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The Trump Administration’s Transgender Memo: The Future of Trans Civil Rights in the U.S. & Abroad

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

- By Micah Clark, Cartoonist -

The future of transgender civil rights were made uncertain this week in a memo released by the Trump administration that expressed the intent to legally redefine gender by a person’s sex assigned at birth. The administration is also seeking to take their “redefinition” rhetoric abroad where United States representatives are seeking to change “vague and politically correct” language about gender at the United Nations’ Third Committee, according to Julian Borger of The Guardian. These motions were met with protests across the country, including one here in Raleigh organized by The Transgender Initiative, a partner program with the LGBT Center of Raleigh. One thing is certain: 1.4 million transgender Americans are scared for their future, as they may very well be legally written out of existence.

In the groundbreaking article‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration” by The New York Times, reporters Erica L. Green, Katie Benner and Robert Pear expand upon the contents of the memo they obtained, detailing that the reach of the Trump administration’s plans is further than once thought: “The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as male or female, unchangeable, and determined by genitals a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by the Times.”

According to the Times, civil rights groups are hoping that the most extreme measures of genetic testing to ascertain a person’s sex will be removed. However, compromise on the memo’s initial wording is unlikely seeing that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) as well as the Department of Justice (DOJ) began moving to immediately restrict the rights of transgender Americans. In response to this the Kris Hiyashi of the Transgender Law Center (TLC) made a statement with a clear message: “Nothing this administration can do will undermine the scores of federal courts that have recognized our [trans people's] humanity and hundreds of state and local legal protections we've already won.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spoke out with additional support for the trans community in an open letter opposing the Trump memo. “Many courageous transgender people are already in court, fighting to maintain these essential civil rights protections. They’ll continue to do so, and we’ll be by their sides, as long as it takes to maintain their basic rights,” said James Esseks, Director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project.

The threat of protections are not just in legal definition, it has become a threat to the very health and safety of trans Americans. Within days of the release of the memo, the DHHS removed all language about gender from its website’s civil rights page before the Times article’s initial release, according to Amanda Michelle Gomez at ThinkProgress. The DHHS being the primary battleground for redefining gender puts trans Americans who qualify for public assistance at risk of losing benefits such as food stamps and health care coverage.

Additionally, the DOJ has affirmed that businesses are allowed to discriminate against transgender employees. “In a brief to the Supreme Court, the DOJ wrote that federal civil rights law banning sex discrimination in the workplace does not extend to transgender people,” Emily Birnbaum of The Hill writes.

In an effort to protest the erasure of trans Americans from policy language, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was interrupted during an address to the Federalist Society in Boston. Mateo Emanuel Alejandro Cox, a disabled transgender activist, was one of those who spoke out in protest against Sessions before being removed by police force. Cox, photographed holding a trans pride flag over his head with “Not Erased” written on it, has much to say about those who seek to erase trans people or reduce them to a debatable topic. “It [being transgender] is not an ‘ideology’ or ‘lifestyle’ people can agree or disagree on. When people reduce us [transgender people] to some intellectual exercise as if we are abstract and not your fellow Americans who deserve equal rights, our humanity is being erased. We need our allies more than ever and those not directly affected to realize that this is a civil rights issue,” Cox said when asked about the impacts of the memo.

Though it may be easier to combat regressive policy within the nation’s borders, it is more difficult to address the safety of transgender people worldwide. United States representatives at the United Nations are attempting to change language around gender that representatives deem “vague and politically correct.” Some alterations would replace the word “gender” with “women” instead. These suggested changes come at the UN’s Third Committee which, according to The Guardian’s Julian Borger, deals with “social, humanitarian, and cultural rights.” This effort for the changing of language may lead to the United States allying with more conservative nations including Russia which may put them at odds with their European allies, Borger reports. This not only threatens the liberties of transgender people across the globe, but also may put diplomatic tensions between allies at the UN.

The threats to transgender rights are not entirely new to residents of North Carolina, home of House Bill 2, also known at the Transgender Bathroom Bill. North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell just recently helped remove coverage for gender affirmative health care procedures within the state in the name of reducing statewide medical costs. The treasurer referred to gender affirmative care as “elective, and non-emergency,” according to Joe Killian at NC Policy Watch.

Despite a national and statewide effort to erase transgender people from social and legal protections, transgender activists are fighting back in the form of protests and marches across the country with the hashtag #WontBeErased, according to Sarah Mervosh and Christine Hauser of The New York Times. Kris Cone is the Program Manager of the Transgender Initiative, a program of the LGBT Center of Raleigh. The Center organized a march to the capitol building defending trans rights just one day after news of the memo broke. When asked about how the planned policy changes would impact trans Americans, Cone replied, “This policy change, along with all of the other hateful bigotry the current administration has spewed, has emboldened transphobic people to speak out, and I believe it will embolden some of them to commit physical acts of violence. Being erased legally and having protections taken away from us feels like an attempt to erase us completely.” Many transgender people have expressed fears for their safety as well as their futures within the United States, and Cone is no different. When asked how this policy will affect him personally, Cone replied, “Being openly transgender in the current climate is terrifying, but the LGBT Center of Raleigh is standing up for and with the trans community. We are going to continue to march and protest and ensure that our voices are heard, but most importantly we are going to continue to offer a safe space for people who often feel unsafe.”

Despite the immense stress many transgender Americans have expressed feeling since news of the memo broke, there are accessible resources available to those needing support. Trans people within the area may reach out to the LGBT Center of Raleigh for information about medical, legal and social resources within the region. Additionally, The Trans Lifeline is a transgender suicide and resource hotline for those needing support and may be reached at (877) 565-8860.

It is no surprise that transgender Americans are frightened for their safety, but given support and solidarity, there is hope that the community and their allies may come together to resist this administration's most recent attack. For now, many civil rights groups such as the ACLU and Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal advocacy group, will be working hard to represent the interests of transgender Americans and protect their rights as new changes to policy arise.


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