Aaron Myracle was brought up in a military family, so enlisting in the Army National Guard in 2002 as a teenager was a natural choice. Myracle eventually served for eight years, including a deployment to Baghdad during 2007's troop surge, often called the most dangerous period of the war. For those eight years, Myracle had to cover up the fact that he is transgender (trans), due to a longstanding Pentagon policy banning trans people from serving openly in the military.
On May 16, the White House said it supported a review of the trans military ban. But Myracle is not celebrating. Hiding his identity was often emotionally excruciating, he says. In spite of this, he believes the current push to end the ban is a misguided one.
Myracle, now a 30-year-old with a child, spoke to Truthout over the phone from his home in Tacoma, Washington. "As someone who cares very deeply about my fellow trans people, if what we really care about is strengthening trans people, military enlistment is not the way to go about that," he says. Since leaving the army in 2010, he's become active with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War, which, among other things, calls for reparations for the people of Iraq.
Thinking back on his first time arriving in Baghdad, Myracle says, "I really thought we were the good guys and that we were doing the right thing, and I learned on the ground that that really wasn't the case. That kind of shook my understanding of the military to the core."
Myracle says he "can't endorse anyone joining the military, knowing what I know, and having seen what I've seen - the way sexual assault is covered up and hidden, and the victims are re-victimized by the system, and disenfranchised, and oftentimes punished to such a degree that they forfeit all of their benefits - I can't endorse people being involved in that." The Department of Defense estimates there are 26,000 sexual assaults in the military each year; less than 1 percent of those ever end up in military court.
Who Sets the Trans Agenda?
Since the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy in 2011 allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly, a few mainstream gay-focused organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) have turned their sights on the trans military ban.
HRC spokesperson Allison Herwitt called current Pentagon regulations on transgender service "a de facto 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy." The ban, she said, "keeps skilled, hard-working transgender Americans from serving their country and keeping the jobs they've been trained to do . . . Our military, like employers across the United States, is best served by ensuring every qualified and talented individual can serve, without regard to gender identity."
In 2013, the campaign for trans military inclusion got a huge boost from another trans ex-service member, a retired Army lieutenant colonel named Jennifer Pritzker.
Pritzker's not the average Army vet. Forbes magazine recently declared her the world's first trans billionaire, and through the years, the Pritzker family dynasty has owned a mixed bag of cash-cow businesses including the Hyatt Hotels chain, the smokeless tobacco purveyor Conwood, and the credit reporting company TransUnion.
Over the years, Pritzker has donated thousands of dollars to Republican political campaigns in her home state of Illinois, but pushing for trans military inclusion is her current pet cause. Funders for LGBTQ Issues, a group that tracks queer-focused charities, called her 2013 donation of $1.35 million to the Palm Center (formerly the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military) the "largest transgender-focused grant" ever. With the White House's declaration that the trans military ban should be reviewed, Pritzker's money is apparently doing its job.
But like with Myracle, the number of transgender people who are pushing back is growing.
For starters, they're upset that the end-the-ban campaign is taking up so much space - and resources - in the conversation around gender self-determination.
"Trans military inclusion advocacy is becoming a visible issue right now because one wealthy donor, a pro-military billionaire with a charitable foundation dedicated to celebrating the US military, just put $1.35 million towards this advocacy," says Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a trans legal aid organization based in New York City. Mainstream media and LGBT organizations like the HRC are bowing to the money, he believes. According to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, in 2012, all trans-related charitable grants equated to just over $5 million, making Pritzker's $1.35 million a relatively large sum with the potential for a substantial ripple effect on the community.
"There is a very conservative narrative in the US that eligibility for military services means a person can be considered a full citizen," says Spade. "Some people believe that gaining inclusion in the military changes the public image of marginalized groups, and that will change how they are treated." He disagrees. "Movements for social justice want people to be considered human, deserving of housing, food, education and everything else they need, without having to be connected to possibly the most destructive and dehumanizing force on earth, the US military."
In over a decade working in trans communities, Spade says he's never heard military service raised as a key priority among trans people. Instead, "criminalization, poverty, unemployment and immigration enforcement are the priorities we hear again and again."
