It’s so goddamned easy to forget how hard people worked to achieve something so basic: the right to serve patriotically in the military.
I mean, can you think of anything more simple? You’re a kid graduating high school out in the sticks somewhere, and there aren’t any jobs other than working part-time in a fast food joint, and you want out of your parents’ house, you want out of your hometown, you just want to leave behind what you’ve known all your life and get out there and look for something new. So you decide you’ll volunteer for the Army or the Navy or the Air Force -- whichever one will take you. But it’s been on the news they won’t take gay people, and you’re gay, or at least you think you are.
You’re different, anyway. You’ve always enjoyed doing all the stuff guys do, ever since you were a little girl – hunting and fishing and building forts in the woods and racing remote control cars and hot-rodding your Honda Civic. Or you liked taking off your jeans and sneakers and dressing up in your mother’s clothes, walking around the house in her high heels when your parents were gone for the weekend. You did the stuff your friends did, whether it was playing sports or going on dates to the movies or making out in the basement while you were pretending to be watching Netflix, but your heart was never really in it. Your heart was somewhere else, someplace you didn’t really want to go because you were afraid of what you’d find there. But now you want to go someplace as far away as you can get, someplace where you can find yourself, or at least look without the whole town peering over your shoulder.
A friend of yours who graduated last year joined the Army, and she texted you recently from an airfield somewhere. She was about to get on a big transport plane and fly to Germany. She has learned to work on diesel engines and is going to Germany and then to Afghanistan. She’s going to work on big trucks and tanks and armored personnel carriers, and when she gets out, she knows she can get a job with a trucking company in the state capital, so you figure that’s what you’ll do. You’ll sign up, and the Army or the Navy or the Air Force will teach you something cool like diesel engines or maybe working on the engines for jet aircraft, and you’ll be out of here, and you’ll be looking at a future for a change, instead of the strip mall where everybody goes to buy beer before they drive out to the lake to get drunk.
But can you pull it off? Can you do what you did all the way through high school; hide behind this pose of fake masculinity or fake femininity when what’s inside of you is so different? What if they catch you? What if somebody finds out that you’re not like them? What if they kick you out of the military, and instead of going back home with a skill like working on really complicated truck or aircraft engines, you go back with a discharge that prevents you from getting any job at all? Are you willing to take that risk? Are you willing to get in the closet and then dig a hole in the floor of the closet and hide in there so deep they’ll never find you; they won’t discover you have a lot of skills and a lot of drive and desire and patriotism, but you’re just not like them? Not down deep inside where it counts. Not down there where you live, where you’re who you really are. Is it worth it? Because if you volunteer for the service, you’re not just signing up for a job. You’re taking a risk on the rest of your life.
That’s the way it was for gay men and lesbians and transgender people back in 1993 when newly-elected President Bill Clinton said he was going to do something like Harry Truman did when he integrated the military by executive order in 1948. Clinton was going to sign an executive order integrating the military by sexual identity, and then, only a few weeks into his presidency, it all went south. Some redneck senator from Georgia in his own party threatened to pass a law overturning any executive order Clinton signed, and after a bunch of kangaroo-court hearings about how gay and lesbian and transgender people would damage “morale” and “good order and discipline” and the “combat effectiveness” of the military – the same thing the rednecks said about integrating black soldiers in 1948 – they compromised on something called “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which promised that if gay and lesbian and transgender troops stayed in the closet they wouldn’t be kicked out of the military.
It was a lie, of course. They hunted down gay men and lesbians and transgender soldiers and sailors and airmen and women. They ran them out of the military and they gave them the bad discharges they had feared they would get all along. They kept up the lies and the witch hunts until a whole bunch of people worked really really hard to change people’s attitudes and finally President Obama came along and they passed a law allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. And when everyone realized that the Army and Navy and Air Force and Marines hadn’t collapsed in a miasma of bad “morale” and that “good order and discipline” was still intact and that the “combat effectiveness” of the military hadn’t fallen apart, they issued a policy allowing transgender people who were already in the military to serve openly.
They were working on allowing the recruitment of transgender people when Trump issued his insane tweets last week: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."
He didn’t consult with any generals or military experts. Whether or not transgender people serve in the military has nothing to do with its combat effectiveness or its ability to achieve “victory,” not one of which we’ve had in about seven decades, by the way. The medical costs of dealing with erectile dysfunction among men in the military costs something like 10 times what transgender troops cost, according to recent estimates. The Pentagon, when confronted with Trump’s attempt to issue orders with his thumbs, didn’t budge from its current policy of allowing transgender people to serve and treating them with the respect they deserve.
And there we are. Will transgender people be driven back into the closet in the United States military? Will the current policy be replaced with some sort of ersatz new form of "don’t ask, don’t tell"? Who knows? Hell, we didn’t know until two o’clock in the morning on Friday whether the Affordable Care Act would survive or not. Why should we expect to know about something as basic as the careers and lives of a bunch of patriotic Americans who are willing to give their lives to support and defend the United States Constitution? Why don’t we just let them hang out there in limbo like we did to gay men and lesbians and transgender troops for so long? Why don’t we make them lie about who they are in order to have the privilege of serving in the United States military and defending our freedoms?
That’s apparently what Trump’s plan is, and I think I can tell you why. Everything Trump is doing right now has the single goal of keeping himself in office. That’s it. Full stop. Every tweet. Every campaign-style unhinged speech. Every move he makes that appears to be attached to any kind of policy at all, whether it’s health care or immigration or law and order or who gets the right to serve in our military and who doesn’t. He doesn’t draw a breath without thinking of what he can do every single minute to keep himself from being run out of office for whatever illegality you can think of, whether it’s colluding with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton or laundering their money or profiting from the presidency or anything else. Doesn’t matter. He’s going to push the envelope. He’s going to say whatever he needs to say, do whatever he needs to do, fire whoever he needs to fire, sacrifice whoever he needs to sacrifice in order to save himself.
You know he’s getting close to the edge when he goes after transgender people. He doesn’t dare go after gay people. They’ve got the right to serve in the military enshrined in law. They’ve got the right to marry guaranteed by the Constitution. Most importantly of all, they’ve got public support for those rights. A lot of it. The country has moved on when it comes to the rights of gay Americans.
Trump’s gamble is that there is a large enough segment of the country that hasn’t accepted the reality of transgender Americans. He’s gambling that his base, however you define it, and whatever its percentage of the population is at the moment, will back him on this because while the rest of the country has moved on, they haven’t. For them, Trump believes, your sexuality is one thing, but actually changing your gender identity is a bridge too far. He’s gambling that while the rest of the country has transitioned away from its prejudice against LGBT Americans, there remain enough of them in his base who will separate out the “T” from LGBT and back him on this latest insanity.
We’re trans and they’re not. He’s going with them, and in the coming weeks and months we’ll see how far that will take him.