On Jan. 22, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed two injunctions against President Donald Trump’s proposed policy banning transgender Americans from serving in the U.S. military, making way for the implementation of parts of the policy in the near future, while ongoing legal challenges play out.
For me, as a transgender veteran of the Iraq War, this reversal hits close to home. Of course, it will harm transgender service members, many of whom are dear friends of mine. The Department of Defense is the largest employer of transgender people in the country. Banning them from military service limits the economic and educational opportunity of a minority class that already faces massive obstacles in those and other areas.
But, even more troubling, the ban sets a precedent for the blatant exclusion of transgender people in public life. This is especially important, given that many forms of integration in the U.S. began within our military.
This includes racial integration as well as the inclusion of women. And even though the military was late to embrace gay and lesbian service members, the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” may be read as a precursor to marriage equality. All of these now broadly accepted societal shifts got a leg up from developments within the military.
Yet some progressive critics argue that the expansive military-industrial complex does so much harm in the world, it should not matter who can and cannot participate in state-sanctioned violence. As one critic expressed, “We don’t need more trans bodies to act as bullet shields in lands we have no business occupying.”
But glossing over institutionalized transphobia to debate the reprehensibility of U.S. military policy comes from a place of privilege — and divides people of the progressive coalition.
Division at the expense of transgender people is nothing new. There is a persistent debate as to whether transgender rights are entirely at odds with women’s liberation. Queer and transgender immigrants have struggled to get their unique challenges to be recognized as part of the movement for immigration reform. And even within the LGBTQ+ community, trans people have encountered difficulty being seen as an important part of the movement for queer civil liberties.
A prime example is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would have protected members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination. In 2007, even with Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, many lawmakers on the left decided the bill was unpassable because of its inclusion of protections for transgender people. Those protections were dropped, dividing the coalition and killing the bill. Attempts to revitalize the bill since then have failed.
The truth is, many people seem to have no problem with making transgender protections a last priority. But we know from experience that this only works to undermine all of our goals. When it comes to the transgender military ban, it is clear that on the road to equity, we must hold a united front.
Nicole Vanderheiden is a transgender Iraq war veteran, an advocate for transgender youth, service members and veterans, and a mentor to transgender youth. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.