Trump’s Shameful, Cruel Ban on People Like Me
His Presidency Can Never Be Normalized, But My Shame Has Been
Not long after I woke up on the 26th, I saw that people like me had been banned from the US military. To add a somewhat surreal twist, we had been banned not by an official order but via a series of tweets from the President of the United States. Incredibly, it was July 26th—the same day in 1948 that President Truman had signed Executive Order 9981, which ended segregation in the US Armed Forces, as well as calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”
Trump was reversing an Obama-era decision, not Truman’s, yet the astonishing timing of his Twitter edict made it seem as if he was, in spirit rather than letter, reversing both. It was cruel. It was a highly visible reminder—a reminder which few transgender people need—that we are a group against which it is still commonplace and acceptable to discriminate. It was sudden and supposititious, a decision seemingly concocted both to divert from his ever-mounting scandals in the media—now including allegations of a lengthy, colubrine collusion with Russian money-launderers—and to appease a conservative base that is increasingly uncertain in its support. (Even Breitbart, long a steadfast supporter of Trump, released a recent piece attacking the “hypocrisy”—their words—of Trump’s turn on Jeff Sessions.) The announcement provided no provisions for the thousands of transgender troops already serving amongst the 1.3 million active members of the military.
It’s not fun being a member of a group so easy to attack that we become little more than political targets—whether immediate targets or targets intended to focus the glare of headlines away both from the alleged and confirmed illegal activities of the Trump administration. But it’s the norm. We are monsters, political ads inform me, stalking your children in restrooms, raping cisgender women, using dress rooms not merely to try on clothes but to film, surreptitiously, perversely, the other women as their garments slip off.
I am a monster, I learn each day, despite the fact that I am not one, despite the fact that everything I just mentioned is the same spurious rhetoric that was used, earlier (and still is being used), against gay men, lesbians, and bi- or pansexual people (the latter of whom are additionally caricatured as promiscuous). My friends are monsters, I learn. I am a kink, a fetish, a freak of moonless nights rather than a girlfriend, a wife, a mum who wants to raise kids. I never know, day after day, what will happen. When I was a teacher at a university, I was never surprised when a student walked out, on day one, shortly after learning I was transgender—and I, who was lucky enough to be able to “pass,” stopped saying it. As a teacher, I dreaded a phone call or email from a parent who had been informed that a freak like me is in a room with their children, is even, by Jesus, in the same restroom as their daughters, no no no, dreaded the call that would ask their child be removed because I am a danger to them simply because I am one of the Others it is still routine to attack, no, doesn’t this school have any standards, why don’t you give them their own classes just for freaks like them. I was not surprised, in the early days of my transition, when an employee of a Kohl’s began following me through the store, asking me more questions than any employee before or since, was not surprised when she followed me practically into my dressing room as no other employee had done before, all because, as she revealed after, she knew what I was.
“I am a kink, a fetish, a freak of moonless nights rather than a girlfriend, a wife, a mum who wants to raise kids.”
I fled one country with zero protections for and much social stigma against being openly queer for America. (Recently, a man went to jail in my country for essentially being gay, with the judge invoking a little-used law from the days of British colonialism against “buggery.”) Before coming out, I almost committed suicide under the weight of depression; transitioning saved my life. I couldn’t take the agony of pretending to be someone else day in and out, of feeling I had to shatter the girl in the reflection, lest the wrong person see her and introduce me to their fists, to stones breaking open my skull, to “corrective” rape with broken glass, to converting me back to the right religion so I could cure my queerness. I was lucky; many trans people, trans women of color most of all, are not.
To be sure, some things are better in America. How marvelous it seemed to me that you could, if you could afford to, update the gender on your driver’s license or passport once you’d passed certain requirements; how incredible that I could teach students as an openly transgender person, despite my fears. It seemed like something out of a little lavender fairytale. Of course, transitioning meant entering a new world of harassment; once you are perceived as a woman, you will be treated as one according to the society you live in, and for me this meant that street harassment, the advances of creepy men, learning the places it was less safe to walk alone, being casually spoken down to by men who assumed I knew less than they did. These all became the new norms. But it is what it is; it means, for better or for worse, that I am living as myself.
Now, though, we are told we cannot serve in the military. I thought, immediately, of Andrea Levy’s magisterial Small Island, which depicts, in part, a black Jamaican who learns firsthand what American anti-black segregation—both in its military and enforced abroad for its troops in parts of Great Britain—feels like. It doesn’t surprise me; why should I be surprised that they don’t want to let in the monsters that conservatives repeatedly drill into me I am? Milo Yiannopoulos, still darling of many a young right-winger in his cult of personality, praised Trump’s decision. “You don’t help mentally ill trans people by sticking them on the front lines,” Yiannopoulos, a gay man against gay marriage who despises trans people, said. “You help them with therapy and drugs—though not, I have to stress, transition surgery. I only wish he’d gone further and banned women from combat units too, since the evidence clearly shows their presence is disastrous for both morale and performance. Baby steps?”
