One of the most hopeful things I have seen in the past year came from Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah, who had a strong reaction to President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement of a ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. In a statement last week, he wrote, “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.”
It was a bout of unexpected support from an unexpected place: Sen. Hatch is a conservative Republican from a conservative state, and he is a former bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church is not exactly known for its embrace of LGBT equality: Many out-of-state Mormons banded together to fund Proposition 8 in California, which sank a state initiative for marriage equality).
So there was, on one hand, the White House announcing a campaign of exclusion and discrimination against trans people, and on the other a Mormon conservative Republican senator opposing it. It felt like whiplash.
It got me thinking that, maybe, whiplash is part of the defining dynamic to the Age of Trump — by which I mean not just the hyperchaos of the White House, but the broader currents in our society he has unleashed. It is an unending knife’s tension between horror and hope, vacillating back and forth. And while the hope is wonderful to see, the horror bears some examination as well.
There are good surveys of the many ways that LGBT rights are being attacked right now, so it does not bear rehashing. Put simply, the White House seems to be run by people seeking to shove most of us back into the closet. It is most visible right now when directed against the trans community, but the ability of all LGBT people to live openly and honestly is under assault.
This is no semantic issue: The psychological damage of being closeted is extensive and measurable, as are the mental and physical benefits of coming out. So this threat of recloseting has an immediacy that might not be apparent to our heterosexual friends and family.
LGBT people of a certain age — the youngest members are called Xennials or the Oregon Trail Generation, perhaps — can remember going to middle and high school in the 1980s and 1990s with all of the fear and uncertainty about coming to terms with one’s sexuality. It was like a sword of Damocles always hanging over our heads: The wrong step would result in exposure and thus humiliation or violence.
Teenage years are a series of humiliations in the best of times, but if you pile them on top of being in the closet, it can become overwhelming. As I have written before, you develop a sense that you are on your own, that even getting broken bones under the guise of a friendly “smear the queer” at a basketball game won’t prompt action because the adults will explain it away as youthful tussling rather than assault and hate crime. You adopt a defensive crouch, since it feels as if you’re a hair’s breadth away from experiencing violence if you’re not passing enough or you give the wrong impression. Self-hatred is never far behind.
That is what the closet is like: hiding one of the more fundamental aspects of the self — sexuality — in the hope of evading punishment.
The insecurity that comes from knowing the people in charge might not have your back is like a constant low-level churn of the gut. Some people are lucky and can focus their insecurity into something ostensibly constructive; I briefly became a missionary deeply into charismata but not glossolalia, though perhaps that is a story for another time. Others cannot, and that insecurity can express itself as self-harm, as depression or as any number of indicators that something needs to be addressed.
This is what makes the effort to ban trans people from military service so awful. When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was enforced against the broader LGBT community, it resulted in hundreds of service members thrown out under damaging circumstances. The end result was enormous social and organizational pressure to adopt the closet mindset: Never let yourself be discovered because, if you were, you were one supervisor’s bad day away form being reported and thrown into the street. It was constant stress, and that takes a toll on a person.
I cannot pretend to be personally affected by the trans ban, but it holds a mirror up to the same closeting that existed when I was young: It’s the official signs from society that you are not good enough, that you’ll never be welcome, simply because you don’t fit into a narrow box of what they think a baseline of humanity is. The target is more narrow this time around, but the idea is the exact same: You are different, so therefore you are unwelcome.
Trans rights are something many people find easy to discuss in the abstract. People try and make the argument that whatever agency or government shouldn’t assist people with transitioning, because it is easy to look at a price and simply decide that paying it isn’t necessary. It is easy to reduce trans rights to the monetary cost of transition — even if that cost is, in the grand scheme of things, quite low — because it provides an easy way to oppose trans rights without seemingly opposing trans people. Similarly, it is easy to do what I just did, and say, “Look, the money issue isn’t that big of a deal, right? So let’s go support our fellow humans.”
But trans rights aren’t an abstract issue; they are a human rights issue, and denying anyone their human rights is simply cruel. Even if no trans person had ever signed up for military service, this sort of policy should have no place in a humane society that actually values its citizens.
There is, however, a small bit of hope: the generals. At a basic level, we as Americans have come to trust in our military so completely that we tend to see generals as the good guys (this is deeply problematic, to put it gently, and part of a larger issue). And behold: The generals are pushing back against the president. The Joint Chiefs more or less said the Pentagon would take no steps to proactively enforce the ban unless ordered to carry out a specific policy. And the U.S. Coast Guard commandant, Admiral Paul Zukunft, flat out told graduating seniors at the academy that he “would not break faith” with transgender coasties — an important, though possibly illegal, step beyond what the Joint Chiefs had indicated.
The people who make decisions at the very top of the country seem determined to force us back into the closet, so soon after we had almost opened it entirely. It is hopeful to see so many people from so many surprising places reacting against the announcement; but at the same time they shouldn’t have to.
But the basic humanity of LGBT people should not be a political debate anymore. Our status as equal persons should not be up for revision. Yet, it appears to be. It’s hard not to see that and feel discouraged.
This essay first appear on joshuafoust.com.