The GOP Pushback Against Trump's Trans Ban: A Potential Turning Point For Trans Rights

POTUS’s proclamation via tweet tantrum on July 26 – the 69th anniversary of Pres. Harry Truman’s order desegregating the U.S. military – that all trans service people were henceforth banned from military service has been roundly and rightly rebuked. New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick incisively condemned the move as “pure...cheap and cruel politics.” Its “naked attempt to divert attention from his woes” during a catastrophically bad week for his régime, Remnick observes, and to appease his base after his public attacks on his racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic attorney general Jeff Sessions, “reveals yet another layer of his political cynicism.” While Trump’s move was yet another potentially damaging attack on us, the bigger news to me was the swift pushback the president received not only from military leadership but also from some Republican leaders on the Hill. I’d like to explore the implications of the response by the latter group: what it doesn’t signal, and what it does, or at least might.

First, what it pretty obviously doesn’t signal: an imminent, significant improvement in the status of trans folks in this country among those on the right. “Most Republicans in the Capitol,” The Washington Post reported, “tried hard to avoid reacting at all [to the proposed ban], and their silence spoke volumes about the degree to which they don’t think this [issue] is a political winner.” Most Republicans who did choose to speak out unsurprisingly focused on the issue of our military service without (explicitly) referencing the many other areas of our lives where our basic rights are under assault. Our right to serve our country openly, moreover, was mostly spoken of as a general right that “any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country” should possess, as Maine Sen. Susan Collins put it. (Collins was, however, the only Republican senator willing to join 44 Dems in signing a letter by Senate Armed Services Committee member Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to Defense Secretary James Mattis urging him to ignore POTUS’s call for the ban.) Even when we were singled out as a group deserving of this right, it was often in general terms, as in North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’s objection to “any proposal that calls for a specific group of American patriots currently serving in uniform to be removed from the military,” or Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s reference to “gender identity” and use of the #LGBT hashtag in her tweeted statement. Only a few GOP members actually used the word “transgender” in their responses to POTUS’s tweets, though a couple, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, were notable.

Some Republican responses chose to focus on one of the flimsy justifications Trump cited for the ban, the issue of military preparedness. McCain, a decorated veteran and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, noted in a surprisingly strong, detailed rejection of the proposed ban that the DOD is studying the question of trans service people’s “impact on military readiness,” and asserted that no change in policy should be undertaken before the study’s completion. A spokesperson for Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a surprise contributor to the GOP pushback, similarly emphasized readiness, noting that “Department of Defense personnel decisions should be based entirely on maximizing the Armed Forces’ ability to protect and defend the American people.” Another surprise GOP objector, conservative Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, observed in an interview on CNN that “the current policy is a big tent for people who want to serve.” His subsequent remark, “You’ve got to remember, our military force is a voluntary force,” though, suggested that his main worry was keeping the armed services ranks full rather than diverse.

Sen. McCain gave direct expression at the beginning of his statement to a further concern that seemed to be animating many of the GOP members: a mounting frustration with POTUS’s disregard for standard operating procedure and the rule of law more generally. “The President’s tweet this morning,” he said, “…is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter.” A couple of additional things about the Republican response are worth observing:

  1. Most of those who spoke out were from states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 (Sen. Collins; Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH; Rep. Frank Lobiondo, R-NJ; Rep. Ken Buck, R-CO; Rep. Scott Taylor, R-VA) or states that are traditionally blue or swing states (Sen. Toomey; Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI; Rep. Charlie Dent, R-PA; Rep. Ros-Lehtinen). This c/w the silence most of their colleagues maintained on the issue suggests that there was more than a little political calculation in a number of the members’ decisions to speak out.
  2. Republicans remain divided on the question of whether trans-related medical procedures for service people should be covered by taxpayer money. At least a couple of members who spoke out against Trump’s ban, notably Iowa’s Joni Ernst, a 20-year veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, oppose such coverage. (Trump cited the onerousness of the cost of these procedures as another reason for the ban, but as a recent piece in The Atlantic points out, those medically necessary expenses would at most total about one-tenth the amount the military spends annually on erectile dysfunction.)

