Content warning: homophobia
“Don’t touch me at night,” my summer camp cabin-mate hissed at me, just as we were about to go to sleep. I was 11, visibly lesbian (I may or may not have worn baseball jerseys seven days a week), and living in suburban Pennsylvania. Comments like this were nothing new.
My childhood was a long exercise in policing my interactions with and distancing myself from female peers. That a gay person would make aggressive, unsolicited advances toward any and every member of the same gender was a common fear of the time, imparted upon children by their parents, coming-of-age rom-coms, and — oh, the U.S. government.
The U.S. Government’s History of Homophobia
The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy (DADT) was in effect for years before I was born, from 1994 until 2011, when it was repealed under the Obama administration. DADT prohibited any person who had engaged in or attempted to engage in “homosexual acts” — defined in the policy as “any bodily contact, actively undertaken or passively permitted, between members of the same gender for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires” — from serving in the United States military. The ostensible reasoning behind DADT was that the open presence of gay people in the military “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” The homophobic subtext of the policy was that gay people cannot possibly coexist with straight people without making sexual advances towards their straight peers.
In 1993, at a meeting held between President Bill Clinton and six military representatives at the White House, Commander Craig Quigley argued for the passage of DADT, declaring that “homosexuals are notoriously promiscuous.” He went on to claim that if gay people were to serve openly in the military, straight servicemembers would feel unsafe showering due to an, “uncomfortable feeling of someone watching.” This wrongful justification for DADT, like many other policies, rested upon the presumption that gay people are always watching — that they cannot safely or peacefully exist among straight people because they are constantly in search of sexual contact. It propagated the ignorant, homophobic notion that gay people are so sexually driven that they are incapable of following regulations on sexual relationships that govern all servicemembers.
However, the effect of this message was not confined to the U.S. military. Growing up gay, I felt the reverberations of DADT at camp, on the playground, and in classroom halls. Throughout grade school, I never hugged female friends for fear that they would think I was “making a move” on them. Later, in middle school gym class, the fears only grew — I kept my eyes glued to the ground in the changing room to dispel any notion that I was staring at other girls.
It is clear to me now that the widespread homophobic rhetoric promoted during debates around DADT reinforced both in my classmates and myself the idea that all gay people are guilty of sexual harassment by virtue of existing in a predominantly heterosexual society. Even though I had done nothing wrong, I constantly felt wrong, and according to the American government, I was. I was the homosexual lurking among us, a threat to “normal” society. I was the monster inside my own closet.
Even though children are not generally associated with military policy, the harm of anti-LGBTQ+ military policies directly affects queer youth. These youth, who are a ready at a significantly higher risk of suffering from bullying and mental illness, are especially vulnerable to internalizing political rhetoric. Therefore, they are especially vulnerable to internalising political rhetoric. They grow up without having yet developed a critical lens through which to view politics, which makes them more vulnerable to internalizing dangerous political messages.
Throughout grade school, I never hugged female friends for fear that they would think I was “making a move” on them.
Making Space for Myself in a History of Half-Truths
As a child enrolled in the U.S. public school system, I was taught that the president is a hero, regardless of his identity; that all laws are justified; and that the military is a noble organization that defends our freedom and safety. It was common practice for children to salute service members in uniform. In honor of Veterans Day, we wrote cards to soldiers deployed overseas. The U.S. military and its endeavors were valorized as the incarnations of bravery and heroism. Growing up, I believed military members were the most honorable figures in society, and that it was my gayness that either made me too gross or too wrong to be one of them.
I did not once think to question these ideas. Instead, I regurgitated them. In order to prove to myself and my peers that I couldn’t possibly be the homosexual monster denounced by the U.S. military, I told my friends I found the idea of two women kissing “disgusting.” The implicit homophobia of DADT, paired with the indubitable heroisation of the military, made me loathe, and thus violently resist, my own sexuality. In turn, my internal struggle with my sexuality was only amplified and broadcasted publicly.
When a government makes a statement on LGBTQ+ people in the military, it is speaking directly to queer youth, and these youths are listening. When U.S. politicians offered up homophobic justification for DADT, they were speaking to me. And when Donald Trump promotes transphobia and exclusion in the name of military efficiency, he is speaking to trans youth.
A Patterned History
Currently, trans youth in the United States stand at a particularly difficult juncture regarding military policy. On July 26, 2017, President Donald Trump tweeted that “the United States Government will not accept or allow [t]ransgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
On July 26, trans children in America were told by the president that they are a burden, that they do not belong in the mainstream workforce, and that their medical needs are invalid and too expensive — despite the whopping $1.5 trillion USD the U.S. government is predicted to spend on military expenses in the 2018 fiscal year.
The implicit homophobia of DADT, paired with the indubitable heroisation of the military, made me loathe, and thus violently resist, my own sexuality.
For the moment, Trump’s attempted ban of trans service members has been stalled by Federal Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who ruled in October that the policy is possibly unconstitutional. But this ruling only provides a temporary hold on the ban, and though Trump has lessened pressure on enforcing the prohibition of trans service members, many conservatives in the military plan to push forward. The prevailing message that the U.S. government and military will send to trans youth hangs in the balance.
Trump’s attempt to ban trans individuals from the U.S. military is a haunting echo of the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, as well as the internalized homophobia and self-hatred DADT arose in me as I was coming to realize my identity. The ban demonstrates one of the many threats the U.S. government poses to queer individuals, and serves as a stark reminder that queerphobia is a repeating history in the United States and North America at large.