President Donald Trump has made clear his opposition to transgender Americans serving in the military, but that didn’t deter transgender veterans from laying a wreath on hallowed ground: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Trump’s July 2017 tweet that people who have undergone gender transition should not serve “in any capacity” in the US armed forces raised alarm throughout a movement that had been counting gains in recent years.
“We, as transgender people, bled like anyone else,” Yvonne Cook-Riley, a US Air Force veteran and a spearhead of the transgender rights movement, told AFP after the Friday ceremony, as she walked a tree-lined path through rows of white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Vietnam war veteran was among a dozen members or friends of the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) who witnessed the somber ceremony at the marble sarcophagus on a hill overlooking Washington.
For years Cook-Riley, who began her transition after returning from Vietnam, advanced the cause of transgender rights.
She shared in the jubilation of the June 2016 announcement, under then-president Barack Obama, that ended the ban on transgender people serving openly in the US military.
The gay rights movement was ascendant too, and the marginalized transgender community was suddenly seen with a sympathetic eye. Just one year earlier, in April 2015, Caitlyn Jenner — the former Bruce Jenner of 1970s Olympic decathlon fame — had come out as a transgender woman.
Then Trump’s tweet changed the momentum.
In March, the president rolled back his blanket transgender ban, but his shift of responsibility to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis left open the prospect that people who have undergone gender transition treatment are still barred from serving.
Aside from Trump’s announcements, Republican-controlled legislatures in 10 states introduced measures in 2017 restricting transgender individuals’ access to gender segregated bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.
“It scares the hell out of me, because somebody is going to get killed,” Cook-Riley said, commenting on the current atmosphere.
Another icon of the movement, Phyllis Frye — a former Army lieutenant and the country’s first openly transgender judge — said nothing less than a “Democratic takeover” of Congress in this year’s mid-term elections will ease the community’s difficulties.
“In November, people need to get off their butts and vote,” she said.
Before the wreath-laying, Frye and Cook-Riley participated in a TAVA conference to help transgendered service-members gain greater access to appropriate health care.
Ironically the gathering took place in the same hotel as a conference of evangelical Christians pressing for more conservatism from politicians in Washington.
Some in the transgender gathering decided to wander over.
“How can it hurt?” mused Nella Ludlow, a clinical professor at Washington State University who once flew fighter jets for the US Air Force.
Ludlow, 56, playfully snapped selfies with a cardboard Trump cutout. But she also met some of the conservative attendees, and hoped their interactions “caused people to rethink” their impressions of transgender veterans.
But her concerns for fellow trans service-members only amplified the seriousness of the wreath-laying.
“They’re serving their country, and they don’t know, will they be fired six months from now?” Ludlow asked.
“I think they deserve better.”
The number of transgender troops among the approximately 1.3 million active duty US service members is fairly small, with estimates topping out at 15,000.
With uncertainty about transgender troops simmering, several members of Congress this week wrote Mattis to “reject” his policy recommendations to bar transgender service except under limited circumstances.
“Today our military benefits from the service of thousands of transgender troops who fight in defense of our freedoms with honor and distinction,” wrote House Democrat Joe Kennedy III in a letter signed by 120 other lawmakers.
Ann Murdoch, who retired from the US Army in 2013 and then began her transition, said the battle over transgender issues brought her to the wreath-laying, as a way to honor trans soldiers currently deployed and in harm’s way.
“It was important for me to be here today, especially with all the political things going on,” the 55-year-old said, dressed in a crisp uniform colored with medals and decorations.
As Murdoch spoke, an unknown woman walked up and shook her hand. “Thank you for your service,” she said.