When an obscure Senator from Vermont was becoming a national icon, one of my favorite, and one of the most effective, things to show people on Bernie Sanders was the infamous “homos in the military” clip from 1995.
I thought about the clip this week as President Trump proposed that transgender Americans be banned from the U.S. military.
In the clip, then-Representative Sanders aggressively defends the rights of gay Americans to Congress; in response to a Republican Representative who had just derided “homos in the military,” and, more broadly, to the Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” initiative.
It is a perfect display of what makes Bernie great; illustrative of both his prescience and his character. Fifteen years before Hillary and Obama would start to come around on gay rights (not to mention many of the Congressional Democrats who now so vigorously condemn Trump), and something like fifteen lifetimes before most Republicans would, Bernie stood apart from both GOP and Democratic establishments on, incidentally, what is now widely seen as the right side of history.
In honesty, this story is only marginally relevant to what I wanted to talk about this week, I just like Bernie.
It is relevant in the absurdity of the fact that 22 years later we are still talking about who should be permitted to serve in the U.S. military, and, by extension, which Americans should have which rights.
But perhaps “homos in the military” is also relevant to the discussion for the inherent lesson it presents.
In 2017, condemning the villainous Trump for further marginalizing the most marginalized takes very little political capital, or courage; certainly less so than it would have taken to defend “homos” in 1995. But the lesson isn’t issue-specific, rather it is about allowing oneself to step outside the parameters of party politics and political posturing.
I mentioned a Noam Chomsky quote last week — “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
The lesson of “homos in the military” is about not being bound by this spectrum.
On Wednesday morning at 8:55 am, Trump tweeted “The United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
Considering the complexity of that type of policy, one might have wondered whether the tweet was more musing than announcement.
But, as with most of Trump’s belligerent musings, it immediately became the top news story in the country for the rest of the week; another battleground for ideological mud-slinging and disavowal campaigns.
“Right-wing” headlines read: Trump Ban Prioritizes National Security, Trump’s order: Bar all transgender troops from US military, and Biology Isn’t Bigotry.
Headlines from the mainstream “left-wing” countered: Trump’s trans ban isn’t just anti-gay. It’s anti-military, Trump’s transgender tweets are an affront to the all-volunteer military, and President Trump’s trans military ban is far more cruel than you realize.
While some in the Trump administration declared “Obama-era social engineering is over,” many more “moderate” Republicans were less enthusiastic.
John McCain said, “There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military — regardless of their gender identity.”
Iowa Senator Joni Ernst said through a spokesperson, “What is most important is making sure service members can meet the physical training standards, and the willingness to defend our freedoms and way of life.”
Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen tweeted “No American, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be prohibited from honor + privilege of serving our nation #LGBT.”
And so on.
Democrats, meanwhile, were predictably eloquent in their opposition.
Chuck Schumer tweeted, “Transgender Americans are serving honorably in our military. We stand with these patriots.”
Retired Admiral and Obama administration veteran John Kirby tweeted, “US military IS a microcosm of American society & should be representative of that society.”
Dan Kildee, the vice chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, called it a “slap in the face to the thousands of transgender Americans already serving in the military.”
Former Obama-era Secretary of Defense Ash Carter defended trans service members by insisting, “Quality people in uniform are what make our military the finest fighting force the world has ever seen.”
The connecting thread between all of these headlines and opinions is their implicit pro-military stance. Democrats and Republicans alike wax poetic about the “honor and privilege” of the “patriots” in the “finest fighting force the world has ever seen.”
This is a common tool used by the mainstream narrative — the presentation of an issue with two clearly defined opinions in opposition, but in which both opinions ideologically confirm the same fundamental pillar of establishment control.
Within mainstream media, there is little space within the “spectrum of acceptable opinion” for the voice which says I want everyone to have the same (fundamental and robust) rights, but I would prefer if nobody fought and died in imperialist wars.
Consider an alternate situation…
Recently, many groups and individuals have started to demand the removal of statues of Confederate figures across the southern United States.
As if George Washington and Thomas Jefferson weren’t slave owners; as if Union soldiers in the Civil War didn’t burn villages, rape, pillage, murder civilians, execute prisoners, and sabotage crops; as if the U.S. government as a whole didn’t oversee the genocide of native Americans.
I don’t hear as much of an uproar over monuments to these types of individuals.
Every continent on earth has racism, genocide, intolerance, and oppression in its history. For me, culture is kind of like the Bible.
There are many horrible parts in the Bible — murder, rape, genocide — and if you focus on these things, or take them too literally, you might be in trouble. Likewise, the way the church has manipulated the message of the Bible over centuries for political gain is somewhat horrific.
But I think, or hope at least, that the majority of followers of the Bible are more the “love thy neighbor” types; “family, friends, and faith” kind of people.
Similarly, I would like to think that the majority of white southern Americans who look at a statue of a Confederate General are not thinking “Yay slavery!” but rather feeling a sense of pride in the ideals of community, honor, responsibility, and being willing to die for these things.
Interestingly, this follows the same reasoning given by many as to why all Muslims should not be condemned for the extreme views and actions of the very few.
I am not saying that I am necessarily against certain symbols being culturally, and perhaps even legally, forbidden. I can’t see myself frequenting a restaurant with a swastika logo and I don’t intend to stay at the “KKK Motel.”
I might even be talked around on the Confederate flag, though I would be concerned that outlawing something based on its use by the radical few sets an ominous precedent. I think about the people who stayed silent while Obama expanded the role and powers of the President, and who are now shocked that Trump intends to use these powers. I wonder what they would say if all symbols of southern history were legally prohibited, then the next government attempted to use the precedent to outlaw the Quran.
Beware of precedents.
What I am really saying is that if you are someone who wants to see Confederate statues removed because you believe them to represent the oppression of people of color and military atrocity, consider that the United States is currently conducting military operations across Africa and the Middle East; places like Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Libya and, yes, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to name but a few of the dozens.
This includes overt and covert wars, legal and illegal, constitutional and un. It includes the horrific drone bombing campaigns, in which nine in ten of those killed are not the intended target. Almost all of the casualties of these operations are people of color.
Combine these military operations, many of which have been described as atrocities, with U.S.-led international sanctions, and it is global oppression of the highest and most harmful level.
The point is, in addition to opposing things that represent oppression and atrocity, the opportunity exists to oppose ongoing oppression and atrocity.
In 1995, when Bernie Sanders was defending “homos in the military,” the “spectrum of acceptable thought” was as follows:
The “right” – “God Hates Fags”
The “left” – “Gay people are fine, as long as they don’t talk about being gay, or act gay, or, you know, do anything gay.”
Bernie stood outside this paradigm and asked why some Americans should have fewer rights than others.
Now, the mainstream narrative presents a discussion on the rights of transgender Americans in which the “spectrum of acceptable thought” is defined by the question: Should trans people be allowed to participate in the march of imperialism?
The cruel irony is that under imperialistic capitalism, trans people, like most marginalized groups, only become more marginalized. An opinion which states that transgender Americans should be permitted in the military, but which also supports and strengthens the military-industrial complex is, unfortunately, an opinion inherently harmful to trans people (not to mention people of color, immigrants, workers, and so on).
Personally, I am less concerned with the inclusion of transgender people in imperialist capitalism, than with their inclusion in a society and world of equality.