Why does gender matter in the Transatlantic?

In her seminal book, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir states that ‘one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one’. This citation is helpful to understand how the concept of gender is one which is performed and takes shape as it is acted over time, as argued by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. A similar process occurs with transatlantic relations. Alike to human relationships, the transatlantic is a combination of layered social interactions which evolve over time with narratives around shared knowledge and values. 

To explore this further, the first section will argue that gender is a useful lens to apply in studying the relationship between member states of the European Union (EU) and the United States of America (US), the boundaries of the transatlantic for this article. Following this, the remarks of President Trump on transgender members serving in the military will be analyzed to articulate why gender matters as it sheds some light on the degrees of inclusivity of nations.  

Why gender matters

Gender matters because it acts as a proxy for what is accepted within societies. It informs us of which practices are constructed as ‘normal, and thus which ones are ‘abnormal’. For example, a person with female sex organs is accepted to identify as a woman. However, if a person with male sex organs identifies as a woman, their gender identification is considered problematic.  A flurry of labels such as ‘tranny, ‘masquerading, ‘it’, are used to attack, discredit and isolate these individuals who deviate from their given gender label. Thus, gender is a useful lens as it offers a means through which to investigate who is included in the label of ‘normality’, shielded from such abuse, and who is excluded from protection.

Specifically for this piece, gender matters because norms around masculinity and virility are often the sub-context for evaluating those who can serve to defend one’s country, and those who cannot. An over simplistic interpretation of gender norms and expectations may lead citizens and serving officers to wonder if those not born with male reproductive organs, but who identify as a man, i.e. a transgender male, are ‘able’ to carry out the physical tasks entrusted to them. The framing of these questions are inherently reductionist but often create unsettling conditions for non-cisgender individuals to evolve in.  

Moreover, personal and societal constructions around gender, and gender normality have direct implications: does the government fund centers which help gender reassignment procedures? Does the military sponsor such operations? These financial consideration have direct implications for the individuals concerned, military officers, and taxpayers.  

Only a fraction of topics associated with gender were mentioned above. Rather than providing an exhaustive and encompassing context to why gender matters, the above serves to introduce the conceptual framework which guided the writing of this piece, but also sets the frame for follow-up pieces.

The role gender plays in Transatlantic Relations

Differing treatments of transgender members in militaries across the Atlantic reaffirms that gender matters as its conceptions and applications are not uniform. To exemplify, the Netherlands was the first country in Europe to allow transgender individuals to serve in its military in 1974. Whilst the United Kingdom (UK) and France waited almost three decades to follow suit. Belgium will only recognize a member of its military as transgender after surgery. In contrast, the UK will only recognize the gender-identification of the military personnel after two years of ‘having lived that gender’. These distinctions highlight differences across states of how non-mainstreamed genders are conceptualized and framed, in that they reveal differing levels of inclusion.

This is why Trump’s comments mattered, when on 26 July 2017 he declared that:

‘After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender 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 tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.’

Two objections are made clear to transgender individuals serving in the military: (i) the medical costs of the federal government paying for surgery for transgender individuals, and (ii) the ‘disruption’ that transgenders in the military would create. Whilst the first one is up for debate as the Pentagon announced that it would pay for gender-reassignment surgery of a serving member, the second one is more troubling. By framing transgender individuals as a ‘disruption’, President Trump is framing their presence as a hindrance to the success of the army’s activities. Thus he is framing gender as a linear male/female dichotomy, with variations considered to be abnormal and thus disrupting and posing a burden on the military.

President Trump’s view is however not shared across all institutions. Three federal judges issued injunctions to block the ban and bi-partisan resistance in the Senate protested the President’s move. The contradictions thus highlight differing understandings of gender in the military within states and reveal differing values of inclusion in regards to gender. Such inconsistencies demonstrate the necessity of taking gender-norms into consideration in order to better understand how themes of normality reverberate across the Atlantic.

If the transatlantic relationship is built around shared values and history, then gender concepts framed within the US may influence what is said and done on the other side of the ocean. What happens if those are fragmented within nations? There are no simple answers to this. Division provides an additional layer of complexity for analysis. Nevertheless, gender must be used as an additional lens to better understand the Transatlantic.

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