Why Trump’s ban on trans people serving in the military matters to trans civilians

I know some trans people aren’t interested the fight over Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. But, as I learned Friday at the Transgender Law Institute, if the ban is upheld by the Supreme Court, its effects will go far beyond the armed forces. According to Shannon Minter, “the negative ramifications of a loss in the courts will be terrible.” Minter is the Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which, with GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders, is challenging the ban in the courts.

A little background: In June of 2016, the Department of Defense announced that transgender people could serve openly in the military. The military would also provide transition related medical care.

Six months into his first term, Trump announced via (where else) Twitter that the ban would be put back in place.

The same massive bureaucratic apparatus that had, after a year of research, found the ban irrational and developed a thorough implementation plan for allowing trans people to serve openly and provide transition related medical care was forced to do a 180 degree turn and come up with a justification for reversing the policy.

And did it ever. In February of this year, Secretary of Defense James Mattis released a report that recommended reinstating the ban. Most of the arguments supporting the recommendation were boilerplate right wing drivel: the ideas of people with penises showering with women, the “disproportionate cost” of provision of transition related care, and ye olde “unit cohesion” defense.  Trans rights advocates have lots of experience responding to these tired canards. You can see how they do so in reply briefs here and here.

The fourth justification is the most worrisome. It takes state-sponsored transphobia to new heights by questioning the very validity of transition-related medical care as a treatment for gender dysphoria. In our brave new post-truth world, Mattis’s underlings cherry-picked unfounded, unpublished, and highly selective research to suggest that hormone therapy and/or surgery do little to help transgender people.

This argument jibes with the right wing’s anti-transgender agenda, most clearly articulated in Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), which suggests that transgender people need compassion, but not equal treatment or transition related medical care. You can see this agenda in the new Department of Defense policy: “Transgender persons” without a diagnosis gender dysphoria can serve in their “biological sex.”  (Biological sex here means sex assigned at birth.) According to the report, the policy is not a ban on trans people per se, just a ban on people who happen to share the defining characteristic of transgender people–a disconnect between one’s gender identity and the sex assigned at birth.

A reasonable person might think that truth will ultimately prevail, that a policy that ignores the medical and psychiatric consensus and that discounts the lived experiences of hundreds of thousands of transgender people cannot stand. But this is the same administration that changed the rules to allow asbestos, a known carcinogen, into new products. This is the same administration that has proposed rolling back fuel economy standards, despite the fact that its justification is a “denial of basic science.”

Eventually, these cases will be heard by the Supreme Court. If the Court decides that the ban is constitutional, it won’t just affect those who want to serve in the military. The Court’s imprimatur on a report that rejects the idea that surgery and hormones are effective treatments for gender dysphoria will have alarming ripple effects in every area where advocates are working to ensure that trans people get the medical care they need, from prisons to workplaces to public benefit programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. If the Court ultimately sides with the Department of Defense, the transition-related health care of those of us not in the military could well be affected. The Court’s opinion would certainly be used to justify decisions not to pay for surgery or hormones.

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I want to put the Department of Defense policy in a larger historical context. Before Trump, transgender people were harmed by sex classifications in laws and policies designed to give men more rights and resources or to use M/F for surveillance purposes in descriptions in state records and on identity documents. As I argue in my forthcoming book, trans people were not the intended targets of these policies, we just found ourselves occupying the residual category of legal sex classifications—we’re what the system didn’t anticipate. Even though it’s no longer constitutional to treat men and women differently, classifying people as M or F is still baked into law and policy.

That’s why the battle in the first decades of the transgender rights movement has been to show that the category of women includes trans women and vice versa, that sex and gender discrimination laws cover trans people, that the M or F assigned at birth might not turn out to be the right one for the individual. Over time, these efforts have started to succeed and courts, administrative agencies, and legislatures are coming around. Of course there has been resistance, but it has been gradually evaporating as a result of education and the immense number of trans people coming out.

But the ground has shifted with the Trump administration. Now transgender advocates are no longer fighting accidental erasure. While previous conservative administrations took a more passive approach by simply not supporting trans rights, Trump and Pence are working to codify transphobia by enshrining it in policy across as many agencies as possible. (Their efforts were anticipated by attempts in red state legislatures to make bathroom access based on the sex assigned at birth.) With the Department of Defense policy, transgender issues have been politicized to a degree never yet seen. (Okay, I am overstating the difference in transphobia before and after Trump a little, but the I do think 2017 marked a real shift.)

One might argue that transgender rights movement lost something when it was packaged as a new identity politics group. Absent a handful of historical contingencies—transphobia among second wave feminists, the intensity of the pathologization of transsexuality, Reagan, the revanchist 1980s and the move to assimilate to the norms of the market–it might have been possible to articulate equality for people whose gender identity or expression confounded traditional expectations with broader movements for distributive justice. Socialist feminism, with its attention to bodies, the imbrication of capitalism and gender norms, and the material conditions that make life livable, would have been a better option.

In any case, identity politics, meshing neatly with neoliberalism, was to provide a path to acceptance into the status quo. The neoliberal contract with identity politics was to guarantee formal inclusion, representation, and political equality in exchange for abandoning more radical claims to justice. Writing about black movements for equality, Asad Haider suggests identity politics is “the neutralization of movements against racial oppression.” And the same could be said, has been said, about transgender identity politics.

But the Trump/Pence administration has upended all that, it has canceled the contract. Working closely with the organized religious right, trans identity itself has become a target, as the DoD report makes clear. The trans rights movement now finds itself in the unenviable position of fighting the right wing’s policitization of trans identity with a politics that was conceived when diversity and inclusion were considered positive values. It might be time to shift to a new terrain.

