San Diego’s 9th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival recently presented the documentary TransMilitary at Balboa Park’s Museum of Photographic Arts. The screening was followed by a panel discussion, which included film protagonist Laila Villanueva, Human Rights Watch LGBT researcher Kyle Knight, and Neutral Corner President and retired Army Major Veronica Zerrer. The panel was moderated by HRW Film Festival Deputy Director Jennifer Nedbalsky.

TransMilitary chronicles the experiences of Airman First Class Logan Ireland, US Army Corporal Laila Villanueva, US Army Captain Jennifer Peace and First Lieutenant El Cook. Their stories put faces on the effects of the transgender service ban: being forced into the closet, harassment from commanders and staff if discovered, and delay of career advancement. It also means the threat of discharge: loss of the financial ability to support loved ones, as well as benefits and pensions. And finally, it means shattering their dreams of serving their country. As Logan puts it “I stand to lose my career, my future, my foundation…I stand to lose everything”.

With the organization Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect And Tolerance for All they meet with military leaders at the Pentagon to advocate for their right to serve. It’s a huge risk, as all could face discharge for coming out as trans. Sparta leader and group organizer Sue Fulton praises their courage: “It’s going to be nerve-wracking for them. [But] the thing about a good solider is if you say ‘Well, here is the task and it’s a tough task’, a good soldier will say ‘then give it to me’. And these are the folks we have”.

During the Question and Answer session after the screening, the panelists made several important points:

Kyle noted that President Trump’s tweet reimposing the ban in July 2017 has met with resistance from the military and members of the US congress. Even Utah Senator Orrin Hatch expressed disagreement, which is “really off-brand for him!” While the reimposed ban has been terrifying, we’ve seen many of those affected stand up for the rights. The lesson is “You don’t mess with people who volunteer to serve this country”.

Laila emphasized “We go to work just like anyone else and continue to do our job. We are assets that need to be put to work. We just want to be seen as equals”. Veronica added that the allegation that trans-troops somehow weaken military lethality is simply not true: “I have two words: Prove It!” and that trans personnel do indeed know “how to put steel on target”.

When asked what  members of the public can do to show support, Laila advised that we should learn to LISTEN first to other points of view, in order to get the conversation started. She also affirmed “See Something-Say Something”: If you see someone trans being bullied, support them. Veronica noted the importance of BEARING WITNESS, going outside our comfort zone, being willing to dialogue with and educate social conservatives or others who are diametrically opposed to transgender rights.

When asked by this blog “What can transmilitary personnel teach the civilian transcommunity”? Veronica responded “Perseverance” and “Leading by example”. Laila added “Resiliency, self love, and self care”.

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