First lifted in 2016, then reimposed in 2017, a ban impeding transgender people from serving in the U.S. military was reversed again Monday, by President Joe Biden.
This time, members of the local LGBTQ+ community hope the ban is gone for good. Moreover, some hope the early actions of the Biden administration will grow into a prolonged commitment to LGBTQ+ issues, including preventing discrimination and improving access to basic needs.
Landon Marchant served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009 to 2011 and transitioned a year after being honorably discharged. Marchant, who lives in Williamstown after graduating from Williams College, became involved in a burgeoning movement for transgender rights in the military.
“We figured it would be a 10-year fight at least,” said Marchant, a policy fellow with Minority Veterans of America who also co-founded SPART*A, a group of current and former transgender service members. “Some people didn’t think they’d see it in their lifetime.”
President Barack Obama’s repeal of the ban in 2016 was “fortunate.” The new ban, issued by President Donald Trump in 2017, was a setback.
The latest repeal has been celebrated as a victory for the military and transgender people.
“We’re opening up a doorway for some people to change their lives, and that’s important,” Marchant said.
Transgender people already enlist in the military at twice the rate of the general population. About one-fifth of transgender people in the U.S. have served in the military, a 2014 study estimated.
“This is about the right to choose, the right for autonomy,” said Drew Herzig, a Pittsfield Human Rights Commission member who has been involved in several local LGBTQ+ advocacy groups. “To be legally allowed to do that — not just allowed, but free to do that — that is the real victory here.”
Next four years
The poverty rate among transgender people in the U.S. is 31 percent, almost double the 17 percent of the general population.
While people enlist for different reasons, the lack of economic opportunity that many transgender people face can make enlistment more appealing, Marchant said.
“You can pay for college, you get a job, you get job training,” Marchant said.
In the nation’s economic recovery, Marchant said, vulnerable people must not be left behind. Part of that means providing equal access to education, housing and employment.
Although a Wednesday executive order clarified protection for LGBTQ people from employment discrimination, the proposed Equality Act — it most recently died in the Senate, after clearing the House in 2019 — would extend protections to a wider range of areas.
Nevertheless, Ashley Shade, a member of the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition’s board of directors, sees a constitutional amendment, though more difficult to pass, as the only way to ensure permanent protection.
She wants to see the Biden administration not just pay lip service to LGBTQ+ rights, as she believes some past administrations have, but to prioritize those issues, including to decriminalize sex work.
“We also need to understand that transgender people, because of their lack of economic opportunities, will do other things for work, such as sex work,” said Shade, of North Adams. “That’s another way that we could help the community, to stop throwing them in jail for trying to earn money, as long as [the work involves] two consensual adults.”
Transgender people in Berkshire County also face difficulties accessing health care, Herzig and Shade said. Many have traveled to Northampton or Greenfield to begin hormone replacement therapy because of the lack of local options.
Tanya Neslusan, executive director of MassEquality, said some state lawmakers are seeking to expand access to health care for transgender people in areas where they are underserved.
Reproductive rights, Neslusan said, also impact LGBTQ+ people, and have become an area of increasing concern now that conservatives wield a 6-3 Supreme Court majority.
Another “subtle but impactful” change by the Biden administration, she said, was to give people an option to specify a pronoun preference on the form to contact the White House.
While praising Biden’s early actions, Marchant said formal legislation could provide more stability, whereas executive orders can be revoked by future administrations.
“But, I would say it is safe to interpret Biden’s actions as support that he and his administration see LGBTQ people as human and deserve the same rights as everyone else does,” Marchant said.
Herzig, who credits Biden for pushing Obama to support marriage equality in 2012, said the administration’s early dealings bode well for the next four years.
“There’s a slew of state anti-transgender legislation,” Herzig said, noting proposals to limit transgender participation in sports. “But, the federal administration is shaping up to be the most LGBTQ-friendly administration ever.”