The Right to Protest: Black Lives Matter and the Anti-Lockdown Protests

protestor
BLM protestor. Source: Elvert Barnes. Creative Commons.

Throughout the summer of 2020, the cries of “Black Lives Matter!” and “I can’t breathe!” echoed across the United States. These cries took the form of protests that occurred in many cities around the country and even around the world. The increase of Black Lives Matter protests has been occurring in the months following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in May of 2020. Frustration over the lack of action by local and national authorities as well as community members themselves, led to some protestors to resort to violent tactics. It is important to keep in mind that while Mr. Floyd’s death was a catalyst that sparked the increase in protests, police brutality and the discrimination of black populations within many United States systems has existed since the times of slavery. These disparities within the system have been left unaddressed for too long, and many agree that peaceful protest will not incite the necessary action and change. However, while some of the protests have resulted in property damage and other violent acts, the majority of the protests have been very peaceful.

In response, President Trump has repeatedly called for a “crackdown” and continues to characterize protestors as violent and dangerous, despite the fact that over 90 percent of the thousands of nationwide protests have been peaceful. He declared New York City, New York, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, cities that have hosted several Black Lives Matter protests, to be “anarchist cities,” which in turn could make them ineligible for important federal funds during the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump has also refused to address the very valid concerns of protestors, instead vowing to defend the police as opposed to answering the call to pursue reforms to the policing structure. He has taken an authoritarian approach to the Black Lives Matter protests, sending in federal agents to “take care of the situation” in cities where very large Black Lives Matter protests have been held. His response is in stark contrast to the response of protests held earlier in the summer, protesting state lockdowns and mask ordinances in response to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

police
Riot Police. Source: Igal Koshevoy. Creative Commons.

In Portland, Oregon, federal agents dressed in camouflage and tactical gear were called in to handle the local Black Lives Matter protests. They were part of ‘rapid deployment teams’ created by the Department of Homeland Security. Such agents were also deployed within Washington, D.C., San Diego, California, Buffalo, New York, and Las Vegas, Nevada. In D.C., federal agents utilized “chemical agents” to disperse a crowd. Also in D.C., military helicopters flew over protestors below roof level, causing panic and leaving protestors to run for cover. Some protestors described experiences of being grabbed off the street by plainclothes policemen and agents, thrown in a van, and being taken to a location where they were held for multiple hours without being told a reason for their apparent arrest. Lawsuits have been opened due to increased injuries experienced by protestors and accusations of the agents engaging in ‘unlawful tactics.’ The deployment of these federal agents into Portland and other cities is an extremely unnecessary show of force. The federal government labeled the protection of government property and the discouragement of unrest as the excuse for the presence of the agents. This excuse angered local authorities, with the governor of Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown, declaring the influx of federal agents a “blatant abuse of power.”

A few weeks before George Floyd’s death, in late April 2020, protestors gathered outside of Michigan’s state capital chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!” The protestors, many of them armed and carrying semiautomatic rifles, forcibly attempted to enter the Michigan capitol building. They were protesting the new state lockdown and restrictions that were put in place by Michigan’s governor in response to an increase of Covid-19 cases within the state. The protestors were tightly packed and very few were wearing masks. Some protestors shouted anti-government slogans and some compared Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to Hitler. One protest sign threatened to hang state officials and read, “Tyrants get the rope.” The horde of protestors was blocked only by state police and a few capitol staff members. Some of the protestors managed to get into the gallery above the main legislative floor and stood menacingly above lawmakers, waving semiautomatic rifles and shouting down at the lawmakers below. It became so bad that the few lawmakers who did own bullet proof vests began wearing them. Other similar protests occurred within Michigan and the sentiment was carried across the country.

 

lockdown protest
Lockdown Protestors. Source: Michael Swan. Creative Commons.

President Trump’s response to these increasingly intimidating and violent protests? He encouraged them. In a series of tweets in mid-April, the president called on citizens to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA…” At this time, the pressure to reopen the economy was extremely high and President Trump seceded any leadership during the pandemic to the state governors, while criticizing the ones who quickly invoked strict lockdown procedures and mask ordinances. He encouraged protestors and stoked an angry fire among his conservative supporters.

