In August, President Trump instructed the Defense Department to stop recruiting transgender people for the military. LGBT and human rights organizations quickly filed two lawsuits to prevent the ban from being enforced.
In doing so, LGBT organizations and factions that used to battle one another are now working together, and swiftly. That’s likely to make a big difference in whether Trump’s ban on open transgender service will survive. Here’s how and why that happened — and what it means for the future.
Two big rifts within the LGBT coalition have historically hampered its effectiveness
First, in 1986, the then-nascent gay movement’s legal organizations formed a Litigators’ Roundtable to hash out legal targets and strategies, as recently detailed in Nathaniel Frank’s book, “Awakening.” Political organizations were not invited to these meetings, resulting in angry movement rifts and gaps.
Second, the LGBT movement is made up of various communities, with different letters in the coalition’s acronym joining over time. Individuals in those different columns have different experiences and needs, and don’t always agree. As the most recent addition to the coalition and its acronym, transgender identity isn’t always supported by the rest of the movement.
During the 2000s, the movement breach on trans issues became very pronounced — and resulted in change
Two events during the 2000s highlighted this breach — and pushed both the political and legal wings of the movement to offer a united front on sexual orientation and gender identity.
First, during the 2000s, the effort to pass a federal law banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation resulted in a pitched battle over whether to include “gender identity” in the bill. Since then, the major LGBT political organizations and leaders have closed ranks in favor of including transgender people under the rainbow banner — despite occasional pushback from different factions or funders.
Second, in 2003, Michael Silverman founded the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, arguing that the mainstream LGBT litigation organizations within the Litigators’ Roundtable were not attentive enough to trans issues. And in 2010, lawyers from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a New York legal aid organization for people who are trans or gender nonconforming, broke the Roundtable’s confidentiality rule by publishing a criticism of what they viewed as a trans-exclusive approach. In interviews with advocates involved in the Roundtable, I found that these criticisms prompted internal discussions and new internal education on trans issues.
In part because of these public breaches, both legal and political organizations expanded their trans outreach and focus; changed their names and mission statements to explicitly include trans rights; added more trans and gender nonconforming staff members; and consulted trans leadership more regularly. Meanwhile, trans groups were establishing legal and political organizations of their own. All this helped lead to the quick reaction to the trans military ban.
Coalitions built on specific issues, and goals grew stronger
The treatment of gay men by the military prompted one of the first gay rights demonstrations in 1964, and was listed on a “Homosexual Bill of Rights” distributed at a national meeting of early “homophile” organizations in 1968. After Stonewall led to modern gay rights (later, LGBT) organizations, open military service became a central movement goal.
Between 1975 and 2010, advocates regularly pivoted between legal and political efforts. Waves of litigation since the 1970s invited judges to scrutinize policies that excluded gay men and lesbians from service, including Ben-Shalom v. Marsh, Steffan v. Cheney and Cook v. Gates. In response, the political branches of government codified the exclusion, facing strong pressure from LGBT organizations each time.
For instance, under President Ronald Reagan, in 1982, Defense Department Directive 1332.14 declared that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” In 1992, President Bill Clinton announced that he would undo the ban on openly gay military members; to prevent that, Congress passed a law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). LGB, and later, LGBT advocates organized for years against this law, securing its repeal under President Barack Obama in 2010. Continued advocacy pushed the Obama administration to end the trans ban 2016 — which Trump’s memo now seeks to override.
Within the LGBT movement, military advocacy was ad hoc in the 1970s and into the 1980s. In 1988, the National Gay Task Force formed the Military Freedom Project, which was the first home of political advocacy on open service. In the 1990s, this campaign was supplanted by the independent Campaign for Military Service. Archives show that both were intended to be temporary — but were formalized after DADT was enacted. These laid the foundations for a new organization called the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, or SLDN, which had the explicit mission of enabling lesbians and gay men to serve openly. Once DADT was repealed, SLDN reorganized to fight for open trans service — and is now among the organizations suing against Trump’s trans ban.
In other words, a movement infrastructure built to resist earlier bans based on sexual orientation has been activated to fight a ban based on gender identity. The unity forged among different aspects of the movement has made it possible to act swiftly now.
Those coalitions built over 40 years allowed the movement to effectively pivot between legal and political advocacy while bridging internal divisions. The efforts to bridge the LGB and T gap and the gap among the movement’s political and legal wings made it more effective in pursuing its self-defined goals.
The pushback against Trump’s trans military ban shows that decades of effort to bridge tensions over identity and tactics have come together — to defend trans rights broadly and the right to serve specifically.
The LGBT movement’s long-term efforts to build effective internal coalitions may offer a model for other movements built on shared goals but with internal skirmishes over identities and tactics. Internal divisions can seriously challenge movements. But prioritizing policy goals and constructing durable coalitions to pursue them can lead to success.
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