Last weekend, I traveled across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to join with the transgender community, their advocates, and allies, in speaking truth to power: answering President Trump’s ban on transgender troops in the military with our own passionate voices. The summary exclusion of those who wish only to defend our Republic, and to do it openly in their authentic, correct gender identity, runs counter to everything a liberal democracy should stand for. No less a personage than James Madison warned against the “tyranny of the majority”; in fact, in Federalist Papers №51, he specifically states that justice — the balance of society — is the ultimate end of all government. No justice do we find here in Trump’s onerous pronouncement that transgender Americans are unfit to wear their country’s uniform, flying as it does in the face of all evidence to the contrary. So off I went, leaving Philadelphia on a stormy Friday night, to make the rally, which was organized by OutServe-SLDN Pennsylvania, the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, TransPride Pittsburgh, and the Minority Veterans of America.
Crossing Pennsylvania is an experience in political transition; once you’re away from the gleaming spires of Center City Philly and the suburbs, you enter a new territory; it is the red-hat landscape of the people who flipped the Commonwealth from blue to red overnight three years ago. This is a place of high mountain peaks and libertarianism, the battleground where the Trump train ran Hillary Clinton over. The Pennsylvania of the farms and Amish buggies, serene pastures and babbling brooks, is part of a vast, red ocean amid which blue islands like Philadelphia and Harrisburg stick out like little atolls in the mid-Pacific. This is MAGA country, where ideas like open transgender military service are unlikely to find a welcome reception. It is, too, in a way, a microcosm of Trump’s base, of his core constituency, counting as they do that no real outcry against a vulnerable, small segment of the population will obtain. It was for that reason I made the trip to Pittsburgh.
I arrived early in the morning, when the cool air was still sharp and fresh, the sun just peeking over the Alleghenies, to join my colleagues in making a statement. I had several hours to kill before the noon rally began, so I spent them exploring this city at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. The city is a storied place, here Andrew Carnegie landed and built his empire, here the great steel mills forged a modern country. Here, too, was a different Pennsylvania, not the urbane, cosmopolitan Northeast Corridor city of the megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Washington, no; this was the slower, more conservative edge of the Midwest, with a good measure of Appalachia added in. West Virginia is nearby, and this makes the Steel City as different from Philly as New York is from Omaha. I thought it a curious place for a public transgender support rally.
I finished my urban reconnoitering, and met the host, OutServe veteran Nathan Porter, at the City-County building on Grant Street. Porter is one of the new generation of LGBTQ activists, a tall, fit, energetic young man with his eyes on the future. He carries with him the air of a man who understands the need for youth to pick up the torch when the gains us older people achieved start to get rolled back. His tour in the military (during the time of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell) tells Porter that serving with honor is something these trans troops have earned, a distinction that cannot be taken away from them on a mere whim. Other speakers and attendees soon arrived and set up transgender flags and a music stand on the apron of the building. Passing motorists occasionally honked to show support, as each speaker made their impassioned appeal on behalf of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines paradoxically fighting for the right to do battle on behalf of a country that would deny them the agency to engage the enemy.
Among these was former Navy police officer Chance Thomas, a trans service member booted out under DADT, Alli-Beth Shinberg, a trans Coast Guard veteran, and Democratic County Council candidate Bethany Hallam, the only political figure who took part in the event. All made the case for transgender service and elaborated on the plight faced by those who now find themselves out of the service. The ban, which even extends to ROTC college cadets and prospective trans enlistees, affects thousands of lives, in every corner of America. I, too, delivered my remarks, thanked the organizers, and hurried back to make the bus for my return trip home. I had a lot to think about.
Nestled in my seat as the coach rolled homeward, I imagined myself a young transgender soldier in the infantry, or a sailor on a ship far out on the ocean. Perhaps I enlisted to escape the abuse of transphobic bullies in my hometown, maybe my family kicked me out for transitioning. Whatever brought me there, I mused, I must have opted to serve for my merit, my safety, or even for shelter. I might well have rejoiced when President Obama allowed me to finally serve in my true gender identity, and settled in for what could be a long, rewarding military career. Little would I have known how soon all that would be gone. Now, my mind told me, I’d be forced to go home, if “home” had any real meaning after transitioning. Maybe my family won’t take me back, and transgender people have a notoriously hard time finding employment and housing, to say nothing of dodging the ever-increasing rate of transphobic violence in Trump’s America. The impact of the trans troop ban on these men and women cannot be overstated.
I’ve been part of a solution over the past few years myself, working with Dr. Remolia Simpson, founder of My Brothers House, which currently operates the first and only LGBTQ Veterans House in the nation. Yet, that’s only a start. As I rode through Pennsylvania on that soft spring evening, I thought, when will middle America see that what happens to the most vulnerable of us, is but a harbinger of their own future? When will they understand that the issue isn’t red or blue, but us, and our attitude towards those who may not be who, or what we expect? Our states won’t be truly united until we conquer our divide, like the settlers of early Pennsylvania conquered mountains to make their homes. That starts with our trans troops, who deserve for their valiant defense of us, no less than our equally stout defense of them. That’s what I took home with me from Pittsburgh.