Within the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several articles protect the right to protest. Article 7 declares equal protection under the law without any discrimination. Article 20 protects the freedom of peaceful assembly. Article 19 protects the freedom of expression. These are declared as universal human rights and the constitution of the United States echoes this important sentiment. Included within the First Amendment is the freedom of protest, or more specifically “the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances…” Protesting has long been an acceptable way to make grievances known in the United States. So why were President Trump’s responses to these two protests so drastically different?

An argument has been made that the Black Lives Matter protests are so violent that they require a similar level of violence to be contained. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) took information from over 7,750 Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations across the United States. The organization found fewer than 220 of these protests violent. This means that more than 93% of Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. The definition of violence, as determined by ACLED, includes fighting against police, vandalism, property destruction, looting, blocking roads, and burning of items. They also included the toppling and destruction of Confederate and slave owner statues. Despite this evidence, many people still believe the Black Lives Matter protests to be largely violent. A poll resulted in 42% of respondents stating that they believe the majority of Black Lives Matter protestors to be oriented towards violence. ACLED believes that this misconception is perpetuated by biased and disproportionate media coverage of the protests and demonstrations.

blm protest
“I Can’t Breathe.” Source: Taymaz Valley. Creative Commons.

Many studies have shown that police and federal agents have disproportionately interfered in the Black Lives Matter protests as opposed to other protests, like the mask ordinance protest in Michigan. President Trump’s actions have showcased a true bias against Black Lives Matter protestors as he actively works to impede upon their right to protest. It can very simply come down to the racism President Trump uses to dictate many of his actions and that his supporters continue to encourage. America was never a great nation to many groups of people and the presidency of Donald Trump has pushed the United States even further from greatness.

The Rising Trend of Nationalism and Its Implications on Human Rights

american flag
American Flag. Ken Jones. Source: Creative Commons.

During the 2016 election, I was 17 years old, meaning that I was too young to vote and just old enough to be very frustrated by this barrier. Now, for the 2020 election, I am excited to cast my vote in my first presidential election and have thrown myself into learning as much as I can about domestic and international politics. Through this process, I have begun to recognize political trends and waves. Idealism has shifted and flowed along the political spectrum throughout history. Recently, many countries across the world have taken a conservative shift in their political maneuvers and with their elected officials. What makes this shift slightly different is the large rise of nationalism across many countries.

What is Nationalism?

For a definition, people with nationalist leanings dislike the rise of globalization in social structures and political institutions. There is a rather large emphasis on putting national interests and needs before global ones, hence the name “nationalism.” Nationalism is understood to be focused on the ‘cultural unit of the nation.’ However, for a significant portion of history, one’s political leanings were not reliant on national boundaries. This changed in Europe after the Protestant Reformation. The state became more reliant on the people who resided within the nation instead of outside forces like the Catholic Church. Soon, nationalism and self-determination became integral parts of the view of democracy.

 

love china
Love China. Christopher Cherry. Source: Creative Commons.

Nationalism is the strong support of a country, akin to patriotism. Self-determining nationalism refers to a desire for a state rooted in a self-identity. This is the basis of white nationalism, the desire for a white state. Some people may believe that nationalism is rooted in the American story and that without it the Constitution might not even exist. However, realistically, racism and racists in general feel represented and validated by Donald Trump’s form of nationalism. The campaign of “America First” and “Make America Great Again” are set in a very distinctively nationalist direction. The primary issue with this stance is that Donald Trump’s definition of “American” excludes quite a few groups of people who live in the United States. This is called ethnonationalism. A few examples of the ethnonationalist tactics employed by Donald Trump and his party include the creation and fascination with the border wall between the United States and Mexico, the Muslim ban, and the active separation of families along the Mexican border, among many others. Similarly, a rise in white nationalism has occurred, encouraged by the Donald Trump base.

