When a concerned friend e-mailed me yesterday about US president Donald Trump’s proposal to ban transgender people from military service, my first thought was that it didn’t have much to do with me. Even though I’m transgender, I’ve been a longtime critic of American military policy, and don’t count any active transgender service members among my close friends. Between the Muslim ban, the ICE raids, the probe into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election, and the proposed Obamacare repeal, along with a host of other issues, I’ve avoided dealing with politics the past few weeks, just so I could gain some semblance of normalcy.
I still felt numb even after I read Trump’s tweets, thinking that this was probably another one of his caprices or ill-conceived diversion tactics. But then I realized: If I felt this way about an issue that so gravely affected members my own community, this must mean that I’ve normalized the dangerous times we live in without being fully cognizant of it. To let Trump overwhelm my sense of justice, along with those of other Americans, would mean playing right into his hands.
There have been many theories about the cynical motivations for Trump’s proposal. David Remnick of the New Yorker characterizes it as pure politics intended to distract from the Russia investigation, while Richard Kim in the Nation emphasizes its connection to the conservative factions he wants to appeal to in Congress. James Pindell of the Boston Globe reiterates the distraction theory, positing that Trump wants to force Democrats to take a stand on a controversial issue, as well as shore up his conservative base.
Yet I find myself less interested in Trump’s motivations than in how we, as Americans, are going to react. Ultimately, it’s us who get to decide if this ban will serve as a distraction or a cynical political ploy; whether we will allow it to blind us to other issues that face our country. We as a people get to determine whether Trump’s methods are successful. I don’t think they have to be. The proposed military ban isn’t a distraction. It’s a key example of why Trump is a threat not just to transgender Americans, but to democracy as a whole.
Trump’s tweets demonstrate that he is capable of attacking anyone who is not in the utmost position of power to get what he wants. Unless you’re rich, white, cis, straight, male, and Christian, there’s a good chance that his policies will harm you at some point. The fact that he’s willing to so brazenly threaten the physical, economic, and psychological well-being of many thousands of America’s own soldiers who have pledged to risk their lives to defend our country only proves that he places little value on the lives of the people he was elected to serve. His proposed transgender ban threatens a relatively small number of people on its face. But any American who believes in even a modicum of equitable treatment among its citizens should feel affronted, not only because they can be threatened next, but because his proposal endangers the very notion that our nation aspires to live up to principles of democracy.
I am not qualified to speak on behalf of former or active transgender service members. Many have and will continue to speak for themselves, such as in a series of quotes that the transgender author Jenny Boylan collected, or in television segments and social media posts. These testimonies speak both to their qualifications for military service, as well as the sacrifices transgender members of the military have made and continue to make on behalf of the United States.
Ultimately, regardless of the identities I hold, I speak from the perspective of an ordinary person who recognizes that we must all do more to fight against and prevent threats to the well-being of our own people. As a naturalized citizen, I’ve long recognized how much the US falls short of its own democratic ideals, how empty “liberty and justice for all” can sometimes feel. But I continue to believe that those ideals are worth fighting for. My own transgender siblings have done and continue to do this through their military service, while I resolve to do it through continued public criticism, protest, and resistance against this unjust, authoritarian administration.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by so much bad news and tune out. It’s easy to only pay attention to issues that affect you personally, or to prioritize an issue like the Obamacare repeal that affects more people, or the Russian scandal, which focuses on the very validity of Trump’s presidency. But I don’t think the proposed transgender military ban should be about prioritizing one issue at the expense of others, as if the ban is a smokescreen that obscures a more dangerous reality.
Whatever Trump’s intentions, this can be the moment where we realize that these issues—the trans ban, health-care repeal, Russia, the Muslim ban, and the rest—are all of a piece. They are all interconnected attempts to consolidate power for people who are already immensely powerful, and to disempower everyone who does not belong to this tiny stratum of American society. And so the only option is to continue to fight for everyone who finds themselves at Trump’s mercy, even, and especially, those with whom we don’t have a direct connection. Only when our empathy and anger reaches across the confines of our immediate communities can our collective resistance stand a chance.