When Trump tweeted last week that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military, I immediately felt the room darken. One more person that pushes us to the margins, and this time it’s someone with a lot of power. My second thought went out to Americans of Middle Eastern origin who, in the coming days, would read time and time again arguments glorifying trans people in the military, the same military that sends drones and soldiers to destroy Iraqi, Afghan and Libyan cities and kill their civilians.
Trump’s tweet contrasts sharply with the situation of my home country, Canada. Last June, Canada passed Bill C-16 which adds anti-discrimination protections for trans people at the federal level. Although it took years for gender identity and expression to be added to the pan-Canadian human rights act, legal protections of trans people have a longstanding history dating back to the turn of the millennia, nearly twenty years ago. Bill C-16, at its core, makes already-existing protections explicit and makes them better known across Canada. In other words, the passage of Bill C-16 was largely a symbolic victory.
Being trans in Canada is not easy, especially if you are a trans person of colour. However, Canada remains one of the most welcoming countries to trans people in the world, a fact that has only been reinforced in recent years under Justin Trudeau’s leadership.
Despite Trudeau’s overt support of trans people, many trans activists have criticised him for defunding essential trans community organisations while supporting militarism overseas. How can our prime minister pretend to be a progressive leader, activists ask, while his government sells arms to countries like Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabia, a country which is well-known for state-sponsored violence against women and members of LGBT communities, recently used Canadian-made armoured vehicles against its own population. The Liberal government has also made headlines this year for its disregard of Indigenous rights.
Canada’s experience stands as a warning to trans activists in the United States. While military inclusion is projected onto the forefront of the progressive agenda, the abhorrent suicide rates experienced by trans people, the all-too-frequent murders of trans women of colour, and the constant threat of healthcare insurance exclusion only rarely show up on my social media feeds.
The risk of focusing on military inclusion is that once the government welcomes trans people into the military, it will paint its imperialist violence as a symbol of social progress while the millions of trans people living in the United States continue to suffer. The risk is that both the government and activists will become disinterested in further progress, much like the mainstream LGB movement did following the legalisation of same-sex marriage across the United States and Canada.
Instead of fighting for military inclusion, Americans should ask themselves why trans people are eager to join the military in the first place. Some of the main reasons were highlighted on social media following Trump’s tweet: trans people suffer from high rates of unemployment and have difficulty obtaining healthcare insurance that covers transition-related care. The military provides trans people with stable employment and access to medical transition resources.
Most trans people experience employment discrimination and difficulty accessing healthcare at some point in their life. Employment discrimination and healthcare access are at the heart of what we should be fighting for alongside the harassment and violence that disproportionately impacts black trans women, not the perpetuation of American imperialism. Media representation, however, is guided less by trans people’s needs than by the broad public’s interest. In the melee, military inclusion wins out because it brings to the table one of the staples of American living: pro-military patriotism.
For true progress to happen, trans people must have autonomy over their own movements. Neither cisgender leaders nor a few vocal transgender lobbyists should dictate the content of our emancipatory agenda.
On August 18, I (Pare) will give a presentation at a panel for Pride Canada in Montreal, where I will reflect on the progress of trans rights in Canada over the last few years. By participating in the upcoming Pride Canada conference, I hope to add my voice to those of countless trans people also left out of the legislative process. More and more, conferences of all types are emerging as the central tool to regain autonomy over our movements. Rather than depoliticising Pride, we must make it more political than ever. #BlackLivesMatter belongs at the centre of Pride, not on the outskirts of it. Pride must return to its roots as a platform where queer and trans people demand concrete change.
In Canada, the government dictated the agenda of progress along lines that, while helpful, fall short of allowing trans people to live without discrimination or violence. In contrast, the United States government is actively rescinding trans people’s access to key resources and protections. By learning from both experiences, we can come together to shape the world where we, trans people, control our own destiny and slowly close the growing rift between the realities of trans people living in Canada and the United States today.
FLORENCE ASHLEY PARE is a Canadian activist. This op-ed was provided by Fierte Canada Pride, the organization hosting the first-ever Canada Pride, which lasts until August 20 in Montreal. More info here.