Nationalism Throughout History

During the Industrial Revolution, it became apparent that aspects of a shared identity, such as shared literacy in a single language, would be important to a nation’s success. Thus, the assimilation of groups outside of the collective norm of the country became perceived as a top priority. This assimilation happened through civic institutions but also through ethnic cleansing, war, and other violent methods in order to completely wipe out any cultures or traditions considered to be “different” from the nation’s own. In the 1900s, there was a separation created between the ideas of ‘liberal capitalism’ and ‘nationalist democracy.’ This history lesson is to depict the ebbs and flows of nationalism throughout history. It is not uncommon to witness a resurgence of nationalism; however it is important to understand the negative consequences in order to navigate the resurgence in the most effective way for all groups.

Benefits and Dangers of Nationalism

Nationalism can be utilized for development. Throughout history, nationalism can be attributed to a rise in the buying and selling of domestic products, recruitment in the military, and general patriotism. The idea of a shared identity connected to a country is a motivator among citizens. In Korea and Taiwan officials were able to implement the Japanese inspired top-down nationalist model that greatly encouraged growth. However, nationalism can also encourage exclusion and competition. In Europe, imperialism and colonization were often justified by nationalism. These were two techniques employed by western countries to overtake and completely control countries in Africa and in the Asia, the extremely negative consequences of which are still being seen today. During World War II, Adolf Hitler employed nationalist techniques in order to secure his base and rationalize his tactics as in the best interest for Germany. Nationalist sentiment, seen as establishing one group to be the rightful citizens of a country, is dangerous in an increasingly globalized world.

vox sign
Pro Vox sign. Vox España. Source: Creative Commons.

Nationalism Across the Globe 

After 2016, there was a large rise in nationalist sentiment across the world. Perhaps the most popular stage for this phenomenon was the United States with the election of Donald Trump, who ran on a nationalist platform with the slogan, “America First.” In Germany, the nationalist AfD party has become a major opposition party, and in Spain right-wing Vox has become prominent within the Spanish Parliament. Similarly, nationalist leaders have ascended onto the political stage in China, the Philippines, and Turkey. Nations are no longer made up of a single ethnic, religious, or language group. This increase in exclusionary nationalism that we are seeing could prove to be potentially very dangerous for the groups considered to be “outsiders.” It is important to understand the many different facets of nationalism in order to protect against the negative consequences it brings as these political leaders rise in popularity.

The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election Event Recap

Photo of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in front of American flag
Trump vs. Clinton. Source: Galya Gubchenko. Creative Commons.

On Thursday, November 9, one year after the 2016 presidential election, the UAB Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored the event, “The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election,” at the Edge of Chaos located in UAB’s Lister Hill Library. Other sponsors of the event were UAB’s Department of Government and the Edge of Chaos.

The event featured special guest, Dr. Rachel Bitecofer, the Assistant Director of the Wason Center for Public Policy, a professor at Christopher Newport University, and an academic pollster. The event was on her new book, which has the same title: The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election.

Large amounts of data are presented in Bitecofer’s book. She states it “brings an empirical, political science approach that answers the question of why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, and it focuses on the strategical elements that campaigns are going through because the public is not really aware of what they see in campaign politics.”

 

Dr. Rachel Bitecofer standing in the Edge of Chaos at UAB
Dr. Rachel Bitecofer kicking off her lecture. Source: Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter

Bitecofer began by announcing that her approach to looking at the election results is holistic and systematic, and argues that the entire campaign was framed by an electoral strategy, meaning that there were two problems the candidates faced: reaching out to moderates and independents to vote one way rather than the other and then to get the partisan voters to show up. “If they show up, they’re a guaranteed voted,” Bitecofer said, “but that is a big if.”

The lecture was broken down into chapters. The first was titled: “Pitchforks and Torches.” This was when Bitecofer “put the 2016 election into context,” and looked at the patterns that put Donald Trump in the White House. She examined patriarchal behaviors that were prevalent in the 1950s and 60s that still persist today. She examined the effect of the media’s influence and how the US entered an era of polarization; the media has opened “partisan vacuums,” which are areas where it is possible to only get news from a partisan source like Breitbart or HuffPost.

