Trump’s transgender military ban: how should the left respond?

Photo by Edward Leavy Jr.

Donald Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the US armed forces via Twitter on July 26. The ban reverses a series of orders made by the Barack Obama administration to explore the integration of transgender service personnel into the military — and for any costs associated with gender affirmation medical technology to be covered.

The ban has re-raised questions about what attitude left-wing forces should take to questions of discrimination in the armed forces of imperialist countries. Should such discrimination be opposed and on what basis should you do so?

Trump’s ban appears to have had two primary motivations — appeasing the president’s transphobic base and addressing concerns from conservative Republicans over the cost of providing gender affirming medical technology to trans military personnel.

Missouri Republican Vicky Hartzler has been pushing since June to pass an amendment to the defence budget that would bar the US military from funding gender affirmation surgery and hormone therapy. Despite having wide support in the Republican caucus, this effort has been frustrated by an alliance of Democrats and 24 “moderate” Republicans.

Trump’s ban is also seen as a mechanism via which resistance from conservative Republicans to appropriations for Trump's southern wall can be overcome. However, the total ban goes beyond what many of the conservative Republicans were seeking. It is apparently not supported by any significant layers among senior levels of the US military apparatus.

This lack of broader support is not generally driven by opposition to transphobia. Rather, there are pragmatic concerns that a total ban will raise the risk of attempts at civilian legal intervention.

If successful, this would mean the courts would potentially limit the control that senior military and civilian administration would have over the integration of trans military personnel.

Opposing discrimination

So what attitude should the left take to the ban? It is easy to say that the US military is a reactionary institution and the participation of oppressed minorities in it is not a liberating experience — and thus take an indifferent or hostile attitude to the question.

But such approaches are fundamentally wrong. The character of the US military is irrelevant as to whether US military personnel should have protections from discrimination.

This ban will do very little to stop trans people from serving in the military. It is estimated there are already between 2500 and 15,000 trans personnel in all branches of the US armed forces. The ban will simply impact negatively on the lives of these people — and undermine their ability to affirm their gender without serious consequences.

Some of these individuals may be out and out reactionaries — a fact which is irrelevant to the question of whether they deserve to be discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity. However, a large numbers of trans people, like tens of thousands of members of other marginalised communities who are members of the US military, are in the military as a consequence of the “poverty draft” operating in the US.

Opposition to minorities serving in the US military is not just meaningless (because participation is primarily driven by economic needs), it is paternalistic. It positions the left as supporting reactionary forces that seek to exclude oppressed groups from social life.

If we say it is okay to discriminate against people in certain parts of social life, it strengthens discriminatory attitudes throughout social life.

If our concern is dismantling reactionary institutions such as the US military, then the best approach is to demand maximum democratic rights both within and outside such institutions. Within the context of the military, this should include the right of soldiers to elect officers and to collectively refuse orders.

It is important to note that a significant factor in the breakdown of the US military as a functioning force during the Vietnam War was — on top of the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people and global anti-war movement — the resistance within the US armed forces by soldiers. The great mass of soldiers decided, by and large, that staying alive was more important than the imperialist objectives of the US government and its officer corp.

Opposition to Trump’s ban should not just be limited to opposition to discrimination and violence against trans individuals within the US armed forces. It should include supporting the right to have access, with costs covered, to gender affirming medical technology.

Our arguments should not focus on how much these technologies cost — even though at an estimated US$8 million a year it is a drop in the ocean of the US government’s $611 billion defence budget — but because access to medical treatment is a right that should not be limited by costs or attitudes of those in power.

Broader impacts

Accepting the right of the US government to exclude transgender affirmation surgery costs for military personnel would recreate space where other services can be cut off because of discrimination. It also puts at risk funding for trans prisoners to access publicly funded gender affirmation technology.

It strengthens the arguments in favour of the supposed “right” of private businesses and insurance companies to refuse coverage for procedures and medical technology that they are opposed to, such as access to contraceptive pills, gender affirmation surgery and hormones.

A fight against attacks on medical funding for trans military personal can, if argued effectively, lend itself to arguing for publicly funded universal health care — which is desperately needed in the US.

The ending of discrimination within the armed forces is not liberatory, but is an essential part of combating discrimination in broader society.

On the other hand, supporting the continued existence of discriminatory practices in the hope it might discourage people from joining up does nothing to disrupt the military.

However, it does help make the lives of minorities within the military hellish — an impact that will last throughout their lives — and helps enable and justify discriminatory behaviour outside the military.

Opposing pinkwashing

At the same time, opponents of imperialism should not fall into the trap of glorifying either trans service personnel or lend ourselves to the pinkwashing of reactionary institutions.

There has been prominent sharing of images of Kristin Beck, a trans woman and former US Navy Seal, on social media. These memes promote the idea that trans service personnel are “defending the rights of US citizens”. The reality is that the deployment of the US military is not aimed at defending the rights of US citizens or progressive values of any form. The US military aims to extend US corporate interests and maintain US imperial hegemony.

There should be no ban on the involvement of trans personnel within the US military and US military personnel should be able to express their gender in whichever way they choose. This should be the case, despite the fact that the ability to do so will not change the US imperialist war machine — or lessen our opposition to its crimes.

[Lisbeth Latham is a trans woman. They are a long-term opponent of US imperialist adventures and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]