By Chase Catalano
During my college application process, I toyed with the idea of applying to West Point. Then, when I was in college, I took a Military Science class, and thought about making the commitment to sign a contract for Army Reserved Officer Training Corp (R.O.T.C.). Years later, I eventually recognized that I was in search of control, discipline, family, organization, and clear purpose (read: aspects of normalcy mixed with feelings of rebelliousness). I’ve since recognized how some of my attraction to my idealized military experience was about desires I could not yet name, but that’s a different blog post. What actually kept me from signing a contract was that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was in practice. I knew I could never stay closeted (I was an out lesbian in college) and I kind of bristled under certain commands – both clues it was unlikely I would successfully finish a term of service. I share these memories to share my thinking about how, as a trans person, I am conflicted about the “policy dictate” via the very (un)presidential platform of Twitter to ban transgender people from serving in the military. Let me explain a bit about my conflicted feelings…
To be sure, the tweet was a publicly malicious statement that denies the value and existence of transgender people who serve(d) in the military. Once again, the message is clear that we do not belong, our lives are a distraction and disruption to “normal” people, and our transness makes us less than. I cannot understand how personal choices about bio-medical transition options are a budget consideration and open for national debate; costs that are, based on actual empirical data, nominal. I cannot understand how the goal of patriotic duty is not enough to overcome exclusion.
And here is where I get conflicted because I cannot even imagine the challenges that exist for openly (or stealth) transgender service people. I cannot figure out how transness fits within a military paradigm of gender. For some I think military service is about patriotism, but for others, I think military service is a form of economic necessity.
I am unconvinced about the positive role of the military in U.S. culture. I admit that I am not as well-versed on the topics of militarism, nationalism, and imperialism. Inclusion is an imperfect concept, and I struggle to determine whether inclusion of queer and trans people in the military is the kind of inclusion that demonstrates the liberatory future that could exist (see Barbara Love). There is a homonormativity (see Kacere) about the argument for trans inclusion in the military; just another way to say we as trans people are “American” just like everyone else. Violence is a reality for too many trans people, especially trans women of color (see Editors of Everyday Feminism), and let’s be clear: violence is a part of military tactics. This is a complicated contradiction to manage, and certainly muddles my thinking. There are people who write with far more nuance and sharp analysis of why the ban on transgender military personnel is problematic (see Dean Spade and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore), and I will not rehash their thinking here.
Instead what I offer is this: inclusion and exclusion are not a binary concept. There are consequences to people for exclusion that interpersonally are difficult to reconcile. Maybe because when I imagine liberation, I cannot figure out how we create a world where the military is unnecessary (this is my shortcoming). So, if I can’t imagine a future without a military, then isn’t trans inclusion in the military necessary? At the same time, I struggle to feel safe, comfortable, or empowered in the presence of those in uniform. Might I feel less discomfort if I knew those in uniform were trans? Honestly, I’m not sure that poses much influence on my feelings because the military is more complex than the individual in uniform; the armed forces are an institution built with rules, boundaries, and regulations that is only mildly influenced by individuals.
Was I surprised by the tweet? No. Maybe the most instructive thing relevant for me is to share is what I did feel. The most acute feeling for me after the news of the tweet was resignation. I felt resignation because the “travel ban” foreshadowed the isolationist, nationalist, and xenophobic policy decisions of the current administration. I felt resignation because I expect these kind of institutional and cultural policies, as well as political decisions about the uneasy and contentious existence of transness. I felt resignation because I knew this tweet energized the more normative queer and trans political organizations. Military exclusion is the new thing to fire up the base in this “post-marriage” era (not all of us were interested in marriage to begin with, just like not all of us are interested in access to military service). Is another non-discrimination policy going to really address this issue of institutional and systemic expectations that support trans exclusion? (See Dean Spade for the limits of the law and Critical Trans Politics). I felt resignation because where is the data about whether trans people would serve in the military if they had other options for employment, and access to healthcare and education? I don’t know, but I think it would be a worthwhile research endeavor. Why are queer and trans organizations supporting access to an institution that has stalled many (all?) attempts to address sexual violence, torture, hazing, and racism?
I felt resignation knowing the counter-story to this new “policy” highlights the “success” stories of trans people in the military – trans people who did not experience violence, harassment, or marginalization for being trans in the military (or who tell the story of persistence in the face of such experiences). I also felt resignation because I am not willing tell a trans person that military service is inconsistent with the ideology of trans politics. So, you see, I’m a bit conflicted, and maybe a bit of my resignation is turning into anger, and I have a lot of questions that are underneath the question of this false binary of trans exclusion/inclusion in military service.
Chase Catalano is a White trans* academic who focuses on higher education. His scholarship focuses on trans* collegians (specifically, trans* men and trans* masculine students in higher education), social justice, and masculinities. Prior to his role as an assistant professor he worked in student affairs as the director of an LGBT Resource Center.
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