On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military, making demonstrably false claims that being a trans person is a “disruption” and a financial burden on the military. His formal, impulsive reversal of the Obama-era policy – a long overdue decision by the former president to allow transgender military recruits in July 2016 – throws the future of 15,500 trans active duty service members in doubt. At the White House Press briefing on Wednesday afternoon, there were no clear answers from the administration on what would happen to existing trans members of the military. Trump’s message is a firm rejection of a population still locked in civil rights struggles across the country.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump insisted he was the most pro-LGBTQ candidate in history. Some people bought it, but Raquel Willis didn’t. She is a black queer transgender activist, communications associate for the Transgender Law Center, and host of The BGD Podcast with Raquel Willis. When we spoke over the phone from her home in Oakland, she was sober in her assessment of the potential damage to trans communities. “Some people are saddened by today and disappointed,” she said. “Some are unfazed, and still others are coming up with strategies to move forward.” The FADER spoke to Willis about the impact of Trump’s statements, the military’s place in conversations about LGBTQ issues, and the vitality of listening to trans people even when the president isn’t tweeting about them.
How did you respond when you initially saw the tweets?
RAQUEL WILLIS: Where to start? [laughs] I think the rhetoric of “trans people are burdens” is devastating. It speaks to so many things happening right now, particularly with access to public spaces like restrooms and other facilities. It speaks to how transgender students have been treated by his administration so far, and even largely to the healthcare discussion happening right now. It is saying that trans people are disposable and that our concerns and our needs are not as valid or as important as other Americans.
It seems like major media only pays attention to LGBT issues if certain ideals are also in play, for example the military and imperialism as we’re seeing today, or capitalism and the economy as we saw with the North Carolina bathroom bill. As pure human rights issue on its own, that doesn’t seem to galvanize coverage as deeply. Do you agree or am I off base here?
For a lot of people when we have discussions about transgender people in our lives, it becomes easier for people to think of us as a part this larger “American dream,” however problematic that can be. So thinking about trans people in the military, it harkens back to how we thought of people of color and our inclusion in the military at that point. There’s something that levels the experiences to a similar playing field when we discuss Americanism and nationalism and patriotism and the military. Again, I think that’s problematic because we know that the government has continued to use black and brown bodies throughout the military industrial complex, and has continued to use LGBTQ bodies, while giving us a hard time in terms of recognition and access to resources.
A White House source claimed that the tweets were sent out with the 2018 elections in mind. Whether that’s true or not, do you think that leaning into dehumanizing language is a viable path to electoral success for Republicans?
I do. They speak to this unfortunate bigoted strain that is permeating through conservative politics right now. I [also] think that, in many ways, it wedges between even folks on the left. When folks say things like “Oh this is just a distraction from other issues,” that still diminishes the experiences of trans people.
These tweets and this rhetoric have very tangible effects. Talking about the workplace and trans employees, this signals to other industries that they don’t have to worry about trans people. That it’s okay to cut corners when it comes to our healthcare or respecting us on the job. It also signals to the healthcare industry that our healthcare is more expensive or more of a burden than other people’s healthcare, which is just not true. There was a 2016 study commissioned by the Department of Defense saying there would be minimal impact in terms of cost and readiness for the military if they decided to include trans people completely.
I know that for a lot of women it was extremely painful to see Trump elected after the Access Hollywood tape. Did these tweets give any sense of deja vu?
Not at this point. I think if it did, I would be having deja vu every day. I think that Trump has proven to be everything that a lot of people expected him to be. Many marginalized folks, people of color, LGBTQ folks, women, knew that he was going to be detrimental to our livelihoods, and he just continues to prove that. So no, I’m not shocked that he is espousing this anti-transgender rhetoric. I expected it. I think what’s disheartening is the shock that people have whenever he does something which is problematic or damaging to the American public. At this point we need to be developing strategies for our survival and how we can get him and other elected leaders out of office who are targeting and harming our communities.
“No president, no elected official, or anyone else can take away what is authentic to you.”
I think what’s holding “the resistance” to Trump back is this clinging to a sense of decorum or norms that, from top to bottom, the other side doesn’t care about any more. Look at John McCain’s vote on healthcare yesterday.
I think that that’s very true. At this point, there is some irreversible damage that has been done to the processes of the government. The set of rules that Trump and his politicians are playing by is [unprecedented.] They have twisted every rule and standard that you can think of. At this point it’s about fighting for the actual American majority that is interested in progress, in equality, and in elevating marginalized people by any means necessary.
There continues to be a lot of performance in our politics. There always was, but people are playing into this idea that you don’t have to be authentic or act according to your words. I don’t think that’s true. The American people value authenticity and value being able to trust their leader. It’s unfortunate that these games continue to be played and we continue to be pawns in the political fight for dominance.
Do you feel that your community is a pawn when Democrats are in power?
When it comes to conservatism and the Republican party, there is an immediate sense of danger and fear. But there is also a constant erasure as a marginalized person by the liberal wing of our politics. So for a lot of people of color, and LGBTQ people, we’re still fighting for the representation and the leadership that we deserve, across the board.
Lastly, if you were speaking to the transgender kids reading this, and the allies who want to help, what would you say?
To the trans kid, you are strong and brilliant and you deserve to live your life on your own terms. No president, no elected official, or anyone else can take away what is authentic to you. You have so many people fighting for you and who believe in you and believe that you deserve every access to opportunity and the life that you want to live.
To allies, you have a lot of work ahead of you [laughs]. Continue to speak to and elevate trans people and our experiences. We need you even when we aren’t trending topics. There is an ongoing fight, and there are plenty of ways to plug in whether it’s on a local level or national level with transgender leaders across the country who are trying to find access and ways in the door to make the world a better place for the trans community. Also, invest in transgender people speaking for themselves, and ask for the things that they need. We have no time to make assumptions anymore.