All of this points to a conclusion that should come as no surprise: POTUS’s snap decision to ban us from military service hasn’t made us a cause célèbre among the party he hijacked a year ago, but rather has focused GOP concerns about the fitness of the U.S. armed services to defend the nation and Trump himself to lead them and the nation.

Still, even if we interpret this Republican affirmation of our place in the military cynically as being about cannon fodder rather than civil rights, it will, I think, have some positive long-term effects. I’ve argued consistently over the past year-plus that legal measures establishing and protecting our rights, while vital, will only improve our status to a point, and that our mainstreaming as a group is ultimately contingent on the cis majority’s growing accustomed to seeing us in their everyday lives. Whatever their motivation, the responses of Republican leaders like McCain, Collins, Shelby, and Hatch move us a little in that direction

It’s not immediately clear why this would be the case. In the first place, the military isn’t part of most people’s everyday life. Active combat in particular is an experience more or less unimaginable to most of us (myself included). There’s also the question of how much the respect and even valorization attached to members of the armed services at present will spill over into civilian life. The white majority was willing enough to have POC serving in the two World Wars last century (if in mostly subordinate positions), after all, but even after Truman’s desegregation order at the close of WWII, Jim Crow persisted in much of the country for decades, and of course has never fully disappeared. The military’s rigid code of conduct and chain of command, moreover, not only define a place for trans service members, but also in a sense quarantine them from civilian life as long as they’re on active duty. Can openly serving trans veterans expect from their cis neighbors an appreciably better reception than the one African-American service people received when they returned from Germany, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam?

There are two reasons I’m guardedly optimistic about the positive long-term effect of the GOP pushback in spite of these objections. The more obvious is that service people, in particular those who see combat, are accorded respect by so many people. Those Republican members who rebuked POTUS’s tweets helped create a strong positive narrative of trans troops serving alongside their cis comrades in this important area of public life for a voting bloc accustomed to viewing us with contempt. Even if most of that positive feeling is at present likely to dissipate upon trans vets’ return to civilian life, moreover, the public embrace of their service ultimately will, I think, translate into other areas of our lives (barring a swift rollback of the military’s current policy at least). This is because of the way in which trans folks are perceived at present by the cis majority.

As I argued in a recent post, portrayals of us in media and popular culture – when they don’t demonize us – tend to focus on us as victims, whether of economic and social marginalization (viz. sex work, substance abuse, suicide) or of violent crime, in particular murder. The fact that military service is similarly outside the everyday experience of most people means that trans troops will be viewed in the kind of context that the cis majority has been conditioned to see us as a group. The GOP leaders’ embrace of us in such a context, then, might very well make us acceptable to more among socially conservative members of the cis majority because that’s where we make sense to them. And the positive portrayal of us as “patriots,” “heroes,” etc., will directly counter the negative representations of us as victims that they’re familiar with by showing us not only in a positive light, but also as active agents rather than passive, pathetic statistics. The countering of the negative “victim” narrative, in turn, will I think open up the possibility for us to be imaginable in other areas of public life – work, school, etc. – and will make room for positive narratives about us in those areas.

Perhaps the most striking harbinger of this shift among the Republican members’ responses to POTUS’s proposed ban was Sen. Hatch’s. Though he’ll be running for reelection next year in what The Washington Post called “one of the reddest and most socially conservative states in America,” the senator said in an official statement on Twitter, “Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.” Even more notable were his comments in a brief interview aired around the same time on MSNBC: “They don’t choose to be transgender, they’re born that way. And why should we hold that against them?” These statements don’t advocate any particular policy changes on, say, hate crimes or housing discrimination. And it’s true that in his tweeted statement, the senator went on to say that he “look[ed] forward to getting much more information and clarity from our military leaders about the policy the President tweeted.” Still, these sorts of baseline and to all appearances heartfelt declarations that we’re deserving of being treated with dignity have been all too rare from those on the right. As I told a friend on Facebook, when I saw the Hatch interview “I almost fell out of my chair,” a reaction I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having. Here’s hoping we spend lots of time picking ourselves up off our floors in the coming months.

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