In the next chapter of the lecture, “Making of the Media Event,” Bitecofer showed how Trump dominated the media until snagging the GOP nomination. Bitecofer’s research was presented with graphs that showed how Trump’s popularity in the news peaked when he did things like “picking a fight with the Pope on Twitter,” or “saying he wanted to ban all Muslims from the country.” Bitecofer then showed that even while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were battling it out for the Democrat Nomination, the news continued to focus more on Donald Trump. She said that this came from Donald Trump’s knowledge of “how to capitalize on both his celebrity and the media’s thirst for scandal.” The Trump campaign ran a base-centered campaign. They appealed to the base voters, a voter who votes for the party rather than the candidate, rather than the establishment.

Bitecofer debunked the myth that “if the Clinton campaign had done ‘x, y, or z’ they would have been more successful,” by saying that, using the metrics one usually does to measure campaign success, they ran an almost perfect campaign. The Clinton campaigned out-fundraised the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaigned got the SuperPACs, which is unusual for a Democrat’s campaign. Despite the almost perfect campaign, there were mistakes. The Clinton campaign made the mistake of hiding the fact that Hillary had pneumonia, and during the debate when she was sick, she made the claim about “deplorables.” Bitecofer said this was a mistake as Clinton has always had so much control over her emotions and demeanor that this came as a shock to many people because “she let that control down.”

Continuing the observation of the media, Bitecofer presented the evidence of news sources’ endorsements of Hillary Clinton. All but two major news sources endorsed Clinton, which was unlike any election in history. Usually, according to Bitecofer, there are sources that only endorse Democrats, and some that only endorse Republicans. Some who never endorsed a Democrat before endorsed Clinton. Not only was this strange but, “not even sitting Republicans endorsed Donald Trump until after the Iowa caucus. No one in the party wanted him,” Bitecofer asserted.

Third-party voting, referred to as “defecting” in presidential elections, was a large issue in this election; defection rates were higher than any in modern history – higher than the 2000 elections. “In Wisconsin, for example, a state that Clinton lost by 1%, the defection rate for third party candidates is normally about 1.5%. [It was] 6.32% in 2016,” Bitecofer found. “The problem is that all of the defectors who wrote in Bernie Sanders’ name or voted for Jill Stein because they just could not bear to vote for Hillary Clinton, cost her the election. I am not saying it is their fault, but I am saying that the campaign that they ran did nothing to prevent it.” She also found that defection only mattered in Hillary versus Bernie. There was almost no defection from Republicans to a third-party candidate. “Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.”

Bitecofer then told of an experiment that she conducted. She went to the adamant Bernie supporters and asked, “What if instead of Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton brought on Elizabeth Warren as her Vice President candidate? Would you have voted for her then?” This tactic suggested Hillary empowered the more progressive Democrats and attempted to bring in those who were in the #BernieorBust movement. About half of them said it would have made them more likely to vote for Clinton. From this experiment, Bitecofer concluded that had the Clinton campaign ran a base-focused campaign like the Republicans had, “we would likely have the first female president sitting in office now.”

Ultimately, it was concluded that “Clinton ran the perfect strategy for the wrong electoral campaign in an extremely polarized era. In such an era, it is all about firing up your base; you better give them candidates that get them ‘up’!”

The UAB Institute for Human Rights is proud to have such knowledgeable lecturers for our events and programs. For a list of our upcoming events, please visit our events page.

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 2: Costs to the American Transgender Community

A bathroom sign titled "All Gender"
Asheville’s response to NC Bathroom Bill. Source: Bradley Griffin, Creative Commons.

On July 26th, 2017 President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

The Real Cost to Transgender Americans

Transgender individuals, many of whom already face daily harassment and discrimination for their gender identity, have been shown to actively avoid situations where hostile confrontations may arise.  In 2016, after a political storm erupted out of North Carolina and the then-governor Pat McCrory’s “Bathroom Bill”, a landmark study on the lives of 27,715 transgender persons documented several startling changes that occurred in the lives of transgender persons.  These include:

  • 59% of transgender persons avoiding bathrooms for feared confrontations
  • 12% report being harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted
  • 31% avoiding eating or drinking to avoid needing to use public restrooms
  • 8% contracting a kidney or urinary tract infection as a potential consequence for avoiding the use of public restrooms

Similar studies also document the prolonged and repeated stress endured by transgender individuals, when using public restrooms, after the “Bathroom Bill” was proposed.  Situations in which their minority status is negatively highlighted or emphasized, such as the use of public restrooms, are loaded events for transgender individuals. Until recently, the link between a culture of antagonism towards issues related to transgender individuals and the subjective experiences of these individuals themselves has been suspected but unsupported. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology examined the gravest mental health crisis experienced by transgender persons: suicide.

