We're Not Astroturf: Why Open Trans Military Service Is a Worthy Fight

Last week Professor Dean Spade, a former teaching fellow at Harvard and transgender activist, attacked efforts to raise awareness of the exclusion of transgender people from U.S. military service.
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Last week Professor Dean Spade, a former teaching fellow at Harvard and transgender activist,attacked efforts to raise awareness of the exclusion of transgender people from U.S. military service. Spade claims that fighting for open transgender military service distracts us from other issues facing transgender persons, such as unemployment, imprisonment, and violence. He also argues that this is not a fight that the trans community has chosen.

While the scholar's work on behalf of trans persons in poverty is to be commended, it seems that he has not done his research on this issue.

Professor Spade asks, supposedly rhetorically, "Is military service a job we want?" while pointing out many things about the military that he dislikes, including that it exists. The numbers speak for themselves, though. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 20 percent of all transgender people are veterans. We also estimate that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 transgender people serving right now. It's not just transgender people who see the military as a desirable job; being a military officer is seen as one of the most ethical and respected professions in America.

Beyond just being respected, military service is one of the most time-honored ways to better yourself in America. For many LGBT folks, the military is a pipeline out of poverty, violent homes, homelessness, and hostile communities. Service gives people access to a livable wage and education. Right now these are paths that privilege white, straight, cisgender males. Working on equality issues in the military does not harm civilian movements for equality; it provides greater options for trans persons. I would not have received the education I did if it weren't for the service, and my transition would have been far more perilous.

Professor Spade also notes the issues the military has with sexual assault, and with the risks that transgender people face in military prison. What Spade fails to take into account is that the current policy on transgender military service facilitates rape.

Many of the transgender people in our organization have been assaulted. Sometimes it is "corrective rape" because the individual is seen as a lesbian. Sometimes the person was perceived as gay or insufficiently masculine. Either way, if they report the assault, the investigation will usually reveal that they are transgender, and they will be kicked out as a result. If they are relatively senior, they will lose out on retirement. If junior, they will lose their G.I. Bill college benefits. There is even heavier pressure on our transgender service members than on most others. Given the issue that the military has with unreported rapes, why would we want to add one more reason not to report them?

Telling a rape victim "sucks to be you, but you shouldn't have been in the military" is no different from telling a woman that she deserved to get raped because she went outside at night, or without a male relative escorting her, or wearing the wrong clothing. "Your human rights aren't a priority because I dislike your career choice" is equally unacceptable.

It should come as no surprise that suicide completion rates amongst transgender veterans is 20-percent higher than among their cisgender counterparts, or that they are 21-percent more likely to be homeless.

At another level, Professor Spade seems unwilling to bring up the issue because it might induce a public discussion of the necessity of medical care for transgender people.

To which I say, "Yes, let's."

When the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the World Professional Association of Transgender Health, the American Academy of Family Physicians, te National Commission of Correctional Health Care, the American Public Health Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all back up your position that this is a medical necessity, but only a fraction of workers have coverage, then it's time to have that talk. The facts are on our side. There is as much "debate" about the medical necessity of intervention amongst health care providers as there is about global warming amongst climatologists.

Spade makes the assumption that there is no advantage to gaining open military service as well. The clear relationship between the end of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) and the Supreme Court's decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) puts paid to this notion quickly. Open military service has benefitted the larger LGB community, period.

When Professor Spade calls for more emphasis on imprisonment, poverty, police violence, and homelessness, he is merely addressing the symptoms of discrimination against transgender people, not the root cause. Americans see us as disgusting, mentally ill, voyeurs, pedophiles, worthless, and subhuman. No matter how much money or time we put into social programs for transgender people, as long as we are perceived this way, we will continue to suffer.

The ban on military service directly contributes to this destructive narrative. As long as it remains in place, people will be able to point to it and say, "These people are sick, and even the government knows it." The Department of Defense grants medical waivers for voyeurism, pedophilia, bestiality, and exhibitionism, but not for transgender people. As long as the ban is there, we will not be seen as full citizens. When federal regulations treat us as the least among the untouchables, why should the public do differently?

As a graduate of Barnard College and UCLA, and as a tenure-track professor, Dr. Spade is out of touch with the reality of poverty and the American zeitgeist. People are trying to pay rent, keep the lights on, and feed themselves and their kids. If all transgender folks in poverty refused to work for the military, unethical corporations, or anywhere else there has a patriarchal power structure, we'd starve. As someone who can be out without having to worry where his next meal is coming from, Professor Spade has no right to tell us how we choose to improve our situations in life.

This is not an astroturf movement. I am out in front and pushing this because the people I represent still have to serve in silence. Over the past 18 months we have worked together with LGB and straight allies, many of whom are veterans of the DADT fight, to raise awareness of this issue. We're all very glad it's finally happening, because that light at the end of the tunnel gives them hope.

Special thanks to Jacob Gryphon for his research, inputs, and edits on this blog post.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post indicated that Dean Spade attended Harvard University. He was a teaching fellow at Harvard, but was never a student at the university.

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