The #WontBeErased White House protest of the Trump administration’s consideration of defining transgender people out of legal recognition was largely successful and deserving of praise. It showed unity of action by advocacy and civil rights groups, raised the voices of those targeted by the administration, and it created a visibility across multiple media platforms that can propel the campaign forward.
But as often occurs in nascent campaigns and movements, missteps were made out of passion for our own citizenship and rights that did not respect those of others or our founding American ideals.
As #WontBeErased commanded the attention of the nation from Pennsylvania Avenue, making our voices heard, the protest was chastised by an ardent anti-war protester. Through her bullhorn, she decried the #WontBeErased demonstration for its lack of interest in her cause. It was at that moment, when I had joined with scores of other transgender Americans and our allies to demand our full citizenship be recognized: that we be seen, heard, and respected; that some of my fellow protesters made an error in judgement in the heat of the moment. They were covering the anti-war protester’s face and megaphone with signs and attempting to crowd her away. They were so aggressive that a Secret Service officer repeatedly ordered that they cease and desist.
It was a mistake to impede the very rights and responsibilities of citizenship we were both exercising, #WontBeErased and the anti-war protester alike. It would be an understandable mistake were it younger folks, or others who could be forgiven for their commitment to the cause of civil rights or for their inexperience. But among the group of people who forgot themselves and harassed the woman were staff of advocacy and civil rights organizations present at the protest, and also included some of my fellow veterans — to my great disappointment.
Together, some of these people play a visible role in the LGBTQ community in the struggle to secure our inalienable rights under the Constitution and others, the veterans, once swore an oath to support and defend that Constitution. Collectively, they embarrassed themselves and stained the fight for the rights of transgender Americans, and all of us as a group, whether present at the protest or not. The people and forces wishing to cast us out of society will readily and gleefully seize upon any justification to deem us unworthy as they press home their sustained assault. We cannot hand them more slings and arrows than those they already hurl at us. Protesting at one of the most recognizable and meaningful locations in the country doesn’t simply carry a responsibility to make the most noise possible to draw attention to the fight and the cause it advances, it carries the responsibility to put our values on display to set an example for all of those we fight for and all those we want to find common cause with us.
Our actions at the height of our struggle matter. They define us and our cause. The people claiming roles in the struggle and those who have defended the nation must do better. Leadership is not defined by titles, tweets, likes, the volume of one’s voice, or the applause within the advocacy echo chamber. Leadership is defined by example, by deed, and by the character and conduct displayed when the fight is joined. There should not be a LGBTQ American who is not heartened and inspired by the unwavering support of a true American hero such as Rep. John Lewis. The privilege of hearing him speak of our common humanity and our common cause remains one of the most profound inspirations I have ever known. If that man sees my fight as his, then my fight must be worthy of his example. Leadership is required to ensure that it is.
We must all be equal to our cause and ensure that in winning the struggle for our own rights as transgender Americans and LGBTQ people overall that the rights of others are not demeaned, but that the rights of everyone are championed and elevated. Our fellow Americans, the world, and history are watching.
Shawn Skelly is a retired Navy officer who served in the Obama administration and is currently a commissioner on the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. The comments offered here are hers alone.