There You Go Again: Trans Enlistment and the Cycle of Inequality


Today, the world was brutally reminded of the inequality that continues to ravage the transgender community when the President announced a plan to ban transgender individuals from enlisting with the United States military. The policy is a reversal of President Obama’s elimination of the ban on transgender troops. Responses ranged from outrage to ho-hum nonchalance. I will leave the legal analysis of the policy to more qualified individuals.

Instead, it seems important to discuss the fact that none of this is new. The concept of a cycle of inequality has been around for quite some time. Anyone who is a member of a disparaged demographic knows that discrimination tends to follow a similar pattern. This is not, of course, to say that everyone’s suffering is equal. There are clearly perceptible differences between, for example, women’s liberation and the civil rights movement. However, the arguments used to deny oppressed communities of their rights start to sound awfully familiar after a while. Within the few decades alone, we have seen substantial movements among three communities just for the fight for the freedom of their fellow citizens. These movements have involved women, gay and lesbian individuals, and transgender individuals.

How did those bigoted arguments sound? Did they all use words like “expense”, “cohesion”, and “burden”? Did they all attempt to instill fear in the heart of every American, forged by the idea that the military somehow might not be able to function effectively with this change? The answer to all of those questions is, of course, a resounding “yes”. Yet every time an issue like this presents itself, people seem to have trouble remembering that we have been down this road before. We have stirred the same proverbial soup with a different proverbial spoon.

So why do we do it? Certainly, complicated psychological phenomena are at play. Cognitive dissonance has been widely studied, and there exists a veritable mountain of literature on the topic. I am sure that I am wholly unqualified to comment on the scientific aspects of this cycle of discrimination. However, having heard entire groups of people argue against gays and lesbians serving in the military, it seems as though most of them have one belief in common: They’re convinced that they’re right this time.

Most people can acknowledge that it was wrong for the military to ban women and segregate by race. As time goes on, more and more people are admitting that the ban on openly gay individuals serving in the military was also a horrible idea. But many of those same people will likely be quick to defend the idea that transgender individuals should not be allowed in the military. The cycle of inequality is starting to move on to the next demographic.

It turns out that bigotry is a lot like predicting the end of the world. You can run the numbers all you want, and others will keep proving you wrong. But you can admit that your previous guess was wrong while still holding fast to the belief that your current prediction is ironclad. That’s how discrimination propagates itself. At one point, no one wanted black people to have any rights. Then several hard-fought battles were won in order to free blacks, allow them to vote, allow them to marry white people, and so on and so forth. The fight for equal rights for black people persists to this day.

But most people have moved on. The cycle never fully completes itself before moving on to its next victim. It’s closer to a trick metal hoop with a small piece cut out to allow another hoop to intertwine with it. The vast majority of people do not espouse the horrid philosophies concerning black people that were all too commonplace less than 160 years ago. This is something that should be celebrated. But the cycle seems to be a force innate to whole societies. We didn’t give up on discriminating against groups of people. We just moved on to a new group.

Movements passed and rights issued to those who should have never had to fight for them in the first place. Recently, we’ve seen substantial progress in the area of gay and lesbian rights. But the cycle made sure that the transgender community was in the on-deck circle. The most shocking part of all this is not that the trans community has become the next victim, but that people can see two similar struggles happen so close to each other, and fail to connect the dots. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been dead for less than 6 years, yet opponents of transgender military service can’t see the parallels. Or worse, perhaps they see the parallels, but fervently believe that this is different. It’s likely a mixture of the two.

Inquiring minds wonder exactly how we can stop this. Can we put an end to the cycle? I believe that the best way to destroy this seemingly addictive way of thinking is to make people aware of its existence. People don’t like to think they’re wrong, so screaming and fighting likely solves nothing. But they will be more likely to respond if they can see the connection between one type of bigotry and others like it. So let’s keep talking. Dinner table conversations can often do more work than protests and marches. Maybe then we’ll be able to see that there is truly nothing new under the sun.