Marching On: Fighting for Trans Lives in the Shadow of the Ban

Transgender people have faced the brunt of attacks on the LGBTQ community as advocates fight to protect their lives and rights.

Trump’s transgender military ban went into effect late last week on Friday, April 12, in the latest attack on the trans community by this administration. From rolling back Obama-era protections for trans students, inmates, and workers, trans and gender non-conforming Americans have faced the brunt of these recent anti-LGBTQ actions.

State governments are also getting into the act, filing anti-trans bills that would limit the rights of their trans and gender non-conforming constituents.

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Meanwhile, trans lives continue to be threatened by transphobic violence, as well as the effects of policies that result in higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness. The trans ban has grabbed the majority of attention, with condemnations coming loudly from all corners—including the organizations that continue to fight against it in active court cases, such as Lambda Legal, GLAD, the ACLU, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

While the Supreme Court allowed the ban to be implemented, lifting injunctions, it chose not to take it up when requested to do so by the Department of Justice (DOJ), instead allowing the policy to work its way through the lower courts.

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“The AMA has played a lead role in educating the military—and the public—about the fact that sexual orientation and gender identity are not psychological or medical disorders,” said Barbara L. McAneny, M.D., President of the American Medical Association, in a statement. “The estimated 14,700 transgender military personnel are qualified and willing to serve. Rather than stigmatizing and banning these patriots, [the Department of Defense] should let them serve.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the ban “bigoted” and “disgusting.”

“We believe really strongly, and know after having spoken to so many, and heard from so many transgender service members, that they are able to serve with as much dignity, honor, and strength as any other recruit,” Gillian Branstetter, of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), tells NewNowNext. “And it’s really a loss for the military to remove them, especially at a time when the military isn’t even meeting its recruiting goals. It’s not just a loss to our military, but a loss to our national security and a loss to our country.”

“We’re looking at close to 13,000 transgender people being removed from the military, and it’s really worthwhile to stop a moment and realize what that means to a person,” she adds. “The military is often times somebody’s entire life, sometimes their entire career. So, to pull that rug out from underneath the feet of so many people … who are wanted by the military, who are needed by the military, is a really specific form of cruelty.”

Branstetter says the situation is made even more harmful “when it’s [carried out] in the name of dogmatic thoughts about transgender people.”

“Because any of the questions that the administration tries to raise, about costs and things like this, were all answered before. The military did a year’s long study, from 2015 to 2016, of what it would take to remove the ban on transgender military service, and they found that it was perfectly doable, and therefore allowed transgender people to serve [openly],” she says, referring to a RAND study.

It found that trans people “would likely be a small fraction of the total force and have minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.”

According to Pentagon numbers, the DOD has only spent about $8 million on transgender care since 2016, with an overall annual military health care budget topping $50 billion.

The fight for trans rights is not only taking place in the courts over the military ban, but also in Congress and out in the streets, through protests. That includes the “Fight the Ban” protest, held in Washington, D.C., on April 10, organized by NCTE, Minority Veterans of America, Transgender American Veterans Association, Outserve – SLDN, and The American Military Partner Association.

NCTE also distributed trans pride flags to members of Congress, and Branstetter reports being “elated” that “so many members of Congress were happy to stand up and show their support” by displaying them outside their offices for International Transgender Day of Visibility.

According to Branstetter, more than 100 lawmakers chose to take part.

“It’s not that long ago that transgender advocates were getting laughed out of state legislatures, or getting hung up on by press aides,” she notes. “So, to really have the halls of Congress showing transgender pride is a monumental step, not just in a political sense but in just showing transgender people that things are changing, and for the better.”

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The community is also seeing its rights debated in Congress, with a non-binding resolution against the trans military ban passing in the House with bipartisan support, as well as hearings for the Equality Act taking place this month. If passed, the Equality Act would add LGBTQ people to existing federal civil rights laws, ensuring nondiscrimination protections nationwide.

“People may focus on the fact that it’s non-binding,” Branstetter says of the resolution, put forward by Rep. Joe Kennedy (pictured below), “but it matters when a coequal branch of government makes clear that they adamantly opposed what the president is forcing onto the military. Especially given the fact that it’s bipartisan shows that it’s rather common sense to not be moving the military based on ideology, or bad science, or talking points that were handed to folks.”

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“We had members of Congress standing up, proud to support transgender rights, and making clear the facts about transgender people and our experiences. And it really cannot be understated how historic that is, because these are conversations that have been relegated to doctor’s offices, support groups, and forms online.”

She also points to a number of key moments during the April 2 hearing on the Equality Act as especially notable, including “testimony from folks like Carter Brown, from Black Transmen Inc., [and] a fantastic defense of the legal backing for the Equality Act and its protections for trans people by Sunu Chandy,” the Legal Director of the National Women’s Law Center.

Branstetter adds Rep. Pramila Jayapal to the list as well, who grew emotional during the hearings when she revealed that her daughter came out as gender non-conforming.

“I loved what she said, that her child, in their process of coming out, is now free, and it’s really up to the legislators to protect that freedom,” she says. “It’s really about helping people be themselves in a way that is safe and free of shame.”

She knows that safety can’t be taken for granted, and still isn’t always forthcoming.

“I was particularly taken by the fact that just a few short miles from where the hearing took places, and a few short days before it took place, unfortunately the D.C. community lost Ashanti Carmon, a 27-year-old back transgender woman who was shot and murdered, we learned, over the weekend,” Branstetter continues. Carmon’s death came just months after the death of another trans woman of color, Dana Martin, who was shot and killed in Montgomery, Alabama.

“Violence is fueled by a lot of things: It’s fueled by the denial to a stable life, to stable housing, to freedom from poverty, to stable work. And those are really at the heart of this measure. So, we aren’t in a fight about hypotheticals; we’re in a fight about very real threats and very real risks that people face in their lives right now.”

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“It’s demoralizing to all transgender people to be told that you are lesser than,” she says. “And it’s not just that we’re being told that we’re lesser than in the military, but we’re being told that we also can’t play sports. And then also that we don’t need protections against violence, if you look at the hearings from the Violence Against Women Act. We’re being told that we can’t have accurate forms of identification. We’re being told that if you’re ‘unfit’ to serve in the military, then what other jobs are you ‘unfit’ for?”

“It can really be death by a million cuts for transgender people across the country to see their rights taken away one by one by one.”

Branstetter says NCTE is working “not just to defend the gains that we have made in recent years, but look ahead to a future.”

Mara Keisling
NCTE Executive Director and Founder Mara Keisling speaks during a press conference on a resolution rejecting the transgender military ban at the House Triangle outside the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. on March 28, 2019.

Part of that work includes an audit of the policies of the 25 largest police departments across the country, regarding their interactions with transgender people, which she says NCTE expects to release in the next month or two.

She adds the group’s research found more than half of trans people are afraid to go to the police even if they need help, for fear of mistreatment, with an even higher rate among black trans people: “This is an extremely important matter. Trans people, particularly trans people of color, are often targeted by police, profiled by police, harassed by police, abused by police—it’s really paramount that departments understand their obligations and are giving the right tools to their officers, making sure that they understand the rights of the people they’re engaging with, and the best way to engage with them.”

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