12 January 2010

Some Thoughts on Amanda Simpson's Appointment

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be true to yourself. But it can't hurt. Or can it?

That might be the underlying message of
Amanda Simpson's appointment as a Senior Technical Advisor to the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security. As best as I can tell, you pretty much have to be a rocket scientist to understand what that job is!

Obama appointed her to the post. Some are saying she's the token "T" (sounds like something that might've been used on Boston's mass transit system) on his cabinet. It could be that Obama is trying to make nice with the LGBT community after refusing to support gay marriage during his campaign.

I have very mixed feelings about this appointment, to say the least. From what I've read about her, I have no doubt that Ms. Simpson is qualified for the job. And it may just lead to greater acceptance of transgendered people among the general public. After all, she is the first openly transgendered Presidential appointee, and now is arguably the highest-ranking, or at least the most visible, transgendered person in a public office.

And she seems eager to do the job. I can't help but to be happy for her.

But I also can't help to be disturbed by one aspect of the appointment--or, more precisely, its implications. It reminds me, in a way, of Harry Truman's racial integration of the Armed Forces in 1948, and how much African-American leaders advocated for it.

Ms. Simpson spent most of her career at Raytheon, a defense contractor. I guess most rocket scientists are working for the military (Yes, NASA is an arm of the military. Don't let anybody tell you any different!) directly or indirectly. I suppose one cannot fault someone for working wherever one can find employment in whatever he or she does best. That's pretty much what 99 percent of all humanities faculty members (including yours truly) are doing.

So I can't fault Ms. Simpson for working a company whose business model is often said to be "blowing shit up." But her extensive background in such endeavors could be a double-edged sword, both for her and transgendered people generally.

One of the reasons why African-Americans fought for the integration of the Armed Forces is that some of them fought in Europe during World War II and were not segregated when they entered cafes or other public venues in England, France and other countries as they were in fighting for their own country. But another reason that may have seemed even more important at the time was that leaders of the then-nascent Civil Rights movement realized that being integrated in the military would make integration--and, they hoped, acceptance--faster and more complete in the civilian world. In other words, if you were good enough to fight alongside your countrymen for your country, you had to be their equal. Or so the thinking went.

But, as much as this country makes grand gestures of honoring veterans, the truth is that most people who haven't been in the military don't want to be in contact with it. In a way, I can't blame them: After all, soldiers are reminders of war, and who wants to think about that? But there is also a hypocrisy involved: For all that this country's leaders like to make a show of honoring veterans, it also conscripts, de facto, many who are too poor or dark or uneducated to have other options. And, it also diverts technological and scientific talent and skill away from uses which might be of greater benefit to people: Amanda Simpson is a case in point.

Plus, the military and its contractors are not nearly as egalitarian, never mind progressive, as they like to portray themselves to the public. Most of the enlistees are people of color or poor whites from rural areas and the Rust Belt; most of the officers are not. And there is the military's odious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. I fail to see how anyone can use membership in such an institution to help whatever group ones belongs to.

What the appointment of Amanda Simpson accomplishes is to have a transgendered person in a high position in this country's military-industrial-corporate welfare system. While that, like the integration of the Armed Forces, may show that members of another group are just as up to their eyeballs in the muck as everyone else is. Maybe that's what we have to be in order to gain equality; if that's the case, it's not a good sign.

Plus, it--like everything else Obama has done so far--is ultimately about his image. Obama, I believe, is every bit as dedicated to creating and maintaining his image, whatever that may be, as Ronald Reagan was. His appointment of Ms. Simpson might make him look good to some in the LGBT community and may convince others that he's really trying to be inclusive.

But, whatever may come of this, I still have great respect for Ms. Simpson's intelligence--and the fact that she transitioned where and when she did. That probably took more courage than my own transition, and the transitions of many other people.