Politics & Government

LGBT voices are being heard in Mississippi. Trump’s transgender ban won’t change that.

In the weeks before President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that transgender people will not be allowed to serve in the military, the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s LGBTQ has had more visibility than ever before. In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement, however, local leaders say they’re disappointed but hopeful that Mississippi will rally behind its LGBTQ community.

“It really means that we need to fight harder,” said Molly Kester, president of the Mississippi Rainbow Center and a U.S. Air Force veteran. “We need to push harder at the local level to be supportive of equality for all people.

“The trans community is one of the smallest minorities in the country. What’s to say they’re not going to work their way up to other minority groups?”

Kester, a trans woman, served in the military when don’t ask, don’t tell legislation was the law of the land. Kester says she thinks Trump’s ban is “stupid” and disheartening. She believes that Trump is working to reverse any progressive actions taken by former President Barack Obama. The ban could affect the 15,500 transgender adults that are currently serving on active duty in the military or in reserve forces, according to a study from the UCLA’s Williams Institute Scholars.

“Once they let you serve openly, then to take it away, I would feel like I was being let down by government.” she said.

A small but mighty community on the Coast

Kester is now a prominent voice for Mississippi’s small trans community. She’s been a part of several recent events that have given the LGBTQ more visibility than ever on the Coast.

She is a member of the Gulf Coast Equality Council, a board that is raising funds to hold the Gulf Coast Equality Fest at Westside Park in Gulfport on October 21.

John Perkins, president of the council, said that while he’s disappointed in Trump’s ban, he’s proud of how far Mississippi has come in being inclusive of the LGBTQ community.

In the past month, the council has hosted a drag brunch in downtown Biloxi and the Wigs and Wine event at Blue Rose Mansion in Pass Christian. The council is partnering with Gulf Islands Water Park to host LGBT Family Day at the park on Sunday. There is a drag brunch in the works for August as well. Many members of the council were present at Sun Herald’s One Night Out on July 23. The event was hosted by Lexis Redd D’ville and “Out Here In America” host Justin Mitchell.

In June, the first-ever LGBT+ Pride event brought hundreds to Point Cadet Plaza, including Gia Gunn, a contestant from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” There was one lone protester at the event.

“I grew up in the 80s, and I would never have thought this would happen in Mississippi,” Perkins said, noting that all of the recent LGBT events held on the Coast have had many attendees who identify as straight.

National and local opposition

Several groups have decried Trump’s transgender ban, and national media have already started looking into just how much giving care to transgender people would actually cost the military.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called the ban “unpatriotic” in a video editorial.

The HRC has created a text-message campaign in an attempt to overturn the ban they call an “assault on service members.”

The Washington Post posted an analysis in response to Trump’s comments about the “tremendous” medical costs associated with care for trans soldiers. The Post said the military pays five times more to provide Viagra to soldiers.

GQ posted a response, saying the cost to provide medical care for those soldiers targeted in the ban is about the same as four of Trump’s lavish vacations.

LGBT Twitter is taking Trump to task for his latest tweets, because he said publicly he’d fight for them on June 14, 2016.

Some military veterans supported Trump’s decision Wednesday morning, while many other condemned it.

“I’m a transgender veteran who served honorably in the military. I disagree with you,” tweeted Perry Bain.

The Spectrum Center, an LGBTQ resource alliance in Hattiesburg, condemned Trump’s ban and promised to fight for full equality in Mississippi.

“We are committed to building a community in which all individuals,regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, are allowed to live full and meaningful lives, and that includes the opportunity to serve in this country’s armed forces,’ said Dennis Cowles, board president at The Spectrum Center.

In Mississippi, HB 1523 has been a hot topic for more than a year, after Gov. Phil Bryant signed the “religious freedom” bill into law, allowing businesses to to discriminate against LGBT people, or anyone, based on religious preference.

The bill was struck down last summer in U.S. District Court; the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in June.

The bill was publicly criticized by thousands of people, institutions and businesses in 2016. Sun Herald kept a running list of those of did not support HB 1523. The Sun Herald was unable to find any businesses or people who publicly wanted to be on the list supporting the bill.

‘At some point, they’re coming for you’

Kester is also concerned that Trump will target other members of the LGBTQ community in future legislation.

“People need to wake up and realize at some point, they’re coming for you,” she said. “You swear your life for your country and your Constitution, to be just dismissed like that ... that’s very degrading and demeaning.”

It’s not clear how the Trump administration plans on carrying out the ban, which came one year after Barak Obama lifted the ban on transgender troops serving openly.

The Pentagon did not have many answers for reporters Wednesday morning and seemed to have been caught off guard, according to McClatchy.

“Call the White House,” a Pentagon spokesman told reporters.

VA care won’t change

Kester said she knows many trans veterans who receive medical care at the VA hospital in Biloxi, and she feared they would lose coverage under Trump’s ban, but officials say that’s not the case.

Curt Cashour, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA’s policy has not changed.

“We provide care, benefits and other VA services to all veterans, including transgender veterans,” Cashour said.

In the last two years, South Mississippi has been able to empathize with two trans women who were brutally murdered at the hands of lovers.

Dee Whigham was stabbed to death 190 times by Navy sailor Dwanya Hickerson. Whigham, a nurse from Hattiesburg, was in town with friends for a spring break event. Hickerson said he met Whigham in her Jackson County hotel room to have sex but “lost it” when he found out Whigham was transgender. He accepted a plea deal and will spend 35 years in prison.

Whigham’s mother called the plea deal a “slap in the face” while Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence defended the deal, saying it ensured Hickerson would spend time behind bars.

Merecedes Williamson, a transgender teen from Alabama, was brutally beaten with a hammer in 2015 by her boyfriend, gang member Josh Vallum. Her body was found on Vallum’s father’s property in George County.

Vallum pleaded guilty to the murder and will spend life in prison. Vallum was also convicted in the first-ever federal hate crime prosecution against a transgender person.

Williamson’s case made national headlines in 2015 when Caitlyn Jenner mentioned Williamson in her Arthur Ashe Award acceptance speech at the 2015 ESPYs.

Transgender women in South Mississippi came together to mourn the loss of Williamson and spoke about what it’s like being a trans and living in South Mississippi.

The nation’s first transgender killing in 2017 was in the Deep South.

Mesha Caldwell, a popular hair and makeup artist in Canton, Mississippi, was shot and her death was ruled a homicide.

Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi could not be reached for comment in this story. Brian Lamar, communications specialist at Naval Construction Battalion Center-Gulfport, said media should reach out to the Secretary of Defense for comment.

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_