we coerce people into receiving in many ways.

And as someone who — you know, I hold a very significant critique of U.S. militarism and the Defense Department budget and also come from a military family. And so, while, yes, I don’t want our military enacting violence abroad, as it inherently does, when my family member is deployed, I also want them to be safe, and that inevitably means investing some amount of resources into a system that I despise. And so, I think we have to hold the complexity of that truth. It’s not just so simple as we can allow the government to ban a group of people from problematic institutions. We have to recognize that we are supporting individuals while we are fighting against systems.

And I think this is an important moment not only for trans servicemembers, but for building trans justice, not because the military is a site of liberation, but because de jure discrimination by the government is an impediment to organizing and survival of our communities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Chase, could you talk about the various bills that are now at the state level, the anti-trans bills, some of which are being voted on this week?

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the saddest things for me right now is that we had this change in administration, and the Biden administration, on day one, on the day of inauguration, issues this relatively innocuous executive order, essentially saying, “I’m going to follow federal law.” Federal law prohibits sex discrimination. The Supreme Court has already said that means you can’t discriminate against LGBTQ people. And yet we have this significant backlash to the very notion that trans humanity is going to be recognized.

And one way that that is manifesting are in dozens of bills across the country that would ban trans young people from sports and criminalize healthcare for trans youth. And so, at a time where we’re facing epidemics of homelessness, a global pandemic, so many kids aren’t in school, they’re learning on Zoom, they’re not able to participate in sports, we’re having states take aim at the bodies of trans young people and telling them that not only should they be excluded from the activities that their peers are participating in, but that the healthcare that they’re relying on is about to become a crime.

Yesterday I spent three hours listening to floor debates in Montana and just hearing the most horrible things about trans people, that are directed at young people by their government. The long-term costs of the introduction of these bills alone, let alone their potential passage, is going to be felt for generations. It is truly painful to hear a movement that essentially, at its core, believes that being trans is wrong and should be eradicated.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what are the kinds of policies that you would hope the Biden-Harris administration would pursue in terms of trans rights, beyond just the issue of the military?

CHASE STRANGIO: I mean, I think what we want to see — and, of course, the first few days are examples of just rolling back what we already saw as the backwards steps from the last administration. I mean, I think what we need to see is an aggressive enforcement, first and foremost, of federal civil rights laws. The states that are trying to attack trans students should be aware that they’re putting their federal funding on the line, and we need the Biden-Harris administration to take an aggressive position to ensure that trans people are fully protected under the law.

But also, we need to go much further than that. You know, we know that civil rights protections on their own aren’t going to save trans lives. We have people experiencing high rates of criminalization and homelessness. We need aggressive action from this administration to end deportations, to really have meaningful efforts to decarcerate, to end systems of policing that disproportionately harm our communities, to take aggressive stances against bills like SESTA and FOSTA that criminalize sex work, that make it harder for people to survive, particularly for trans people of color, Black trans women in particular, who are repeatedly profiled and targeted as sex workers or perceived sex workers.

So we need to hold this administration to account, not just to espouse formalistic notions of equality, but really build out meaningful programs of justice. And that’s going to take a lot more than what we’ve seen so far, although I will say that the EO at least announcing that they will enforce FOSTA, the Supreme Court decision, should have an impact on the states that are about to risk all their federal funding just to target trans young people.

AMY GOODMAN: Chase, can you talk about the move made by the new governor of Puerto Rico, who’s declared a state of emergency over gender-based violence after a wave of killings targeting women and transgender people? Can you talk about the significance of this?

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the greatest challenges, and particularly when we are looking at movements from a legal perspective, is: How do we deal with the systemic violence that is affecting so many? And across the United States and in Puerto Rico, we are seeing so many trans women and girls murdered. We’re also obviously seeing so many cis women and girls murdered. And how do we deal with the fact that we have systems in place that allow for violence to continue, and yet the only solutions that we have tend to be carceral?

And so, I think having leaders, executives, come in and say, “This is an emergency” — this is a public health emergency. This is an emergency of survival. And we have to come up with solutions that aren’t just about sending people to prisons and jails, but are about looking at the roots of why people’s bodies are so precariously situated that it leads to mass death, whether that is at the hands of individuals, as we’re seeing in the murders in Puerto Rico and across the world, and at the hands of the government, the sort of metaphorical hands of the government, because we set people up to be victims of violence, whether that’s state violence or individually perpetrated violence.

And so I think we need more recognition of the public health crisis of violence against women, cis and trans, and then systems in place that don’t just rely on putting people in jail but actually look at how we can distribute resources so people are actually experiencing safety, and not just the illusion of safety that comes through carceral control.

AMY GOODMAN: Chase, thanks so much for being with us. Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project.

Next up, as President Biden proposes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, what should Biden do about the record number of people deported under the Obama-Biden years? We’ll speak with journalist and author Jean Guerrero. Stay with us.

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