On 26 July, 2017, President Trump tweeted his plan to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military. Besides the “tremendous medical costs” that he cited (which is actually less than a thousandth of 1% of the Defense Department’s annual budget), Trump referenced the idea of “disruption.”
When I read the tweet, a thought crossed my mind: What exactly is being disrupted?
In short, the “natural” sex-gender order —where “what you have” is “what you are.” This is a conflation of “sex” and “gender.” Sex is considered “what you have”— genetic makeup, hormones, reproductive sex organs, membership in one of two biological categories. Gender, however, is socially constructed, certain characteristics perceived as associated with biological categories of male and female. These are known as masculinity and femininity, and often referred to as traditional gender roles. In other words, a binary biology determines your personality, your ability to excel in certain careers, even your salary. It determines who you will fall in love with: traditional gender roles predetermine a sexual default—heterosexuality. The privileging of this sexuality and its acceptance as given is called heteronormativity.
The sex/gender order is the foundation of what is known as the “patriarchy,” or patriarchal society. This societal system produces Insiders and Outsiders based on their conformity to this order; anyone who does not conform is considered weird, deviant, even dangerous. Examples include people who are trans or gender fluid (not identifying as male or female), or even “cis-gender” people (who identify with the sex they were born with) not acting “appropriately” feminine or masculine, like men who cry openly, or assertive women who are derided as “bitchy” or “bossy.” Race and class also play a role in determining Insiders and Outsiders. Any Outsider is perceived as a threat to society. Trump’s tweet is a response to this perceived threat, his action an example of the defense of the sex-gender order.
To minimize perceived “disruption,” public spaces are policed as non-trans zones (see trans “bathroom laws”). A 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality study in the US found that 46% of the 27,715 respondents were verbally harassed in the last year. As of 2015, trans people in 34 European countries could not change their name or registered gender without compulsory genital reassignment surgery, divorce, or until very recently, sterilization. The requirements are telling. Compulsory genital reassignment surgery removes any sense of grey zone between the binary—you are either male or female, and the parts must match the gender. Divorce and sterilization keep trans people from having families and children, maintaining its heteronormative and cis-gendered form.
The sex-gender order is considered natural, but, as these examples and the infamous tweet show, is in fact an elaborate social construction that requires constant surveillance to maintain it. Individuals who fall outside this order are shunned and disciplined—by state control, by biopolitical regulation of trans bodies and minds, and by rejection from public spaces and state institutions. These mechanisms of repression are incredibly dangerous because they all build to warrant the final stage of threat removal—fatal violence.
The concept of trans-as-threat has been used as a legal defense of violent crime—even murder of trans individuals. The basis of the legal argument is that murder was justifiable (even provoked) because of the victim’s lack of normative gender-genital agreement. This is called the “trans panic” defense, and follows closely a long history of the “gay panic” defense, first utilized in 1965. A “trans panic” defense was used in 2004-5 in California by three defendants who had murdered trans woman Gwen Araujo. The lawyer for one of the defendants argued that they were “only” guilty of manslaughter on the basis of this “trans panic,” that the “discovery of [the victim’s] ‘true sex’ had provoked the violent response to what was represented as a sexual violation ‘so deep it’s almost primal’” (Bettcher 2007:44). This defense attempts to naturalize violence against threat, to propose that it came from a “biological,” “primal,” “normal” response to what is considered deviancy. And the jury was persuaded: three defendants were found guilty of lesser charges, and the murder was not deemed a hate crime.
Race also plays an important role in how threat is perceived. Trans people of color are especially targeted as racism, misogyny, and transphobia all intersect. In 2016, 27 trans people were murdered, one of the deadliest years on record, and most of them were women of color. The long history of institutionalized prejudice against people of color (including formal and informal segregation within the US military), with its innumerable injustices and violence, persists because the Western patriarchal order equates the “Insider” with “White.” People of color in America, along with people who live outside of the confines of the sex-gender order, are considered Outsiders. This Inside/Outside divide perpetuates and reinforces the idea of threat.
And as we have seen, this idea plays politically. Recent findings have shown that Trump’s base is motivated by perceived threat: racial resentment and fear of a “status shift” of their ethno-national majority. Trump’s racist, xenophobic, and now anti-trans language reinforces the Inside/Outside, the “Us” and “Them,” and the base responds positively to it. The trans ban is just another brick for his wall, a way to bolster the racial and gendered hierarchical order. Clearly, it is part of the 2018 midterm election strategy, as a Trump administration official stated.
Ultimately, policies like this resonate because of the ways our patriarchal culture privileges traditional gender roles and heterosexuality, because of the ways that threat is constructed and “resolved.” What is important to realize is the big picture: these policies and the attitudes they reflect will continue to persist, beyond this presidency, unless we move past these norms.
Featured image credit: Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington, DC USA by Ted Eytan. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.