Transgender individuals, as compared to the general public, are 14 times more likely to think about committing suicide and 22 times more likely to attempt suicide.  This horrifying trend holds in countries outside of the United States, and these rates may even be higher in transgender adolescents.  With this new data and analysis, the role of culture, across 2 different theoretical models, was shown to significantly impact the rate of suicide ideation in transgender individuals.  Suicide ideation was significantly predicted by factors such as victimization (specific attacks on an individual for their status as transgender), rejection (social reluctance to engage with transgender individuals), and non-affirmation (the active reminding of a transgender individual their gender identity is not accepted or validated).  To restate the findings, transgender individuals were more likely to seriously contemplate suicide, or wantonly envision a future in which they are not alive, if surrounded by a culture characterized by isolation, discrimination, and outright antagonism.  An important caveat remains: researchers will never be able to interview transgender individuals who have completed the act of suicide.  The ‘edge point’, or the final motive impelling a transgender individual to successfully end their own life, can be hinted at but will never be known with absolute certainty.  However, combining previous research on the statistical likelihood of suicide and suicidal ideation in transgender individuals, coupled with the recently supported theory that culture is a major implicator in the suicide risk of transgender individuals, presents the concerned public with startling information.  For these victimized individuals, a culture of transphobia can exacerbate a predisposition for suicide, potentially resulting in a public health crisis with deadly results.

a spray painted sign of Trans Lives Matter
Source: Dimitra Linardou, Creative Commons

Culture, according to Riane Eisler, is in constant flux.  People choose both their internal response to the forces of culture around them and their externally exertion of control over culture in future interactions with others.  According to Eisler’s Cultural Transformation Theory, a culture of transphobia (the ignorance, fear, or outright hatred of transgender individuals) can change to a culture of empathy, partnership, and mutual understanding.  Likewise, a culture of tentative acceptance can be quickly reversed to one of arbitrary discrimination and empowered domination.  One way a pro-social Eislierian cultural transformation for transgender persons can occur is through the creation, maintenance, and protection of human rights for transgender individuals (Eisler, 1988).  In the United States, transgender rights have a high degree on variance, mostly along state or jurisdiction lines (a graph displaying specific issues related to transgender rights in the US can be found here).  The scant federal rulings on the rights of transgender persons have involved only a few aspects of life for transgender persons, including discrimination in the workplace, marriage equality, and conversion therapy.  The rights of trans persons are still in flux, and the Trump Administration may indeed roll back these protections as their time in governance continues.  Rollbacks of trans rights might, as is supported by Testa et al.’s and the National Center for Transgender Equality’s research, create a public health crisis for transgender persons.  Creating a culture accepting of and empathic to the needs of transgender persons must include comprehensive human rights legislation protecting this vulnerable group without fear of retraction from a hostile administration, such as the Trump administration.

President Trump, under the guise of “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, attempted to used his public platform to instill a culture of blatant disregard for the patriotism, self-sacrifice, and protection of freedom offered by transgender persons who volunteered, volunteer, and may yet volunteer to serve in the United States Armed Forces.  The costs he associated with transgender persons serving in the military are non-issues, and a sober analysis of his proposed logic illuminates a stunning disconnect from the actual militaristic consequences of allowing transgender persons to serve in the US Armed Forces.  The literature, including both personal and academic accounts, reveals a population within America severely prone to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts in the aftermath of public controversies regarding a fundamental part of their very identity.  The oppression of the transgender community has been shown to have far-reaching and oftentimes permanent consequences for trans persons- such as suicide.  The cost to the trans community from attacks such as these far outweigh the illusory costs to the Trump Administration in allowing trans persons to live a life unencumbered by blatant discrimination.

