Together, the two events served as a potent reminder that the representation that Biden correctly seeks both matters and isn’t everything. That is, representation, on its own, won’t improve the lives of people whom society has long marginalized.
Policy is necessary, too.
Meanwhile, Austin’s elevation to defense secretary marks a moving turning point for an institution where people of color make up 43% of the 1.3 million service members on active duty in the US but are broadly absent from the military’s top brass, according to The New York Times.
“It is the uniform service that has long acted as a path of upward mobility for Black Americans, and the present day is no different,” Bishop Garrison, the director of national security outreach at Human Rights First, wrote in December for Just Security. “Even still, the most senior positions and ranks within the military remain elusive. Leaders such as Austin are unique in the fact that he has continuously navigated racial barriers successfully.”
At least as meaningful as representation: the kind of action that betters people’s lives in a more tangible manner.
Enter Biden, with his repeal via executive order of the Trump-era ban on transgender people serving in the military.
True to form, President Donald Trump had announced the ban in a series of tweets in July 2017, saying that transgender people would be prohibited from service “in any capacity.”
The previous administration was known for scaling back hard-fought LGBTQ rights, as has been well documented.
That Biden was widely expected to reverse the ban didn’t diminish the moment’s significance.
“This is reinstating a position that the previous commanders as well as the secretaries have supported,” the President said on Monday, shortly before signing the executive order. “And what I’m doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform.”
Biden’s words echoed Austin’s.
“I truly believe, senator, that as I said in my opening statement, if you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve,” Austin said in his confirmation hearing on Friday.
In November, I argued that Biden’s including transgender Americans in his victory address was momentous because the move brought with it the promise of LGBTQ equality under the new administration.
Already, Biden has started to make good on that promise, offering representation, yes, but also much, much more.