Sometimes an academic concept finds embodiment in a way that renders a complex idea instantly clear. What Jasbir Puar calls “homonationalism” is one of these complex, intersectional ideas that was illustrated explicitly in recent headlines about a participant in the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The recent transition of SEAL Team 6 member Kristin Beck from male to female received brief media coverage, but is incredibly illuminating and worthy of analysis. The story is situated around a former DEVGRU operator who is a both a member of the most-targeted queer community and assassin of the world’s most-hated terrorist. After 20 years in the SEALs, including a role in Operation Neptune Spear, Kristin retired from the Navy and transitioned in 2011. She released her book, Warrior Princess, in June of 2013, and news outlets immediately began speculating that Kristin’s coming-out could prompt a review of the ban on openly transgender members of the military. Any trans person’s coming-out is cause for celebration, but a story like this is also cause for analysis. The narrative around this story reveals a great deal about America’s ideological underpinnings and national narratives in the War on Terror.
Reflected by his Onionish reputation as the fun, avuncular side of the Obama administration, Joe Biden is the first person to signal which marginalized groups are about to be folded into America’s mainstream. Biden prominently signaled his opposition to both “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA before their repeal became the Obama administration’s official stand. On gay marriage, Obama remarked that Biden “probably got out a little bit over his skis, but out of generosity of spirit.” It’s consequential that Biden called transgender discrimination “the civil rights issue of our time.” It signals that there is a push to allow trans people access to the most cherished, reactionary American institutions. Membership, however, comes with the caveat that this access is only for a certain racialized, socio-economically privileged type of person willing to uphold the status quo.
Ideology works most effectively when it doesn’t appear to be working at all, and nothing to do with glorifying America’s military can ever be apolitical. So what ideological purpose does homonationalism serve? In her 2007 book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Puar explains that homonationalism is an arrangement that resembles traditional heteronationalism. Liberal politics, Puar argues, incorporates queer figures into the fold of the nation-state, setting up now-normative queers in opposition to the atavistic figure of “The Terrorist,” a racialized Other who poses a threat that the nation’s border guard against.
No single figure has ever been more strongly configured as a threatening Terrorist Other than Osama bin Laden. His intrusions into the American psyche had the power to send the state scrambling for securitization. For a trans person to have participated in his killing is a consequential development for the project of homonationalism. A concept that raises issues of sexuality, race, gender, nation, class, and ethnicity, it can be likened to “pinkwashing.” Pinkwashing is the act by which a state erases or distracts from its own actions by drawing attention to the way it treats its queers, *bonus points* for pointing out queer troops. The imperialist country that does well by its queers is justified in violence against a savage, heteronormative enemy, goes the logic. Dan Savage, spokesperson for the assimilationist wing of the contemporary gay rights movement, echoed this idea during his full-throated support of the Iraq War: “there are times when saying ‘no’ to war means saying ‘yes’ to oppression.”
The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” served both a practical and a political purpose. Logistically, it removed constraints that had been forcing the expulsion of qualified personnel from a series of wars that have severely overtaxed the military. Ideologically, it undergirded the narrative that the US is a civilizing force in its imperial project to subjugate and remake the greater Middle East. As the War on Terror drags on into the Overseas Contingencies Operations, it becomes necessary to find new ways to bolster this framework. The US invades Iraq and Afghanistan? Well, those boots on the ground may belong to gays or lesbians! Drone strikes and night raids terrorize Yemen and Pakistan? Well, those raiders may be trans! As radical queer theorist Yasmin Nair says, “‘equality’ works to obscure and even justify brutality towards [the] most marginal.” It’s a central part of human psychology to see oneself as a fundamentally Good actor. For the US, homonationalism creates this framework of being a good actor even as its actions cause so much suffering. The case of Kristin Beck sends the message that even America’s trans queers can be part of its most elite corps of trained killers.