Stepping Out of Line: Trans Activism at Harvard Law

When I was growing up, I had little knowledge of how to get to college because nobody in my family had ever gone to one. I was lucky that my public school counselor pushed my mom and dad to let me apply to a private middle and high school, and that my new school offered financial aid and college counseling.

So, I joined the Army JROTC in ninth grade because the lieutenant colonel gave an amazing presentation to eighth graders (and because I wanted to roll around in the mud like they did in Cadet Kelly). I learned that the military could be a potential avenue for me to reach a better future through ROTC in college and JAG during and after law school. JROTC helped me to dream big, opened up four years of many wonderful and difficult experiences, and brought more friends into my life.

As Dean Spade said, “military inclusion has never been a central demand from trans populations, who consistently name criminalization, immigration enforcement, poverty, and joblessness as top priorities.” Even so, trans individuals are about twice as likely as adults in the U.S. to have served in the armed forces.

Many trans people joined JROTC and loved it, and decided to enlist.

Many trans people joined ROTC in college, if they made it there.

Many trans people did not have an opportunity to talk to college counselors.

Many trans people enlisted without any reserve officer training program.

My dad’s dad was in the military. I heard stories of his time in the Vietnam War. I saw the uniforms and helmets in his closet. I looked up to him.

My biological father, whom I have never met, was also in the military.

The U.S. military indirectly brought me into existence.

The U.S. military directly brought many others out of existence.

Many military members embrace trans people.

Many serving do not, including those who have exhibited transphobic violence to me.

Neither my gender nor my stance on the military can be defined by a binary.

Military families with trans family members exist.

These voices are the ones that should be centered.

These voices are the ones with high stakes in a conversation about trans inclusion or exclusion in the military.

These voices are the ones we should listen to.

Our voices are enough.

Our experiences are enough.

Our bodies are enough.

These convictions cannot be denied, though many have tried.

When trans people enter and visibly disrupt a space, our bodies are policed. Though the harm done by that policing is sometimes invisible, the offenses do not exist merely in our minds; they manifest in visible acts in the external world. When the direct actions in response to military interviews on campus are done and the Trans Lives Matter posters have been taken down, visibly gender non-conforming people bear the brunt of the campus’s stares, opinions, sneers, sideways glances, laughter, or worse. This reality is observable to any who walk beside me and choose to see it. It is thus offensive to question our harm before believing us, yet I have batted my eyelashes and proffered my most polite answer more times than I can count.

The supposed parallel offense that a cisgender person takes to a structural harm towards trans people cannot compare to this violence that a trans person, literally labeled a disruption, experiences. The cisgender “ally” can move on while the visibly trans person may find it hard to move out of bed. Priority should be placed on the person who experienced this latter harm, for it persists perpetually.

There is a nuanced impact on society when trans people are singled out and prevented access to rights. Discrimination is the most obvious layer: in response, activists chant, “trans people are people, too!” I am more interested in the wider impact: the damage done to a trans-liberation project that requires a wider societal buy-in about gender as a social construction, wherein the gender binary is the root of violence experienced by people of all genders, including people assigned male who identify as man because of the deep and seemingly irremovable impacts of toxic masculinity. It is tempting to reduce a trans-exclusionary policy to “bathrooms” or “medical bills” or “military service,” but this broader impact is always at stake, too.

When the military is the group limiting transgender rights, some of our core values are tested, stretched, and brought into conflict. I have sensed a strong anti-military state and pro-trans rights position among many young liberals, but this is a case where the two positions can’t be conflated so easily. Some retain their anti-military position and critique the equality advocates for forgetting the larger picture. Others touting trans rights (notably, many of whom are not trans) fight for inclusion for inclusion’s sake, as they did with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and marriage. Both positions enact a performative wokeness that sputters out at the rate of the news cycle.

I do not have the privilege of lightly touching on these topics. I want to hold both positions together, particularly because I embody them simultaneously to a certain extent. The inherent dissonance and discordant tunes of my politics are brought into the light. These are usually deep in the caves of my personal history, buried in closets. Tucked away beneath preened, curated, nurtured, socially constructed and social-media approved layers and layers
of this is who I am;
of this is how I’m supposed to be political;
of this is what feminism means;
of this is what it means to be an ally;
of this is how I’ve learned to be transgender;
of this is how I’ve learned to express myself;
of this is what I’m taught by our cisgender feminist friends;
of this is what I’m taught by our transgender role models;
of this is what I’m taught by the liberal media;
of this is an item on the progressive agenda;
of this is what Obama fought for;
of this is what Trump wanted and therefore not what I should endorse;
of this is the left being resilient;
of this is our best way of fighting back;
of this is a flag for the values we stand for as an institution.

I cannot, should not, will not impose my personal story, messy and winding and rich — rife with holes and questions and things better left unsaid — onto another person’s politics. To each their own. I share this process to show that we all should take efforts to think about the implications of our actions supposedly for the “public interest,” particularly when we are not of the identity groups we are speaking for. Encapsulating all of these thoughts into my small part of a collective action requires internal compromise on certain parts of myself, my critique, and my self-critique.

I no longer wish to join JAG, but I fully understand why another HLS student would.

I learned on September 11 that I am surrounded by trans and/or queer people at Harvard Law who understand and embrace this dissonance; who want to do direct action because of it; who want to pause and discuss what action is taken because of it; who will express their opinions even if they are unpopular; who will look out for each other, as much as their energy allows; who will be part of a collective even if that means sacrificing some of their individual stakes; who believe their individuals stakes are enough to call for action.

I am choosing to be part of this group, varied as it might be.

I admit to not knowing enough about these issues.

I admit to only being one person.

I admit to never having served in the military.

I admit to being a trans person who is not seeking HRT or gender-affirming surgeries.

I admit to wanting a sexuality and gender clinic, somewhat selfishly while somewhat selflessly, such that I can fight for the rights of trans people who have many fewer privileges than I have been able to amass over time.

I admit to searching for a critical politic that refuses to be restrained by the collective momentum of the day.

I admit to loving people who are in or who have been in the military.

I admit that those people love me back.

I join this collective of Lambda and QTPOC because I also learned that HLS has actively chosen — by their inaction in creating a clinic, and their action in inviting JAG to campus — not to prioritize those trans people who have fewer privileges than I do. I have learned that HLS’s administration may not always be transparent with decisions that may impact trans students.

I look forward to dialogues, discussions, and debates about this topic and many others regarding the failings of HLS, with the caveat that always bears mentioning:

When my trans body enters and visibly disrupts a space, it is policed. The harm that is done by that policing is invisible, individual, and offensive for anyone to question.

When my body is visibly entailed as a subject of the dialogue, debate, or discussion — no matter my smile, no matter how readily I use my voice, no matter my ability to hold my head high, no matter how picked out my afro is, no matter how many compliments of my outfit I get — I experience more internally than the world is ready to accept, and more than I am prepared to explain.

Have patience with me. Join me in dialogue. Sit in the discomfort of discordant tunes and think about how your own story might harmonize with mine, or might not. Remember that there are so many more harms occurring to trans people in the world than the inability to join the military, but that exclusion on these grounds is harmful not only to trans people but also because of the impacts on our communal understandings of gender.

If you can, join me here:

D Dangaran

D Dangaran is a 1L.

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