 

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or self-harm, here are resources to contact:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (press 1 if you are a US military veteran in crisis): 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project (youth service): 1-866-488-7386

GLBT National Help Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

 

Call 911 if you believe there is an immediate threat to your and / or someone else’s physical safety and wellbeing.

 

References

Eisler, R. (1988).  The Chalice and the Blade.  San Fransico: Harper.

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 1: Costs to President Trump

President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following on July 26, 2017:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

President Trump shrugs at a political rally
Source: Curt Johnson, Creative Commons

A History of Inclusion

The service of members of the LGBTQIA community in the US military has remained a highly contentious and passionately-fought issue on all sides of the political (and gender) spectrum.  The battle for inclusion in the American Armed Forces first involved inclusion along ethnic lines, then involving lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, and more recently the rights of transgender persons to openly serve.

On July 26th, 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed into effect Executive Order 9981: Establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.  The order essentially desegregated the United States Armed Forces, stating “… there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin”.  President Trump’s tweet banning the service of transgender American soldiers comes on the 69th anniversary of President Truman’s executive order.  This Executive Order jumpstarted the battle for inclusion in the American Armed Forces, first included ethnic lines, then sexual orientation, and finally gender identity.

President Bill Clinton, in October of 1993, executed a new law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, and Don’t Harass”, though it’s commonly referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT).  DADT reversed the long-standing statutory ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving in the United States military. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals had long served in the US military with their sexuality largely kept secret.  DADT was first met by suspicion and hostility from many politicians and military personnel alike, citing fears of ‘undermining morale’ if gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were permitted to serve in any capacity.  Again, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals had long served the US military, but not to the explicit knowledge of their commanding officers or fellow servicemen and servicewomen.

President Barack Obama, in December of 2010, after both the House of Representatives and US Senate successfully voted to repeal the practice, signed into law a full reversal on DADT. The practice of forbidding gay, lesbian, and bisexual service-members to be ‘out’ about their sexuality and serve in the US military was effectively over.

Throughout the battles fought for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to openly serve in the military, transgender individuals were explicitly told they must ‘pass’ as their biological sex if they wished to serve in the US military.  Transgender persons have myriad ways of expressing their sexual orientation, including: dressing in accordance with their gender identification, changing their name, hormone treatment, and medical procedures that alter their body to conform with their gender identity.  So far as the military was concerned, transgender individuals could be threatened with discharge for an enlistment violation if they did not ‘pass’ as their sex assigned at birth.  That is, until June of 2016, when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted the ban on transgender individuals from openly serving.  In his public statement on the reversal, Carter explains:

“Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission.  We have to have access to 100% of America’s population for our all-volunteer force to be able to recruit from among them the most highly qualified – and to retain them.”

Taking our lead from Carter, Obama, Clinton, and Truman, a question remains if military service is a civil right, civil liberty, or both.  The distinction between these terms can be found here.  Under current US federal law and military policy, American citizens over the age of 18 of sound body and mind can volunteer to serve in the US Armed Forces.  As it relates to transgender persons, the civil right to serve in the military without discrimination and the civil liberty to openly serve have been supported by legal precedents.  If President Trump’s blanket ban is codified in policy, any resulting legal action will clarify how civil rights and liberties are applied in the case of transgender Americans wishing to serve.

Trump’s Argument

President Trump’s transgender military ban was conveyed to the public via tweet, and tweets are not legally binding nor are they official US policy (though they have been ruled legal stream of consciousness).  The day after Trump tweeted on the issue, the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford stated the Department of Defense was not changing policy on the President’s tweets alone- an official policy directive must be issued.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, update the media on the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 19, 2017. Source: Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Creative Commons

The President’s tweets may indeed be a precursor to an executive order (such as the case with President Truman and military desegregation), a bill-turned-law (Presidents Clinton and Obama with the creation and repeal of DADT), a policy change (Secretary Carter and the service of openly transgender soldiers), some other legally binding option, or it may remain what it is today: a tweet.  The likelihood of the president issuing a policy directive is arguably uncertain.  However, based on the information the American public has on President Trump’s proposed transgender military ban, we can make an educated analysis of his arguments for a ban.  A thorough and exhaustive examination of his full public statement (341 characters, not including spaces) reveals two justifications the president offers for his transgender military ban: “tremendous medical costs” and “disruption that transgender in the military would entail”.

