A transgender City Council candidate in Brooklyn is taking a stand against President Donald Trump’s announcement that transgender people will not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military “in any capacity.”
Persephone Smith, 46, served in the U.S. Navy special forces for nearly seven years under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, from 1988 to 1995, before she was shot while serving abroad.
“I was not out when I served in the military, but I think people could tell that I was different,” Smith said.
At first, Smith said she actually laughed at Trump’s tweets about people who identify as transgender no longer being allowed to serve openly in the military, “because you don’t make policy over tweets.” But then she quickly realized the ramifications the decision could have on transgender people in the military if Trump follows through.
“I just saw it as a ridiculous thing that Trump does,” Smith said of the tweets. “But looking at it deeper, it’s all about discrimination.”
In Trump’s announcement on July 26, he said transgender people in the military would be too big of a disruption. But Smith said she believes people who are forced to hide who they really are don’t perform as well on the job – and she speaks from experience.
“It was harder for me to work and hold down a job when I wasn’t out,” Smith said. “This will drive people back in the closet.”
Smith saw combat in Iraq and Nicaragua during her tenure as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician in the Navy, and recalled the days of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when she couldn’t be her “authentic self.”
“People like me who did come off as a seemingly different, they were bullied,” she said. “It made it difficult for us to perform our jobs.”
The Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, estimated in 2016 that there were between 1,320 and 6,630 active service members who are transgender.
The Pentagon was expected to begin allowing people who identify as transgender to enlist in the military this year after the ban was lifted in 2016, but in June, Defense Secretary James Mattis approved a six-month delay on allowing transgender recruits and ordered a review.
Although Trump is now saying he will ban transgender recruits, his announcement didn’t make it clear how the policy change would be implemented or how it would affect current service members who are transgender.
Smith said she wouldn’t be surprised if Trump didn’t clear the decision with anyone in the military before he tweeted about it.
Shortly after Trump’s declaration, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said there had been no change yet to Pentagon policy on transgender personnel and vowed that the military would “treat all of our personnel with respect.”
Smith said she hopes those who support the transgender community will help fight back against the decision.
“Now is the time to continually push back against this. People look at it like, ‘well it was just a tweet,’ but look at what it’s done,” she said. “It’s created this panic amongst people and celebration amongst bigots.”
Smith, who is currently running for a City Council seat in District 37, said she is also ready to fight for her own district, which includes the Cypress Hills, Bushwick, City Line, Ocean Hill, Brownsville and East New York neighborhoods.
“I’ve always been a fighter, from my time in the military to being an activist,” she added. Although she’s not officially associated with a specific city organization, Smith has previously marched with the Anti-Violence Project and the Brooklyn Community Pride Center.
Smith said she believes gentrification and a lack of affordable housing are two of the biggest issues residents in her district are facing.
Currently, what the city considers “affordable” is based on the median income of the entire five boroughs plus Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. But Smith wants to make it so that affordable housing is based on a median income for each district.
“People in this district make on average $27,000 to $37,000 a year,” she said. The Area Median Income for the New York City region in 2017 is $85,900 for a three-person family, according to the city Housing Preservation and Development.
Smith said she sees rents creeping up all over her district, yet “new condos and new buildings that are going up have little to no affordable housing.”
“When I moved to New York I started living in Park Slope, and back then it was affordable,” she said. “I am living in Bushwick now and I’m starting to see the same thing happening.”
And while she’s not opposed to new people moving into the area and bringing money with them, she said she does take issue with landlords who start raising rents along with it.
Affordable housing is just part of Smith’s agenda. She also wants to see police and justice reform, and is against broken windows policing.
Health care, jobs and education are also important campaign issues for Smith, who is running as a Green Party of Brooklyn candidate and will be taking on incumbent Rafael Espinal Jr. in the Nov. 7 general election.
If elected, she would be the first transgender person to serve in the City Council.
(With Nicole Brown and Reuters)