 

 

The conversation, distilled

Feminist leftist: I dislike what Clinton has done in the past and her politics now. Let me be clear, I do not support her campaign and I will not vote for her, I will vote for Sanders. But I would like to point out that there is still a lot of sexism circulating around her.

Regular leftist: You’re wrong to support Hillary because she is a woman. That’s identity politics of the worst kind.

Feminist leftist: I didn’t say anyone should support her just because she is a woman. I just said misogyny still matters.

Regular leftist: You’re trying to silence me by calling me sexist. I will not be silenced. Let me tell you why you shouldn’t support Hillary.

Meanwhile, on the right: “…ruthless hag…”

Regular leftist: [Silence].


Some support Clinton precisely because she is a woman. When this conversation appears in their newsfeed, when they hear the regular left argue against her candidacy by saying misogyny doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t ring true to them. When they hear that no one should vote for a woman simply because she would be the first woman president, that we should vote for the best person, they are reminded of how sex-blindness has worked out for them in their workplace. These supporters have probably paid little attention to how her actual politics might affect women, people living in poverty, working people, potential victims of US militarism during a Clinton presidency, Africans (“We’ve got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let’s make money for everybody,” said Clinton about the continent). But any potential to change some of these supporters’ minds by talking about how Clinton’s positions would not be good for most women has evaporated. For them, the regular leftist has no credibility. Clinton’s campaign benefits from discussions of sexism and by its denial.

It’s really not so hard or labor intensive to acknowledge the continued presence of misogyny in politics. So why not do it? Given that effect of these regular leftists’ arguments might be to increase or consolidate support for Clinton’s campaign, those of a more conspiracy minded bent might wonder if some of them were on the her payroll. A less paranoid explanation: misogyny.

Disappearing women

In her most recent column, “Who Has Abortions?,” Katha Pollitt  says, “We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people without erasing women from the fight for reproductive rights.”  I agree.  I’ve got a draft of quite a few fragments and links for a long blog post on feminism and trans politics–on reproductive rights, on women’s colleges, on how TERFS have derailed real conversations about feminism in trans communities, and on the outsized role those on the trans-masculine side of the gender spectrum play in setting out the official gender line for trans politics. I’ve not had the time to pull it all together, so instead, I’m just posting bits and pieces.  Pollitt’s column today prodded me into posting the first bit.

But yes, I think Pollitt is right on this one.  Here’s part of her explanation:

The real damage of abolishing “women” in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women”? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM. Restricting abortion is all about keeping women under the male thumb: controlling women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is what patriarchy is all about. Indeed, that women should decide for themselves is controversial even now. Although the Supreme Court ruled decades ago that men were not entitled to be notified if their wife was planning to end a pregnancy, some polls show large majorities of Americans believe husbands have a right to know. Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially.

I think it’s entirely possible to point out that it’s not just women who become pregnant and still keep in focus the bare political fact that abortion rights and access are gender issues, that it’s almost only women who get pregnant and who need abortions, and that abortion rights and access are under assault all over the US precisely because it’s primarily a “women’s issue.” Obviously abortion access shouldn’t be restricted by gender identity and providers should clearly communicate this in the messaging. Trans men need to know they can access to these services.

That said, taking “women” out of abortion rights rhetoric,  putting “vagina” on the list of unacceptable words, has the faint reek of misogyny.  Pollitt doesn’t call it by that name, but she writes:

But a feminism that can’t say “women”—or “vagina” or “sisterhood” or even the cutesy “ladyparts”— is cutting the ground from under itself. It’s not just about slogans like “the War on Women“ or “Stand with Texas Women, “ important as they are and challenging as it would be to replace them with gender-neutral language that carried the same emotional charge. How do you even talk about women’s being underrepresented politically, or earning less than men, or being victims of rape and domestic violence? In an era where politics is all about identity, as a tool for organizing and claiming public space, are women about to lose theirs?

It’s not just reproductive rights language that is fast being “de-gendered.” Women’s colleges are also being asked to get rid of that exclusionary category.  Many of us have long argued that women’s colleges need to admit trans women, regardless of the gender listed on their identity documents. And students who were admitted to women’s colleges as women and whose gender identity shifts during their college years need to be allowed to stay, and supported in their transition. But some of the discussions about changing who counts as a woman for college admission have morphed into an argument that everyone but cisgender men should be eligible to apply. Monica Potts, at the New Republic, says this is simply misogyny.

Feminist blogger and prison abolitionist Emma Caterine sees it differently. As she argues in a piece bluntly titled, “Trans Women are Not Agents of the Patriarchy”:

One of Potts’ main concerns is the push on women’s campuses to eradicate words like “sisterhood” from use. But this isn’t an example of trans activism, as Potts puts it, being “indistinguishable from old-school misogyny”; that’s just old-school misogyny disguised as trans activism. Trans activism fights to make a world that is better for trans people, and while trans men are an important part of that, the fight to make a place for themselves at women’s colleges has nothing to do with them being trans and everything to do with them being entitled men.

Trans women are on the precipice of being recognized as women at women’s-only institutions.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now is also the moment when those institutions are being asked to retreat from their historic mission of educating women.   It’s certainly not the intention of the activists calling for the all-but cis men rule, but the effect is to suggest that once trans women gain entrance, all bets are off, everything is up for grabs. The unstated but inescapable implication of all this–that trans women aren’t women.  That’s trans-misogyny.