The trouble with trans: Donald Trump bans transgender military personnel

Yesterday, via his favoured mouthpiece of Twitter, President Donald Trump announced a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military – including currently serving personnel. To add insult to injury, Mr. Trump painted himself as a defender of LGBT rights in his presidential campaign. The justification for this appears to be the increased medical costs that medical treatment for such individuals will bring. This is absurd.

There are an estimated 1,320–6,630 transgender service personnel in the US military. Not everyone who is trans seeks to complete gender reassignment surgery, and a RAND study suggests the increase in medical bills to be a paltry 0.04-0.13% increase. The military’s relationship to spending is often reactive. Projects are cancelled at short notice at great expense (such as the ill-fated Nimrod MRA4 in the UK). Comparisons in cost have been drawn to the ill-fated Lockheed Martin F35 project, which is running into trillions of US dollars. Military departments are appalling at spending money efficiently– to suggest this ban is a cost saving measure is a fallacy.

There could be an argument drawn over combat effectiveness. There is, for example, a correlation between bisexual people and an increase in mental health problems – but to support a ban on this basis would be outright discrimination. Outgoing president Barack Obama lifted a ban on transgender personnel serving in July last year, building on the lifting of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy in 2011.

The situation in the UK

It is 50 years this week since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and seventeen years since the ban on homosexuals serving in the military was lifted. The change in attitudes didn’t happen overnight. At a military dinner in 2005 I inwardly squirmed when a senior officer quipped “it might be okay now but remember it wasn’t in my day, when I joined up”. I am bi and hadn’t come out to comrades, and didn’t expect anyone to be especially understanding.

Since then military has become an exemplary employer. It features in Stonewall’s top employer lists, and uniformed personnel march at Pride. In my experience, it’s such a rare mix of qualities that makes a prime military candidate. I couldn’t have given a hoot if one of my comrades was trans. I met several gay service personnel once I joined the regular service and it was abundantly clear, by 2008 when I commissioned, that such discrimination would not be tolerated.

Transgender rights in the USA

People like Chelsea Manning have flown the flag with transgender personnel (albeit with some notoriety in her case). High profile trans woman Caitlyn Jenner is an outspoken supporter of Trump, and has vowed to take him on over LGBT issues. There is clearly a narrative of acceptance, as different from mere tolerance, towards trans individuals.

There is no serious argument for lawful discrimination towards trans individuals serving in the military, along with many other professions and civic posts. Sadly, as trans people are at risk from greater incidences of violence, workplace discrimination and suicide, this latest policy suggestion places them in harm’s way yet again, reversing decades of progress on LGBT rights.

Bluff and bluster from Trump?

This is at its heart an illustration of Trump’s mastery of Twitter. Tweets do not make policy – they make headlines. As with his “Muslim ban”, pursuit of “fake news” outlets and other critics, and attempt to repeal Obamacare, Trump may not wield any authority on this issue – but he is making his bigoted feelings known, and is clearly concerned only with reversing Obama administration advances. It remains to be seen whether this bombastic tweet will transition into policy. Better a heteronormative draft-dodger than a transgendered serving soldier? I know which I am prouder of.

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Being a Broad in Japan

The BBC has published a lovely little tool that reveals your country’s gender equality. I looked up Japan, where I lived for a couple of years. It ranks 101 out of 145. I’m not surprised by this at all.

People ask me why did I leave Japan – indeed why, when I was reasonably financially secure and independent, albeit with a precarious visa situation. I escaped the recession and had my first full time job after a year of desperate temping following redundancy. But living as a foreigner overseas is tough. Some of the problems I faced were down to xenophobia or racism, but many were down to gender. I’m highlighting the very worst here: of course everyone’s experiences are unique. Male friends who have lived in Japan, China and South Korea have experienced xenophobia, and are sympathetic. Sexism just adds to that.

I taught English for a national chain of schools, via a webcam system rather like Skype. During one lesson involving placards showing a nurse, a fast food worker, and bus driver, at the end I would say I had one of these jobs – can you guess which? Without fail the first answer every time was “nurse”. Second answer was once, “uhhh… a sexy nurse?” Fast food worker never got a look-in.

As a former police and military officer, when asked about my life before Japan I’d often hear, “is that a joke?” or, “what does your husband think?”. If they did believe me they’d say, “were you a secretary or answering the telephone?” When asked probing questions about my family plans, on hearing there were none I would be chastised for failing in my “rôle” as a future wife and mother. This was from both men and women.

