A military service person with their back facing the camera. They are being hugged.

The Right to Serve

Content warning: References transphobia

Every Citizen has the right to serve their country in its Armed Forces in any capability they can. Trump’s banning of Transgender citizens from serving in the US Military isn’t just an arbitrary indulgence of prejudice, it’s another assault on the fundamental compact of Liberal Democracy.

419 characters in three tweets. That’s how little it took for President Trump at a stroke to weaken one of the great civic institutions of the United States by announcing a blanket ban on transgender people serving in any capacity in the United States military.

Who knows why he did it. There’s a reasonable chance that the primary motivation was to remind people that the Twitter feed belonged to the President of the United States rather than a two bit twitterati ineffectually complaining about the Government. The frustrated tantrum of a playground bully who hits someone when he loses an argument: these three tweets, in appearance, caught the Department of Defense completely flat footed. At the time of writing of this article, the DOD’s transgender policy website still proudly declares: ‘Effective immediately, transgender Service members may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military solely for being transgender individuals.’ At a stroke, Trump replaced a lengthy, detailed and comprehensive policy formation with a trio of tweets. The idea of Trump tapping out this policy after an unsuccessful healthcare bill meeting is all too realistic.

Ultimately, the ‘why’ doesn’t matter. What matters is that with a tweet, the rights of hundreds of thousands of transgender people in the United States have been arbitrarily abrogated based on what might be best termed spite. What matters is that the leader of the most powerful democracy on the planet is openly embracing prejudice and discrimination with barely an attempt to disguise it. What’s more, he implied that transgender individuals were necessarily an impediment to the military achieving ‘victory’.

What matters is that once again the spirit of the 14th Amendment, in both its Equal Protection and Privileges and Immunities Clause is under assault. What matters is that the fundamental promise of our democracies -that of an equal share in the great enterprise of the State, from an equal vote at the ballot box, to equal protection under law, and equal opportunity for employment and service in the government, is being corroded. The military is no exception; in fact, it should be the exemplar. For if the concept of citizenship and democracy have existed, the right and collective duty of the citizenry to serve in the military to defend their society has been fundamental.

Today, there are still few greater expressions of civic devotion and patriotism than service in a nation’s armed forces, and it is an expression that should be available to every citizen fit to serve. From Truman’s 1948 order to desegregate the military, to the 2011 appeal of ‘Don’t ask don’t tell’, the United States has advanced in the past century to making steps to remove arbitrary restrictions on Service in the Armed Forces. This advances democracy, and expands the right of service to an ever expanding set of the population.

Today, the United States took a step backward. I can only hope that one day they will make amends to the brave transgender service-people that this decision stands to wrong.

The danger here is more than merely academic. A representative and apolitical military drawn equally from every section of society is one of the best bulwarks against authoritarianism. Slides into ethnic, religious or other kinds of oppression nearly always coincide with the occlusion of the oppressed group from the military. Such restrictions should be taken seriously.

Ultimately, we all need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in. To be American, like being Australian, is not a question of any religious or ethnic identity. What unites us is an idea, written down centuries ago and sustained by a belief that none of us stand above any of us. An attack on some is an attack on all. The reduction of the rights of few make us all the less.

Today, we need to stand. And then we need to speak.