On Recloseting

Note: this post has been repub­lished on Mic.com.

One of the most hope­ful things I have seen in past year came from Orrin Hatch, the Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor from Utah, who had a strong reac­tion to Pres­i­dent Trump’s sur­prise announce­ment of a ban on trans Amer­i­cans serv­ing in the mil­i­tary. In a state­ment last week, he said, “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: Sen­a­tor 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. And it got me think­ing, maybe whiplash is part of the defin­ing dynam­ic to the Age of Trump, by which I mean not just the hyper-chaos of the White House, but of 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 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, and all of the fear and uncer­tain­ty about com­ing to terms with one’s sex­u­al­i­ty. It was like a Sword of Damo­cles always hung over our heads, and 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 it on top of being in the clos­et, it can become over­whelm­ing. As I have relat­ed 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 are lucky and can focus it 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 — it 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 band 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 ser­vice­mem­bers thrown out of ser­vice under dam­ag­ing cir­cum­stances. The end result was enor­mous social and orga­ni­za­tion­al pres­sure to adopt the clos­et mind­set: nev­er let your­self be dis­cov­ered, or, 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: 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. You can make the argu­ment that X agency or gov­ern­ment should­n’t assist peo­ple with tran­si­tion­ing, because it is easy to look at a cost-val­ue and sim­ply decide 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 actu­al­ly oppos­ing them. 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 it isn’t an abstract issue. It is a human one, one that 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 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 US 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.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.