On occasion a female student would exclaim and say how wonderful I was – that I had taken on these manly jobs, travelled the world independently, and wasn’t sitting at home weeping for lack of a man. On announcing I can change a car tyre, a student exclaimed, “you are a supergirl, not like a pretty Japanese girl!” I don’t need praise. I just want to do my job, without let or hindrance. I suggested to a bitter older student that she could have pursued a career had she wanted. She replied, “Pah! Is OK. For you. You are… a European” she said, with disgust. “It is so easy for you. I … am a Japanese“. Another student on returning from Canada where she had worked as a research scientist, was sad that back at home in Japan, she was back to running errands and a being little more than a lab mascot. She was desperate to return to Canada and actually work.

Why did I leave Japan? I became heartily sick of it. Strict labour conditions exist elsewhere, but where women are concerned it isn’t great. Women don’t really have maternity leave. There isn’t a maternity cover culture, even temping is an oddity, and the idea of paying someone out of work whilst paying someone else to cover is anathema to the Japanese employer. Women quit their jobs, or in many cases are sacked upon announcing they are pregnant. They might return to their old job as a colleague did in Japan, however for many that is their working life over. Childcare isn’t cheap yet the expectation is simply that the man of the house will work from now on.

Of course leaving work to care for your children is a route many parents take. The problem in Japan is the lack of choice. Working women are few and scorned. I told students my mother worked – I was told bluntly she was a bad mother for doing so. Even when I explained it would have been tough on the family without her salary, and that she wanted to keep working.

The terms “salaryman” and “office lady” exist in Japanese, pronounced in English. I would describe myself as a “salarywoman”, and be greeted with confusion, giggles, and disgust. A female boss is an elusive creature.

Of course I frequently liked to discuss politics and current affairs wherever possible in my lessons. There was little appetite for this, but if I mentioned my interest in the Middle East and in Arabian and Islamic culture, I would be told unequivocally, “They are bad to women there. They make you wear a burqa”. There was no room for comparison or exploration. I was offered a job in Jordan – I didn’t take it because I was really after a position in the Gulf – and students were appalled. I shrugged. As far as treatment of women (and foreigners) is going living here in Japan, it couldn’t get much worse. I’d take a chance in the Middle East.

My beloved bike was stolen so I attended the police to report it. I had very little Japanese and took my trusty phrase book and pointed lots. A translator was found, and asked, “so when did you realise your bike was stolen?” I said, “I was on my way to Namba” – “Why were you going to Namba?” – “To skate. I’m an ice hockey player, and I was going to skate”. This was met with much confusion. Why was I going skating? Why do I play ice hockey? Eventually, I rolled my eyes, and sighed: “I was on my way to Namba to go shopping”. The police team collectively smiled and gasped “ah!” and continued with their report.

Eventually I’d lose my patience. Professionalism lacking throughout the company, I’d become ever more facetious. I told a student I don’t like shopping. “But you are girl?” I replied, “Yeah, I am. But I don’t like shopping. I like firing guns, flying aeroplanes, and getting into punch-ups on the ice.” The student shut up. That isn’t the best way to treat a student, and your paying customer, I know.

Male students were frequently rude. One said, with a laugh, “you are a pretty girl, Fiona. But I would like to beat you up. I would pull your hair and punch your face. Haha. You are just a girl”. Another teacher had a student repeatedly take pictures of her in class. Several of my female colleagues have had stalkers, and a colleague still in country has a serious stalker right now. No one cares. One colleague had a student visiting the city from elsewhere – she was ordered by her boss to accept her student’s invitation to dinner. She really didn’t want to socialise with the creep, but she had to, or else.

Outside of work, if I dressed for warm weather I’d get stared at. Frankly I got stared at non-stop, but it worsened in summer, especially as I’d forgo my cycle commute for an air-conditioned tube ride. I was frequently yelled at in the street (to be fair, lots of people accost me in and around London too). On one occasion I was asked if I was a prostitute and “available”.

Following my first day at work, three of us went out to karaoke. The proprietor of the bar heaved his fat body next to mine and petted me like a cat, tickling my chin. I was so stunned shocked and jet lagged I laughed meekly, and pulled away. It only made him paw at me harder.

Another evening walking in the city, a businessman lunged at me, pinned me against a wall and slurred, “teach me English conversation”. Men would block my way on the pavement. Men would barge in front of me whilst queuing. Men would stare at me openly and intensely.

Japan is fun to visit as a tourist, but I’m not surprised by its ranking in gender equality. Its closest fair comparison might be with South Korea, which polls 115. When the UK ranks at 18, Belgium 19, and France 15, I’m in no hurry to leave. I’ll stay within Europe, cheers. Eventually, I’ll write my book.