Content warning: graphic anti-trans physical and sexual violence, war
Uncle Sam wants us. The Pentagon is on board. Jeb Bush is on board. Trans people are already in the U.S. military, but maybe now that will be officially approved. I wrote something a little while ago that asked a lot of questions about how to go beyond the trans military inclusion debate as it’s being framed. In this blog post, and hopefully some others that will follow it, I’m trying to think more about what that would really look like.
Last year, a cisgender male U.S. Marine, Joseph Pemberton, killed Jennifer Laude, a 26-year old Filipina transgender woman. Pemberton, originally from Massachusetts, was stationed in the Philippines at the time.
Murders of trans women of color rarely ignite a great deal of outrage or public attention in the U.S. But the murder of Laude provoked a great deal of outrage in the Philippines. Demands of “Justice for Jennifer,” “U.S. Out of the Philippines,” and “Junk the VFA,” have gone hand-in-hand. VFA stands for the Visiting Armed Forces Agreement, a treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines.
Many people raised in the U.S. without close ties to Filipino communities know very little about U.S.-Philippines relations. I know I learned nothing about it in school, and rarely hear about it on the news. So here’s a short history lesson just in case you, like me, never learned it in school or from your family. But I’m no expert–if you are, please feel free to correct me. Also, I drew some of this from an article Pooja Gehi and I wrote together for a collection Craig Willse and Soniya Munshi edited, so please consider keeping an eye out for the whole thing. It will be called Dreaming, Telling, Occupying and Destroying: Interest Convergence between Militarism and Social Justice in the DREAM Act and Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
In the late 19th Century, the U.S. fought Spain for control over colonies, including the Philippines. Spain eventually agreed to give the Philippines to the U.S. The Filipinos, however, had other ideas: they declared independence and rejected colonial rule from both imperial powers. A bitter, protracted, and controversial war followed, during which the U.S. military committed atrocities: water boarding, internment of Filipinos in concentration camps, and massacre. The U.S. annexed the Philippines as a “protectorate” and the U.S. military suppressed subsequent uprisings and revolutions.
When Japanese armies invaded the Philippines during World War II, President Roosevelt ordered that Filipino soldiers who fought against the Japanese would acquire U.S. citizenship and the same benefits as soldiers from the U.S. Around 250,000 Filipino people joined the fight. After Japan surrendered, Congress passed the Rescission Act to deny Filipino soldiers the benefits Roosevelt had promised. It was only in the early 1990s, after many had already passed away, that Filipino World War II veterans received U.S. citizenship. It was only in 2009 that the surviving veterans received the benefits that they had been awaiting for over fifty years.
Not long after World War II, in 1946, the U.S. granted independence to the Philippines. But the U.S. military never left. And what’s more, an agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines kept the Philippines from applying their criminal laws to U.S. soldiers. When U.S. soldiers committed crimes, including rape, the U.S. removed them from the Philippines and protected them from any prosecution or accountability in the Philippines.
After the People Power revolution ousted the dictator who had ruled the Philippines for decades, the Philippines refused to renew that agreement. Eventually though, they signed a new one: the Visiting Armed Forces Agreement. This one does allow the Philippines to prosecute U.S. soldiers, but it still allows the U.S. to retain custody over them. And in 2014 the Philippines and U.S. signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, extending U.S. presence in the Philippines.
And in that same year, Pemberton met Laude in a bar. He took her to a hotel room, where he may have raped, beaten, and choked her before drowning her in a toilet bowl.
Laude’s sister and boyfriend stormed the U.S. base to demand proof that Pemberton had not been spirited out of the country like other U.S. troops before him.
Professor Judy M. Taguiwalo, Director of the University of the Philippines Center for Women’s Studies, issued a powerful statement about Laude’s murder. She explains: “The murder of Jennifer is a prime example of how predatory bilateral military agreements like the Visiting Forces Agreement put the lives of women, cis and trans, in peril. Clearly, her death is a hate crime on the basis of gender identity, a heinous case of gender-based violence, and an issue of national sovereignty.”
These dynamics are not limited to the Philippines, as Christopher Capozzola points out: “The murder and rape of a South Korean sex worker in 1991 prompted calls for U.S. troop withdrawal; the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa by U.S. Marines in 1995 still casts a shadow over base negotiations between the U.S. and Japan.”
Filipino communities in the U.S. have also organized against the VFA and grieved Laude. Christina Twu explained: “Wrapped in the historic struggle between the U.S. military and the Philippines, Laude’s murder has become a call to action for activists in Seattle to address transphobia and transmisogyny locally, as well as connect institutionalized trans violence to U.S. militarization.”
For a painful contrast in framing, the Human Rights Campaign blogged about Laude in a way that strips the crime of its context—it makes no mention of the Visiting Armed Forces agreement, or the analysis and demands of organizations like BAYAN and GABRIELA. HRC does have a page about trans military issues–where it talks about “courageous men and women … forced to serve in silence by DOD medical regulations.”
It’s easy to pick on HRC, but of course HRC is hardly alone with that framing. When people talk about trans military issues in the U.S., or at least when we white people talk about trans military issues in the U.S., we don’t talk about the trans people the U.S. military kills. We talk about whether trans women and men (often excluding genderqueer and non-binary trans people) can serve openly in the U.S. military and access gender-affirming healthcare.
What if eliminating the VFA and withdrawing troops from the Philippines were the central demand of any U.S.-based trans, LGBT, or allied group working on military issues? What would happen if we poured resources into ending U.S. military violence toward trans women of color in the Philippines, and all of Asia, and all of the world? What would it be like if we made protecting the lives of trans people—especially the lives of trans people who are neither white nor U.S. citizens—our top priority, and if we accepted that ending colonialism was a part of that? If conditions for trans women around U.S. military bases were the key issue we wanted to learn more about? If any time anyone breathed the phrase “trans military debate,” what it brought to mind was how to stop more killings of trans people of color from happening, how soon the U.S. would close its military bases in the Philippines, and what sort of reparations the U.S. would make to Laude’s family, community, and country?
For right now, please consider supporting organizations like BAYAN and GABRIELA with donations. Also, consider signing one of the many petitions against the VFA, like this one. These descriptions are taken from the organizations’ web sites:
BAYAN-USA is an alliance of 18 progressive Filipino organizations in the U.S. representing students, scholars, women, workers, artists, and youth. As the first and largest international chapter of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN-Philippines), BAYAN-USA serves as an information bureau for the national democratic movement of the Philippines and as a center for educating, organizing, and mobilizing anti-imperialist and progressive Filipinos in the U.S.
GABRIELA National Alliance of Women is a grassroots-based alliance of more than 200 organizations, institutions, desks and programs of women all over the Philippines seeking to wage a struggle for the liberation of all oppressed Filipino women and the rest of our people. While we vigorously campaign on women-specific issues such as women’s rights, gender discrimination, violence against women and women’s health and reproductive rights, GABRIELA is also at the forefront of national and international economic and political issues that affects women. GABRIELA-USA is the first overseas chapter of the Philippine-based organization, extending the Filipino women’s mass movement to the United States. GABRIELA stands for General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Education, Leadership, and Action.