"What Would Marsha P. Johnson Do?": On The Transgender Military Ban

When my phone buzzed on January 22nd, notifying me that the Supreme Court had allowed Donald Trump’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military to go into effect, I sighed. It wasn’t just that I was exhausted from being angry about the many violations of trans rights from the previous few months—though I was—but I also felt deeply conflicted over this issue, more so than I had felt over any other issue regarding trans rights.

The beginning of the movement for trans equality is often considered to be the Stonewall riots, where Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of color, picked up a couple bricks and took a stand against the police raids of gay bars—raids that had never before seen successful opposition. The movement for trans equality is rooted deeply in leftist and anti-state politics—in fighting against the arbiters of the state when the state refuses to recognize the personhood of any individual.

This puts the movement for trans equality at odds with the existence of the military—or at least the military-industrial complex. Since the birth of the military-industrial complex, being part of the military has taken on more than simply being a soldier: it means that someone might be responsible for killing innocent civilians if that is what they are ordered to do. It means that they might come home with severe PTSD and receive little to no treatment from the Veteran’s Association. It means that two out of three women in the military have been sexually assaulted or harassed, and it means that, until recently, queer people in the military have had to operate with the threat of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hanging over their heads. Being part of the military has meant going against much of what is humane, and certainly against what is leftist and anti-state.

However, it cannot be denied that the military has simultaneously also acted as grounds for equality. In the United States, going as far back as the Revolutionary War, marginalized groups have been promised rights in exchange for serving their country. During the American Revolution, enslaved individuals were promised freedom if they fought on the British side. In the Civil War, black individuals volunteered to fight for the Union, on the belief that it would enable them to gain full citizenship after the war. During the 20th century, gay men and women often joined branches of the armed forces in order to escape the pressures of heteronormative society—and ever since the creation of the G.I. Bill in 1944, people of every race, creed, sexual orientation or gender identity have joined in search of an education, or at least a way out of poverty.

This, however, has allowed the military-industrial complex to use people’s lack of education or impoverishment against them. Given that marginalized communities are often the most impoverished, this has allowed the military-industrial complex to utilize the labor provided by many impoverished LGBTQ+ people over the years—and to then fire them under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Being allowed to serve has been a mark of equality since nearly the beginning of the United States as it exists today—but it is also a flawed marking, and one that lends itself to taking from marginalized communities without giving back.

The movement for transgender equality has always had its roots in leftist, anti-state politics—politics that do not support the existence of a military-industrial complex. But with admission to the military functioning as an indicator of equality—an indicator that has just been taken away from transgender individuals who are seeking medical transition—what can be done?

For starters, we can stop supporting the military-industrial complex. Instead of seeing it as a mark of equality, we can—and this includes people who want to be seen as allies to the transgender community—turn away from supporting the military. This does not mean ignoring the needs of veterans who have already served, but it means refusing to support the actions of the military now. It means speaking out against invasions that take place now, it means advocating for cutting the military’s budget, for once, instead of continually making cuts to public education, or the arts, or museums—and yes, it might mean taking a knee during the National Anthem.

In addition, it means coming out to support your local trans community—donating money or time, if you can, or just sitting down by your trans friends and saying, “Hey, I bet it’s been a hard week for you. Is there anything I can do?” if you can’t.

Most of all, we in the trans community can go back to the roots of the trans movement—back to Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson; back to Stonewall and the bricks. And we can ask ourselves, in this situation that we find ourselves in today, fifty years later, “What would Marsha P. Johnson do?”

And then, maybe, we should start picking up some bricks.