I’m setting myself up for criticism. After all, aren’t Quakers known for our fierce (some would say strident) pacifism and opposition to all things military? So why is this Quaker advocating for the legal right of transgender Americans to serve in the military?
The easy answer is simply that I am also a transgender person, so I feel a profound solidarity with my transgender brothers and sisters in any aspect of our shared struggle for equality as American citizens. Have I placed myself on the horns of moral and spiritual conflict then – pacifism versus equality?
First, the pacifism that Quakers generally espouse runs deep. It isn’t simply about avoiding military service and renouncing war; it’s about avoiding all conditions that give rise to violent conflict in the first place. Many will argue that it is human nature to be competitive, and that on occasion this competition is inherently bound to escalate to violence and sometimes even organized violence at scale – war. What drives competition to become violent conflict is as complex as is human nature, and yet such extreme competition is frequently and appropriately linked to some of the worst attributes of human nature: greed, pride, arrogance, callousness to human suffering, elitism, even evil.
In short, violent conflict – and the need for having a military to defend us – represents human failure at a vast scale. While Americans frequently celebrate our women and men in uniform, and rightly express our gratitude to them for their service, we tend to turn a blind eye to the brutal savagery and devastation of warfare. War leads inexorably to human suffering, often massively. Morality, and our efforts towards building civilized societies, is all about ending human suffering. War and violence stand in our way.
Those who feel called to place themselves in harm’s way to defend us from the devastating and destructive consequences of that massive human failure are rightly hailed for their selfless courage and sacrifice. I’m the grandchild of a Marine Corps general, the daughter of a Marine Corps colonel, the sister of brothers all of whom served in the armed forces, and the aunt of a Navy pilot, so I have lived close to men of commendable patriotism, sacrifice, virtue, and dedication through their service. I have many dear friends (some transgender) who are veterans. I respect them all deeply.
There is another side.
It is also human nature to be collaborative, to work together for the common good, to dedicate oneself to public service. In short, humans are called to be collaborating as peace-builders as much as we are called to be competitive and in conflict. Many of us are called to sacrifice our own personal interests to instead act out of a deep conviction that peace is more than not fighting. Peace is living together, in community, in pursuit of harmony, in ending unnecessary suffering, in being good stewards of our planet, and in working toward human flourishing. Peace is about building a common future where everyone is respected, where everyone’s dignity is equal. Peace is about taking away the conditions that give rise to violent competition – to war. Building and sustaining peace is hard, unrelenting, often thankless work. Peacebuilders get few parades, and seldom seek public recognition (which doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve it).
Peace is about love.
Yes – it sounds soft. Unrealistic. Naive. Unworldly. We have all been brought up to have a fuzzy warmth toward the notions of love and compassion, mercy and caring, solidarity and self-sacrifice, but we are also raised to be deeply skeptical. Human nature is sinful, most will argue. We need to prepare for the worst, because “the worst” happens so frequently.
I am an unrepentant idealist and feminist. I know that bad things happen, and that people often make decisions that lead to violence and to gut-wrenching, inconsolable suffering. Yet I stubbornly believe that we as human beings have the capacity to craft a different narrative, to step into a new and far better stage of our shared moral development.
The key to that transformation begins with but one concept – that universal human dignity matters. The path to peace, to a different narrative built upon collaboration and harmony, starts with that conviction. It isn’t optional, and it isn’t fuzzy.
The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday upholding the Trump administration’s policy of blatant discrimination against one demographic – transgender people – flies in the face of that fundamental principle. It is a moral failure, unsupported by strong factual evidence. To the contrary, our most senior military leaders have publicly concluded that transgender persons are every bit as capable, competent, and qualified as cisgender persons to offer our patriotic service in our armed forces.
Transgender people get discriminated against all the time, in more ways than I have the time or emotional energy to describe. The discrimination is frequently linked to violence – physical, structural, exclusionary, even spiritual. Our fundamental humanity, our mental competence and rationality, our civil and legal and human rights – all are called into question by the fierce and persistent discrimination directed at us, often simply for the sake of political expediency. We are easy to target. Often, we stand out in our audacity. Our claims of gender authenticity are shredded by ignorance, by some variants of caustic theological and ideological assertions, by fear, and perhaps even by evil.
The Supreme Court of the United States of America had an opportunity yesterday to stand up for the universal human dignity of every American citizen. Instead, the five conservative justices made an exception – the dignity of all Americans is to be respected except for those of us who are transgender. It is no small thing; they turned us as a nation away from the path of building a society inclined toward peace and collaboration. Instead, they chose to fuel bigotry, division, targeting, stigmatization, and exclusion. They attacked our dignity as transgender persons. We do not take this lightly.
This transgender pacifist Quaker has never sought to join the military. But this transgender Quaker is convinced that the path to building the kind of peace that takes away wars starts with treating every person as equal, and as dignified.