In the wake of Donald Trump’s sudden ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, much of the attention has focused on the political backlash against the decision. Much of the liberal media is in consensus that this is a politically driven decision designed to deflect attention from the ongoing Russia investigation and the fallout from Trump’s continuing criticism of his Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But that’s not the entire story: Trump’s anti-LGBT rhetoric is so effective because of deep-seated ignorance within the American population (particularly when it comes to transgender people), that LGBT advocates have thus far done a poor job in combating.
On Twitter, one of the main hashtags that people were mobilizing around against the ban was #TransRightsAreHumanRights. Many of the people involved in the discussion were mocking and cajoling Trump and his supporters, and laying out their own arguments why Trump’s ban was unfair on transgender people.
The problem with this approach is that many of the people who oppose transgender people in the military and transgender people using the appropriate bathrooms and such like are ignorant about transgender people. And if you want to get through to people who are ignorant about people who are different to themselves, appeals to “fairness” very rarely work.
Instead, we need to start with the premise that the only reason Trump has been able to ban transgender people in the military is that there are at least some people who will be supportive of the ban, and many others who think it’s “no big deal” if transgender people cannot serve. Some of those people may even be self-described “liberals.” It’s asking a lot for those people to change their opinions overnight. Some people are, for instance, very concerned about having their bodies seen by others, a reaction that they then project onto other people. It isn’t productive, fair, or right to call these people bigots.
In the days of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, senior military officials and conservative commentators argued that young people from middle America would be made uncomfortable by sharing quarters with gay people. Because privacy and trust are of paramount importance in the military, it was necessary to keep gay people out the way for the importance of group cohesion. “See, not homophobic, just practical!”
Now we, lucky us, know how this story ends. It turns out the fears about gay people in the military were massively overblown, and actual military personnel were completely comfortable with their colleagues being gay. The thing that was actually needed was for senior people in the military saying that if you were prepared to lay down your life for your country and make the ultimate sacrifice, it didn’t really matter what your sexuality was. Instead, they demurred.
We also know that banning transgender people from the military solves none of the problems it purports to solve. Although the people who came out as transgender in the military under Obama face an uncertain future, it won’t stop transgender people applying to join the military. Trans people will still exist in the military. They will just conceal who they are.
As a direct result of Trump’s policy, the military will be losing out on talented service people. Over the 17 year course of DADT, two gay service members were kicked out of the military on average every day. These included specialists in Arabic translation, people who spoke many languages, and experts in counter-terrorism. Among the trans population in the military, there are some similarly brilliant people.
Nor would allowing transgender people to serve openly have any impact at all on military readiness. A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation found that 18 other countries, include Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom, allow transgender people to serve openly in the military with “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness.” There simply aren’t that many trans people in the military to make a difference. Based on RAND’s estimates, trans troops make up around 2,450 of the 1.3 million active-component service members — a fraction of a percent of the US military.
For the same reason, the cost of trans people serving in the military seeking gender-assignment treatment is negligible. The RAND study found that: “Using private health insurance claims data to estimate the cost of extending gender transition–related health care coverage to transgender personnel indicated that active-component health care costs would increase by between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually, representing a 0.04- to 0.13-percent increase in active-component health care expenditures.”
There is, make no mistake, though, a battle for hearts and minds to be won across America. And it won’t be won by mocking Trump, or calling Trump supporters bigoted. Research by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, published last year, found that “simply encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months.” When their team of canvassers discussed perceptions of trans people with voters around Miami, they were able to generate more positive perceptions of trans people — and they stuck.
But liberals need to get outside the bubble and have the conversation. Trump is counting on the fact that liberal voters will just howl at the moon on Twitter. All this will do is reinforce the perception that many conservative voters have of liberals. Liberals need to reach out to people in Middle America and make the argument. Don’t know any people in Middle America? That’s part of the problem.
Study after study shows that when diversity and tolerance wins, everyone wins. Civil rights scholar Taylor Branch’s epic study of the civil rights movement found that “the civil rights movement liberated segregationists themselves.” Racial terrorism dropped and integration led to business growth and a decline in poverty. Mass enfranchisement led to the revival of a genuine two-party political system in the South. Meritocracy triumphed over the politics of arbitrary exclusion.
But things will only change if liberals can overcome the lack of familiarity and empathy conservatives have for sexual minorities. The conversations may be awkward, and involve some people confronting hard truths about themselves, but the pay off is worth it for all of us. The real question is: Liberals, are you prepared to have the conversation?