"Please stop killing us," adds Myracle. He insists anyone who considers themselves a trans advocate needs to address violence against trans people before anything else. "Every year, we have a Transgender Day of Remembrance, and it seems like every year the list just gets longer of names we're reading who've been murdered solely because of their gender identity. We can't exercise any rights if we've been murdered."
Adding to his frustration is the military's focus on traditional gender roles. He says that ultimately the campaign "is not a push for trans inclusion. It's a push for binary-identified trans people inclusion." Many trans people define their gender as something that doesn't fit neatly into the categories of "female" or "male"; lifting the ban would only help trans people who can box themselves into those categories.
The Wrong Direction?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is a trans activist and author who appeared on the news program Democracy Now in 2010, just as Don't Ask, Don't Tell was nearing its demise. She was on the show to debate Dan Choi, a gay Iraq veteran and the poster boy for ending the gay and lesbian military ban, about whether ending DADT would bolster US militarism. Choi, who famously handcuffed himself to the fence outside the White House to protest DADT, remarked during the debate that "...war is a force that gives us meaning. War is a force that teaches us lessons of humanity and allows us to realize something about our society."
Four years later, Sycamore still disagrees, laughing when she hears that line from Choi. Instead of arguing for an end to DADT, let's end the US military, she argued on the show.
"People wrote to me from all across the spectrum" in support, she remembers. "Especially older straight people would write to me and say, 'Oh, I've never really understood why gay people were interested.' There were people who said they'd supported gay inclusion in the military without thinking about it."
Today, Sycamore's view on the military hasn't changed. "If we were looking around the world for one primary engine for global displacement, imperialism, pillage of indigenous resources, and corporate profiteering, we need to look no further than the US military. This is a country that is currently obliterating Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, just keep counting, and looking at the longer history, of course, Southeast Asia, Central America."
When people talk about inclusion in the military as a civil rights struggle, "that's where we really see the problem with this really narrow vision of inclusion in dominant institutions of power." Put simply, she says: "You put a rainbow flag on a bomb, it's still a bomb."
Sycamore, whose recent memoir The End of San Francisco foregrounds radical queer organizing in the Bay Area of the 1990s and 2000s, says that ending the trans military ban isn't even the "step in the right direction" that it's been framed to be by the major LGBT groups and the media. "Adding anyone to the US military is the wrong direction, and there's no question in my mind about that."
Speaking about the resources lost to the military, she adds: "If we just cut the US military budget in half - just a reformist agenda - we basically could have anything we ever dreamed of, not to mention we'd be saving the lives of thousands of people around the world."
"It's A Racket"
"I'd rather fight to exclude as many people from the armed forces except for the rich white politicians, weapons manufacturers, and their children from fighting the wars they start," says Ryan Conrad, cofounder of the radical queer collective Against Equality. Through its books and at speaking events around the country, the group has called for a more critical analysis of the "inclusion" narrative that dominates mainstream LGBT politics.
Despite (or possibly as a result of) having parents who worked full time for the US Navy, Conrad has been critical of the military since he was young. "We live in a violently anti-trans, anti-gender-nonconforming society, and somehow this issue has become the top priority for creating safety for trans and gender nonconforming people?" Conrad implores people to look at "who's setting the priorities, and who's funding the campaigns."
Possibly the most visible transgender person in the world is former army private Chelsea Manning, who is now serving a 35-year sentence in a military prison for releasing classified documents via the website Wikileaks. She quoted American historian Howard Zinn in an August 2013 statement about her choice to release top-secret information:
It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time that I realized that our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we had forgotten our humanity.
We consciously elected to devalue life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability . . .
As the late Howard Zinn once said, there is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people . . .
For Aaron Myracle, the military's false promises left the deepest cut. "We're sold this idea of the military as financially a way out, that there are educational benefits. But when you actually look at the poverty rates and homelessness among veterans, it doesn't hold up," he says.
"The military doesn't really exist to protect democracy or freedom. It's extremely economically advantageous to fight wars, and I think that's ultimately the purpose of the military. It's a racket."