Recently, the Trump administration, through the Department of Health and Human Services, issued a worrying memo about gender identity. In the memo, HHS argues for an interpretation of gender and sex that would define gender as “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals a person is born with.” This would roll back the expanded definition of gender put in place by the Obama administration. It follows a series of anti-trans moves by the president, including his attempts to ban trans people from the military, and the administration’s guidance to schools to enforce gendered bathroom policies.
A lot of people are very worried because this targeting of identity in particular can be quite dangerous for trans people living under such a regime. Dean Spade lays out some of the ways in which identification laws and legal definitions harm trans people in Truthout:
For the last 16 years, I have been involved with efforts to reduce the enforcement of gender categories on trans people and everyone. When I started doing this work in 2002, many state and local agencies and federal administrative regimes that keep gender marker data about people didn’t have clear policies, or didn’t have any policy at all, about whether someone could change their gender marker, or even what evidence or documentation the gender marker on someone’s records or ID is based on. As trans legal organizations began to emerge in the early 2000s, we worked to identify ways to reduce the harms trans people face because of gender norm enforcement.
As a poverty lawyer working at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, I saw this harm in my clients’ lives. One client was kicked out of school when she and her friend showed up dressed as women, coming out to their peers and teachers. Another client had her welfare benefits terminated when she showed up at her mandatory “workfare” assignment because the supervisor marked her as absent, saying she wasn’t “work ready” if she dressed as a woman. Another client needed placement in a domestic violence shelter but the shelters would not admit her because she was trans. One client was convicted on a drug charge and wanted to serve part of it in the drug treatment program, but the program would not take him because he was trans.
So legal gender definitions are certainly more than just words for trans folks. But I don’t want to focus on this memo that much because I don’t think it’s really going to matter and I don’t know that the big show of opposing it is focusing energy and resources in the right direction. Part of the problem is that Mr. Trump is doing this right before the election. My guess is that he’s trying to appease evangelical conservatives he might have lost, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a significant political move meant to signal an opposition to queer rights generally, and trans people in particular. The problem is, by focusing the debate about this attack on queer rights on his little election ploy, a lot of folks are getting pushed towards electoral change as the mechanism to fix this. I can’t tell you how many people have tried to tell me a “blue wave” will fix this in the past few days.
But the problem of trans rights and visibility is much deeper than the administrative decrees about how the state sees us. Trans people are facing a much bigger threat right now and we need the resources of resistance focused on that. This century’s iteration of fascist movements seems to be significantly anti-trans, in a way that has already led to the targeting of trans people by far right thugs, not to mention the actions of police all across the country. The current alliance between fascist extremists and US law enforcement is troubling on all counts, and especially so for people with marginalized identities. I can only speak to experiences as a trans person, but this alliance is certainly bringing terror to immigrant communities, black communities, native communities, and many others in similarly extreme ways.
So, I get the fear and anger at this decision, but I think there needs to be a much more considered response — and perhaps a proportionately extreme one — to the rising tide of fascism in this country.
What we’re up against
The cultural aversion to trans people that has existed in many societies across time, with which this political oppression closely allied, is what we need to fight right now. And that means approaching the issue on all fronts and, in particular, creating more and more space for trans people to exist publicly and be treated civilly. Resisting only the end result of anti-trans bigotry will leave us with a continuing cycle of backlash as we have seen in this country before. As we are seeing right now. So, as much as there is a fight to be had over official policy and the role this can play in access to resources and care, we need to think bigger than this decree — we need to question why the Health and Human Services Department has any fucking say in someone’s gender identification to begin with, and why the state even has the power to enforce something like this.
Thankfully, we are already fighting back along these lines. Trans people are very good at continuing to exist, and I think that this time around, the administrative memo is going to be a small blip in the coming fight for space and rights. Trans people exist more visibly than ever in the US right now and this meme is indicative of the mood in some parts of the trans community right now:
Trans people have been living with this kind of fear and social isolation forever. This is not new. This is very fucking unfortunate, but as any trans person will tell you, the possibility to not be legally erased was only recently opened for us anyway. In fact, the state of Ohio, among others, still doesn’t allow the correction of birth certificates to reflect one’s gender expression — not to mention the lack of non-binary identification options on most official documents. And many require proof of surgery (expensive, often-not-insurance-covered surgery) to change all sorts of documents.
And so we have learned how to seize space and to make it clear that we exist by just being, and being more visibly. Increasing visibility for trans folks and trans issues over the past few years has certainly been a mixed bag. From other spots of backlash, to media representations that divided the queer community, it has been a rough road. But one area in which trans rights have progressed steadily, and an area which can’t be easily returned to its previous state, is that we are much more visible now. So, denying the existence of trans people has a much less serious effect. We can keep the fight going in plain sight — but we have to make sure we’re fighting the right battles and stay focused on the deeper problems.
“The dems will help”
Bullshit. So I mentioned a lot of people are responding to this news by hyping up for November’s vote and trying to get everyone to vote for the blue team. This is just absolutely ignorant of the ways in which progressives and the Democratic party have thrown trans rights under the bus time and time again. Let’s start with Hillary Clinton.
