With a series of three tweets July 26, President Trump shocked the nation when he announced that he proposed to ban transgender people from military service and, in effect, reduce the rest of us transgender Americans to third-class citizenship.
Just after he did so, I was driving my glacier-blue minivan to work after dropping off my youngest at summer music camp. CNN was on my radio when the alarming sounds for “Breaking News Story” blared in as the stunned hosts announced that my Republican president tweeted that people like me are neither worthy nor capable of serving in our military without being a burden to our national defense. The language he used was unequivocal and heartbreaking. I had no illusions that our administration was going to be wholly supportive of transgender Americans, but I didn’t think a complete ban on my tribe serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard was a strong possibility. That said, the first lawsuit was filed this past Wednesday by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders on behalf of five currently serving “Jane Does” from across the services.
With Trump’s “tweet now and ask questions later” delivery, it’s not clear how such a blanket ban on transgender service will actually be enacted. But in making such a major policy decision without fully consulting his secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the speaker of the House, or even the starting lineup of the Washington Nationals baseball team, Trump knowingly or unknowingly did LGBTQ Americans a solid. The immediate pushback on the ban from many military and political leaders proved to many in Middle America and anyone afraid to legitimize our existence that we are real, we are in every facet of your life, and we are their equal. For transgender Americans, we've been having this conversation in the media and with our friends and families for quite some time, but the immediate support for trans people in the wake of Trump's tweets increased the pace of our growing acceptance among all Americans, even those who may have voted for Trump.
Unfairly attacking the service of anyone in our military is attacking the institution itself and the bonds of shared sacrifice and the culture of dedication that we in the civilian world will never know. I have five older brothers and a nephew who served in our armed forces, and two of my nephews are serving our country right now. My father served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific in World War II. There is no other institution in America that is so respected and revered, and so integral to our country’s safety, freedom, and liberty as our military. That is why integrating the military for African-Americans, ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and allowing women to serve in combat were each important for the future of this country.
Sadly, there are more than a few Republican opponents of open transgender service or even medically necessary care for the ones that have served or continue to serve. While it has not looked as if progress has been made on Capitol Hill and other places, we are making inroads more quickly than ever. Conservative groups like the American Unity Fund and the Log Cabin Republicans have been working hard behind the scenes to blaze new trails for our community in Washington and have collaborated with many of our nonconservative LGBTQ groups to push back against any effort to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans. Other transgender advocates on the right side of the aisle, myself included, have been able to meet with dozens of congressional offices and discuss the freedom, equality, and liberty all LGBTQ people deserve and how our party needs to address the challenges facing our community, and reject those who wish to restrict our participation in American citizenship and life.
The response to Trump’s ban reminded me of a turning point in the fight for black civil rights. In 1963, much of mainstream America still wasn’t intimately aware of the indignities and codified bigotry that black Americans suffered each day. “Looking away” was still acceptable until May 3, 1963, when the Birmingham, Ala., Police Department decided to go after school-age protesters in broad daylight while television and newspaper cameras recorded the shocking events. That night, in the safety and comfort of their homes, millions of Americans saw terrible images of powerful fire hoses and snarling police dogs attacking black schoolchildren while they marched for an equal place in American society. Overnight, white Americans were forced to grapple with the overt and codified racism on display in their country and consider the idea that black Americans were deserving of equality.
I’m not comparing the struggle of LGBTQ Americans to that of black Americans during the civil rights era, Jim Crow, or at any other time in our country’s history. Nor am I comparing our president to any of the Southern Dixiecrats in power in the civil rights era. However, in a way that is similar to the cultural touchstone and game-changer that occurred in Birmingham, millions of Americans are now being forced to consider whether transgender Americans, like me, are their equal.
We don’t yet know just why President Trump suddenly proposed a such a ban. There is no rhyme or reason. After all, just days earlier, 23 House Republicans took a stand and voted against the Hartzler Amendment — which would have forbidden transition-related health care coverage for transgender service members. However, after this great victory, rumors began to circulate of a reintroduction of this same amendment, which brought a re-doubling of lobbying efforts by conservative-minded LGBTQ groups and many other organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Transgender Equality, OutServe/SLDN, American Military Partner Association, and SPARTA.
But then … no vote came the following Monday or Tuesday. Rumors began to fly of a parliamentary maneuver by social conservatives to push House Speaker Paul Ryan to force the amendment through somehow. Then came Wednesday morning and the three tweets that would forever change much of the American public’s perception of transgender Americans and transgender Americans’ perception of much of the American public.
The level of support that has come forth after the president’s tweets has been nothing less than extraordinary. Across the country, from newspaper editorials to television and radio interviews with transgender veterans to regular Americans stepping up and speaking out, the message has been simple: Banning transgender military service is wrong and we should honor all those who have pledged to defend our country. Granted, many people are still probably shocked to know that there are even a couple of dozen transgender service members, let alone 15,500 of them. Approximately 21 percent of transgender Americans serve in the U.S. military versus ten percent for the general population. Given that kind of statistic and that the RAND Corporation’s researched numbers on the costs of medically necessary surgery are, at maximum, going to cost one-tenth of the Veterans Affairs budget for Viagra, most Americans will see through social conservatives’ arguments against transgender military service as the fugazis they are.
We know that allies can come from anywhere, but finding ones who will stick up for you and challenge their own political party and president aren’t always available. The proposed ban on transgender service hardened the allies we already have and potentially created new ones on the Republican side where we never had them before. It was so heartening to see the likes of Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), Senator Roy Blount (R-MO), Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Congresswoman Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Congressman Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Congressman Charlie Dent (R-PA), Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO) and Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) speak out so unequivocally against their own Republican president’s proposed ban on transgender service members.
In a show of strength and support, senator and former presidential nominee John McCain said, “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. We should be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so-and should be treated as the patriots they are.” Many LGBTQ Americans would do our community some good by reaching out to these Republican officeholders out via phone or email in appreciation of their statements criticizing the proposed ban.
As great as this support is, what is simply life-changing is that America and millions of its LGBTQ children now know about heroes like retired Senior Chief Petty Officer and Navy SEAL Kristin Beck, retired Army Sergeant Major Jennifer Marie Long, former Army Staff Sergeant Shane Ortega, former Navy Intelligence Officer Alaina Kupec, and actively-serving Coast Guard Lieutenant Taylor Miller, Air Force Staff Sergeants Ashlee Bruce and Logan Ireland, Marine Lance Corporal Aaron Wixson and many others filled our media. Positive, heroic stories of transgender Americans who are extraordinary in their service, but ordinary just like the rest of us. Whether their stories were touching, heartbreaking, or inspirational, millions of Americans got to see and hear military veterans very similar to them tell their personal story and make a connection. A lot of our fellow nontransgender citizens are probably saying, “That sailor I just saw, I know someone like her!” “That Marine infantryman I heard on the radio, I served at the same base after boot camp.” “That Navy SEAL who was on SEAL Team 6 and just challenged our president? She’s a badass and I want to meet her!”
I don’t know what the coming weeks will bring, but I expect some good things to come from the pain brought on by the events of last month. Many battles lie ahead for us, but our LGBTQ community is in a much better position to unite together to protect our freedom, equality, and liberty. Just as our transgender military service members are unafraid to fight, we are unafraid to engage and win. I hope we will win with our new Republican allies’ help, and maybe, just maybe, our president’s tweeting may ultimately be that cultural touchstone and change-maker we need. As Robert Duvall’s Captain Kilgore famously said in Apocalypse Now, “Someday this war’s gonna end.”
JENNIFER WILLIAMS is a transgender activist and was the first out trans delegate at the Republican National Convention.