Up In Arms: Radical Trans Critiques of Trans Military Inclusion

by Diane Klein

I first became interested in transgender issues more than two decades ago, as an academic feminist, and then, when I began studying law, as an aspect of gender and legal theory and a pressing civil rights cause. One afternoon during law school, my Feminist Legal Theory seminar at UCLA met outdoors, in the courtyard the law school shares with the philosophy department.  As I and other law students opined condescendingly about Title VII and trans issues, Talia Mae Bettcher, then a grad student in philosophy, tapped me on the shoulder and quite literally gave me my comeuppance.  A decade or so later, with every self-styled legal feminist using trans people and the legal issues they raise (and face) as metaphors and thought experiments for every other gender-related issue under the sun, Dean Spade did so again, powerfully cautioning those of us who imagine we are progressives and allies to refrain from the production of scholarship for our own advancement that only exploits and misuses the community it purports to serve.

This week's trans issue is trans military inclusion, thanks to Trump's tweets purporting to ban transgender service people yesterday.  Although the Joint Chiefs apparently intend to ignore the Cheeto-in-Chief, and the tweets are of dubious legality, they naturally ignited a social media firestorm, among trans people and their allies.

So this is a moment when allyship (for me) means leveraging my privilege to amplify trans voices (instead of putting my own two cents in). Dean Spade,  Elijah Edelman, Maria Carmen Hinayon, and  Soma Navidson all offer critiques of U.S. militarism and imperialism that shed a different light on the conversation about trans military service.

As a scholar, activist, and Seattle University School of Law professor, Dean Spade has been presenting a radical critique of trans politics, including the fight for trans military service, for some years.  In a 2015 interview, Spade summed it up this way:
The military inclusion campaign is not something that we have strategically decided is a good next step for trans politics and it is not something that will improve most trans people's lives.  What makes sense is for trans politics to be aligned with anti-war and anti-military movements worldwide.  We have nothing to gain for being the new poster children for a U.S. military branded as inclusive because it lets women serve in combat and has openly LGBT service members.  This is shoddy window dressing for the realities of U.S. militarism, which is bad for the world and certainly bad for populations, like women and LGBT people, who are targets of sexual and gender violence.
In a televised conversation Thursday, July 27, 2017, moderated by Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now!," Spade took on Fiona Dawson, a documentarian and supporter of trans military inclusion, who articulated the now-familiar equalitarian defense of trans service, in which the economic and social forces that push trans people into military service - to obtain housing, health care, a job - are seen not as coercive, but as "opportunities" and immune from criticism.  This approach, championed by HRC and others, involves (at best) ignoring the worldwide role and actions of the U.S. military; at worst, celebrating the military uncritically; and consistently neglecting the many urgent needs trans people have in America today.  

Prof. Elijah Edelman, who teaches anthropology at Rhode Island College and specializes in ethnographic and community-based studies of trans and LGBT persons of color, had this to say (on Facebook) the day of the Trump tweet:
On celebrating the right of trans people to die for you, but not the rights trans people need to be alive with you: I'm honestly, for lack of better phrasing, "grossed out": by the ways in which my Facebook feed has been littered with pro-military stances and platitudes...because of a tweet?  Well-meaning cis (and even trans) folks have been plastering their walls damning the "trans military ban," reposting American nationalistic rhetoric from (maybe?) trans people serving in the military and clamoring for the opportunity to fight for TRANS RIGHTS which, it seems, really only pertains to serving U.S. imperialism.  Somehow all of the profound systematic violences against trans folks, particularly trans women of color, just didn't really matter in capturing everyone's attention when it meant we would rally around the right of a trans person to LIVE rather than losing the right to die for the American nation-state's interests.  I'm sorry, friends, but trans folks - I - need and deserve better than that.  There are already plenty of "trans bans" in place: no federal employment protection, no protection from housing discrimination, no protection for access to a harassment-free education, limited (and maybe again, a complete absence of) health care, and - keeping it super real here - a ban on trans folks of color being valued at anything more than a fraction of a white cis person.  I get that this is a super flashy and easy grab: trans military ban! 15,000 impacted! Want to take a guess at how many trans folks are currently homeless? Living under the poverty line? Working low-wage service economy jobs (why does that "service" count less??).  I've been patient and tried to see this as an opportunity to educate, but come on, people.  Have you asked any trans folks how they feel about the military??? How about what issues could REALLY use some attention?  So I ask you, friends, maybe I am even pleading at this point.  Before you repost/like/retweet/whatever on the "trans military ban," take a minute and ask yourself, is this an act of solidarity or an easy way to feel like you've done something? These are not easy time and I get that we are tired.  But please, do not allow your exhaustion to guide your ethics.  Now is a time to really listen closely to what so many trans activists have been shouting about.  I promise that if you just take that moment to pause and listen, your next move will be one of solidarity, which is something we all need right now.
Filipina immigrant (and fellow Bruin attorney) Maria Carmen Hinayon wrote this, under the heading, "Let Me Relieve The Cognitive Dissonance":
I don't support colonialism, imperialism, and military aggression.  I loathe war and the culture of dominance and competition.  But I understand and respect that some of my trans family members have chosen the path of service in the military to find a higher meaning in their existence.  I have nothing but respect for them and I will fight so we can all live, thrive, and make these choices for ourselves.
By speaking against Trump's bigotry against our trans service members, I am not speaking for either military service or patriotism (note: patriotism, in its root, is actually a masculine social conditioning - it came from the same word as "paternal" or father - but I digress).  I am speaking against the invalidation, wholesale,of a certain class of people, labeling us as burdens and disadvantages,while throughout history we have proven ourselves as some of the bravest, hardworking, most creative, and smartest people to walk this planet.
I will not encourage my trans family to join the military because personally, I don't see the point of sacrificing your life for a country that does not want you to live in the first place, but if they choose to do so, I will fight for their right to have that choice.  I honor your truth and the meaning you have found for your existence. Thank you for who you are and what you do.  I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the numerous transgender men who fight and died (while hiding their identity) during the Civil War to defeat the feudalist and oppressive South.
What this boils down to is family and some of us make choices that some of us don't agree to, but we hold on to love because no one else can give that to us as much as each other.
Be safe now. We'll pull through this. We always did, we'll do it again. Our Mothers, Marsha [P. Johnson] and Sylvia [Rivera], they are our guiding stars.
And finally, reacting to high-profile transwoman (and former SEAL Team 6 member) Kristin Beck calling out Trump's tweet, radical trans activist and RN Soma Navidson put it more succinctly:
"Trans women can effectively murder and support imperialism too!" Seriously, fuck equality politics. Smash empire.