Transgender Maine veterans speak out against Trump’s ban

Transgender Maine veterans speak out against Trump’s ban

For Danni Twomey, volunteering to join the Air Force wasn’t a difficult decision, even as the Vietnam War wound down and public support for the military was at a low ebb.

“I was raised that way; love of country. I come from a family of veterans. That’s what we do,” said Twomey. “I love this country, you know, I love my state. I’m patriotic. Maybe that’s corny but that’s who I am. That’s who a lot of us are. I take great pride in being in the military. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

At 20, she found herself working at NORAD as an air traffic controller and as part of a team tasked with arming fighters with nuclear warheads in the event of nuclear war. The 70s were a tense time for people like her to serve, a period of official witch hunts where LGBT service members were targeted, persecuted and forced out of the military.

“It was a close call for me. I had friends who got kicked out. I’ve been through that, the darker period, and I thought we were past that,” she said.

With President Donald Trump’s announcement of a new policy banning transgender Americans from serving “in any capacity” in the U.S. armed forces, however, Twomey worries that those dark days are back.

Reasons unclear

The reasoning behind Trump’s sudden announcement of a ban isn’t entirely clear. It apparently surprised Pentagon officials, who were in the midst of a six-month review of policies regarding transgender service members.

Two potential impetuses have emerged since the president’s string of tweets. The first is the idea that Trump made the move in order to back up hard-right Republicans in the House on budget negotiations (in part to ensure the allocation of money for his border wall). This group, which includes Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin, had recently tried and failed to outlaw transition-related health care for service members and their families.

The other proffered (and not mutually exclusive) explanation is that Trump is using this hot-button social issue to fire up support from his base, distract the public and put Democrats on the defensive at a time when he’s engaged in a high-profile browbeating of his arch-conservative Attorney General, is facing serious questions about his conduct and that of members of his family and campaign related to covert Russian support for his election, and his congressional allies are maneuvering to pass an unprecedentedly-unpopular health care repeal bill.

As one anonymous White House source brazenly and cynically described the politics of the move:

“This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of this issue. How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?”

A life-threatening policy

Whatever the reasons behind the timing of Trump’s ban, 63-year-old Coast Guard veteran Katie Taylor worries that the impact it will have on transgender service members will be more damaging and long-lasting than even the immediate effects of being ejected from their military careers.

“With a dishonorable discharge you lose all access to VA benefits, whether it’s home loans or pensions or health care, you lose it all. It’s like being convicted of a felony and losing a whole bunch of rights, except all you got convicted of is being yourself,” she explained.

Taylor, a full-time volunteer at Togus VA hospital in Augusta, has worked with veterans across the entire spectrum of age, sexual orientation and gender expression. She worries that increasing the stigmatization of transgender service members, who already belong to two demographic groups with high rates of suicide, will literally cost lives.

A legacy of service and progress

Both Taylor and Twomey note that transgender Americans volunteer for military service at a higher rate than the rest of the population (with estimates of up to 15,000 currently serving in the armed forces). In addition to family histories of service and personal patriotism, they say they chose to enlist and participated in other stereotypically-male pursuits in part because of how society’s expectations about their assigned sex clashed with their actual gender.

“I became a competitive bodybuilder, weightlifter, martial artists, all of these things, a man’s man, to survive, not because I wanted to be,” said Twomey.

“I pretended to be a guy and I got really good at pretending to be a guy. I had a beard that if you pulled it up it would go all the way over my head and cover my bald spot. I can run pretty much any piece of heavy equipment you can imagine. I can build boats from scratch. I can build houses from scratch. I’ve ridden a motorcycle from one ocean to the other ocean,” said Taylor. “My feeling was I had to be ridiculously self-sufficient to take care of myself because I couldn’t rely on anybody else to do it.”

Over the years, that fear and pressure has decreased, to the point that both of them now feel able to live publicly as women, having transitioned relatively late in their lives.

Based on the significant societal and political progress they’ve seen, Trump’s order strikes them as anachronistic and perplexing.

“You want to deny people like me, who were willing to die for their country, you don’t want us? I guess I don’t get it,” said Twomey. “We’re not less American. We’re not less anything.”

Photo via Flickr/Corey Templeton.

About author

Mike Tipping
Mike Tipping 2 posts

Mike is communications director for the Maine People's Alliance. He lives in Orono and has written about Maine politics since 2005.

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