Not only has she continued to stand by her intern-abusing husband despite being a “feminist icon,” she and the rest of the centrist Democrats were at best uninistered in queer rights, just like any Republican or right winger. It wasn’t until very recently that Democrats started talking about LGBT rights in a positive way, and the rollback we’re discussing right now only got rolled forward in the last administration. Democrats and centrists only recently started offering lip service to trans rights and it’s important to remember that their continuation of this support depends entirely on public opinion. The assumption that after this rapid switch, all transphobia has left the Democratic party is ridiculous and dangerous. In self reported surveys, Democrats’ views on trans rights are certainly better than Republicans’ but a full third (34%) still don’t see trans identities as legitimate.
We can also look at North Carolina governor, Roy Cooper. Like many centrist Democrats:
Cooper has not been known for defending LGBT rights in his career. He comes from the same centrist, triangulating Democratic political tradition as the Clintons, one which produced the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act, and the egregiously racist 1994 crime bill and 1996 welfare reform. As attorney general of North Carolina, he only stopped defending the state’s gay marriage ban as of 2014, and only because Virginia’s ban went down in federal court.
So it’s clear we’re not going to regain these rights — and keep them — by putting our faith in Democrats and progressive organizations. Only truly radical change is capable of making life fair and comfortable for trans people in this country. And the same is true for many marginalized folks.
The war in the streets
In a way, we’ve already won. Previously trans rights and trans activism was sidelined even within radical, activist communities and organizations. Historically, trans people and other queer folks have been targeted by all sides politically, with even far left movements enforcing anti-gay and anti-trans policies. Even radical feminism has its own special brand of transphobia now that grew out of the general cultural aversion to trans people when radical feminism was taking off.
Today, though, a significant portion of the far left, and many many activist spaces are open to and even centering of trans rights and trans experiences. Part of this is because the backlash we’re experiencing now against transness and queerness has shifted from a more purely cultural to a still cultural but also political battle with the return of the far right. In some ways, the alt-right folks who target trans-ness in particular are spot on about who their enemies are. By making trans lives a political spark point, movements on both the left and the right have increased focus on trans rights to the level of the political. This sucks in a lot of ways — for instance, it makes it exhausting to live as a political trans person and have your identity constantly the focus of debate, threats, and anger. But it has meant that trans people have a visibility within the radical left that was not historically present. And that’s significant.
Today, trans activists make up a very large contingent of radical activists in the United States. Trans rights are often — though not always — centered, along with similar support for other queer forms of identification. And it means that, despite the Trump administration’s targeting, despite violent backlash from far right idiots, despite everything that trans people continue to face right now, we’re getting better at seizing space and rights along with it. One very encouraging thing over the past few days has been seeing how many people are mobilizing against this.
Some of the new work getting done around trans issues is very good and I’m still tentatively optimistic that we’re building some strong networks that will be ready to keep resisting the rising tide of fascism in this country — legal recognition or no. But we’re not going to do that by voting for Democrats or engaging with an electoral system that has denied our rights and existence time and again. The issue isn’t just that Trump hates trans people — it’s that many many people in the US also hate trans people and want us not to exist. There are many things that will help though. Here’s Dean Spade again, suggesting ways to contribute to mutual aid:
What does mutual aid look like at this time? If we know trans women are being sent to men’s prisons, and all trans prisoners are vulnerable to violence, medical neglect and isolation, it looks like becoming pen pals with a trans prisoner through the lists provided by Black and Pink’s prison pen pal program. Becoming pen pals with a prisoner can reduce the likelihood they will be targeted, help them have emotional support through the targeting, and help them plan and find resources for when they are released. If we know the administration’s policies will further exclude trans people from homeless shelters and housing programs, we can work to create community housing-sharing programs. We can form groups that plan housing stays for trans people coming out of prison or aging out of foster care, to help people transition to stable housing as they find work or get benefits access in order to help address trans homelessness. Mutual aid can also include accompaniment programs so that people don’t have to go to court or doctor’s appointment or on public transportation alone. We can create child care shares, bail funds, ride services for people visiting prisoners and volunteer chores services for people who are sick or disabled.
Additionally, trans activist Noah Julian Zazanis put together this list of “How to Show Up For Trans Comrades” over on Medium. In addition to material and emotional support for trans folks, he notes that opposing transphobes is a big part of being an ally as well. In a section on “no platforming” he suggests that cis allies:
- Deny transphobes a platform. If they’re speaking near you, show up and shout them down. Yell at anti-trans pundits and politicians in restaurants.
- Familiarize yourself with anti-trans arguments, and learn how to shut them down. Take the time to learn about TERFs and other forms of popular transphobia.
- If your friends are sharing transphobic articles or spreading anti-trans ideas, call them on it. Don’t let transphobia or transmisogyny slide. The same goes for family, though of course only you know your family situation and your safety is paramount.
And it’s worth considering why there are so many trans activists working and acting in radical spaces. It’s because we recognize that demanding, or begging, or voting for the government to give us recognition and rights is not going to work. We have seen our lives and rights get trampled on time and time again, despite promises from progressives, their political parties, and their corrupt organizations. We need those who consider themselves allies to help us strike at the root. We need an end to all the institutions that carry out these disgusting orders, and allow them to come up. Trans justice requires radical change.