This churlish, condescending response, aside from its casual trolling misogyny, is typical; it assumes that the only way to help trans people is to “cure” them of being trans, when, in fact, transitioning is the medically—and personally—endorsed treatment for gender dysphoria. (Unsurprisingly, Yiannopoulos has repeatedly revealed that he believes gay people wish to be “cured,” as well.) Blithely and without nuance, he appears to, as he’s done many times before, label all trans people “mentally ill.” Yiannopoulos’ casual reference to “drugs” reminds me of much-mythologized anti-trans propaganda that peddles giving trans people pimozide, an antipsychotic that virtually zombifies those to whom it is given; a lone flawed study of jacking trans people up on pimozide showed that the severe drug temporarily removed feelings of gender dysphoria by removing almost all feelings at all. This is essentially no different than gay conversion or telling gay people they cannot serve in the military because they are “not tough enough” or “too sexual” or other such trash.
LGBTQ supporters of Trump like Yiannopoulos gave him their vote primarily because he represented an attack on Islam—which unites most Trumpists—and is the antithesis of “political correctness” (and thus of feminists and “social justice warriors.”) To be sure, not all conservatives lauded Trump’s military ban. The Log Cabin Republicans released a statement criticizing the decision, arguing that “The United States military already includes transgender individuals who protect our freedom day in and day out. Excommunicating transgender soldiers only weakens our readiness; it doesn’t strengthen it.” I am no fan of the Log Cabin, but credit where credit’s due.
Of course, Trump’s reasoning was not as blunt as I’ve put it, but probe beneath the surface, and the broader context is that blunt. On the surface, the ban was due to allegations that transgender people would cost the military too much due to the expenses of hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgeries. The ban’s unceremonious announcement created alarm and shock in the Pentagon, but conservatives had been pushing for an end to allowing the Pentagon to pay for trans soldiers’ reassignment surgery. With arguments taken straight out of old FOX News talking points, Republican Missouri congresswoman Vicky Hartzler had recently proposed an amendment barring the Pentagon not only from paying for reassignment surgery but even for far cheaper hormone therapy. All this was in spite a 2016 study from the RAND Corporation showing that allowing trans people to serve would “have minimal impact on readiness and health care costs” and that our being in the military would engender “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness or readiness.”
To argue, therefore, that we are a costly addition is at best an asinine misreading of reality, one suggesting that all transgender people are constantly undergoing surgeries and racking up gargantuan bills—which we are not. Transitioning is not something we do on a whim; it is something those of us who wish to live our lives authentically feel we must do, and, as a result, it is no mere cosmetic choice. Rather, it is a medical necessity. Yet just as there is a spectrum to the experiences and desires of LGBQ people, transgender individuals also exist on a spectrum of individual needs and desires. Some transgender people undergo no surgical interventions at all, while those of us who are transitioning frequently are just on hormone therapy, which is inexpensive compared to any possible surgery. And, regardless of all this, there is no reason to believe we cannot serve in the military. The transgender soldiers who have openly done so stand as a testament to that, alongside the countless others who have served while unfortunately feeling the need to conceal who they were.
“This ban is not just my shame. This is the shame of a nation.”
It is difficult not to read this ban as a scapegoating of a marginalized group to distract from other affairs. Trump will do anything to “get ahead”—that is, what he believes “get ahead” means. He will go low, attacking Mexicans and Muslims in ways that assume neither is in the crowd he is addressing. And he will contradict himself at any turn to stay on top. After all, Trump—for all his casually callous rhetoric on Muslims, immigrants, women he brags about groping and kissing without consent, a disabled reporter, and many others—also memorably told Caitlyn Jenner in 2016 that she could use any restroom in Trump Tower she wished, a move that put him at odds with hardline conservatives pushing for rigid anti-trans bathroom bills. The same Trump, shortly after he took office, swiftly removed Obama’s executive order that protected the rights of transgender students, a move seemingly done for little other reason than to appear as the anti-Obama. Hypocrisy, scapegoating, and casual cruelty are the norms for Trump, a man so insecure about any criticism of himself that he will simultaneously do whatever he thinks voters want and whatever he thinks will make his already-fragmenting base “respect” him, like some confused chameleon that does not know if it wishes to blend in or stick out. It is shameful.
Trump’s presidency is not normal and cannot be normalized. But my shame has long been normal and normalized. This ban is not just my shame. This is the shame of a nation. The shame of a crass little man who thinks only of himself, even as the very transgender soldiers he berates have risked their lives in the service of protecting him. The shame of a man who, distant as a pair of ragged claws scuttling the dark floor of a silent sea, seems unwilling to admit his shame, until the pressure of so deep a sea finally collapses downward, and he—or all of us, dragged along by those absurd, small claws—wakes, and, like Prufrock, perhaps drowns under the weight of so much hidden, so much hideous.