In 2016, the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank offering research and analysis in operational strategy related to the US Armed Forces, published a report titled Assessing the Implications of Allowing Transgender Personnel to Serve Openly; the full text can be read here.  This report, commissioned in response to growing questions about the reality of allowing transgender individuals to openly serve in the military, assessed: 1) the health care needs of transgender individuals, 2) the population size of transgender individuals in the US military, 3) the likelihood & potential costs of gender-related healthcare services to the US military, and 4) the ‘potential readiness’ of the US military to allow transgender individuals to openly serve.  This report helped inform Secretary Carter’s decision to allow transgender individuals to openly serve.  This widely-respected and cited report directly addresses both of President Trump’s justifications for banning military service of transgender individuals: medical costs and “disruptions” to unit cohesion.

The medical cost President Trump is likely alluding to is the extension of healthcare coverage to transgender individuals in the US Armed Forces to cover gender-transition related treatment.  As previously stated, this includes procedures such as hormone treatment, surgeries such as hair removal or breast implantation, and gender reassignment surgery.  Given the ongoing and bitterly contentious debate in the US Congress on Obamacare repeal / reform, President’s Trump’s focus on costs accrued from health does make sense, given the current political climate.  Politicking aside, the RAND Corporation did indeed find an increase in costs to the military in extending healthcare to include gender-transition related treatments.  Using cost estimates based off public employers, private employers, and treatments likely to occur in transgender persons in the military, allowing the health extension would cost the military between $2.4million and $8.4million per year (by comparison, the US military spends $84million / year in treatment for erectile dysfunction for US servicemen- 10x the amount of gender-transition related treatment). The US military currently spends $6.2billion per year in healthcare-related costs.  Therefore, allowing transgender soldiers to have access to gender-transition related treatment would see a 0.13% or 0.0013 yearly increase in the US Armed Forces healthcare budget.  These specific estimates can be found between pages 33-37 of the RAND Report.  To put this in further perspective, one of President Trump’s foundational arguments against the military service of transgender individuals is an unwillingness to spend a potential $2.4m-$8.4m / year, for individuals committed to protecting the United States from enemies foreign and domestic, in healthcare procedures that are entirely optional and may or may not be utilized.  For the president, these “medical costs” are simply too high.

Protesters hold a sign in front of the White House stating "Trans people are not a distraction"
2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA. Source: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

President Trump’s second and final argument against the military service of transgender individuals is the “disruption” they present to their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  This very argument has been used before, most notably in the follow-up to President Obama’s repeal of DADT.  Critics of the repeal feared if other members in the unit found out an individual was lesbian, gay, or bisexual, this would inhibit unit bonding, and therefore negatively impact unit cohesion and situational readiness.  This argument has long been dismantled, and data indicate this trend holds for transgender individuals serving in the military as well.  In fact, individuals with negative attitudes towards transgender individuals are more likely to change those attitudes towards a positive outlook, given more interactions with a transgender person.  This specific instance of Mere Exposure Effect (or as social psychologists would say, “Familiarity Principle”) has been found in militaries across the world, including in the US.  The RAND Report summarizes these studies (pages 39-47), stating the presence of one or more transgender individual in a military unit has no significant impact on cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness.  “[D]isruption that transgender in the military would entail”, cited by President Trump as a reason for the transgender military ban, is simply not supported by the evidence.

Reaction to President Trump’s tweet was mostly surprise. While conservative circles welcomed the move, news outlets, advocacy groups, members of the US Armed Forces and private citizens have all expressed their ire, frustration, and disbelief at the transgender military ban.  What is more disturbing than this sudden announcement are the potential effects of President Trump’s statement on the lives of transgendered Americans.  It serves as an illustration of discrimination and oppression of transgender people in general.  This attack and other attacks like it, while disguised in seemingly innocuous rationale such as “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, do real and tangible damage to transgender persons. Reaching equality for transgender persons has just become more difficult.