Trans and gender diverse people in the US are preparing to fight for their lives — literally — against a push by the Republican religious right to quash life-saving laws protecting them from discrimination.
A leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed it is pushing for the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in education programs receiving government assistance to redefine sex as binary. If the push is successful, the law wound dictate that the gender assigned at birth cannot be changed.
If successful, this would effectively exclude about 2 million people from accessing the US health care, housing and education. It would do so by outlawing the anti-discrimination provisions under a statue governed by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Trans activists are organising to defend their rights, with protests against the push to legally erase their rights and existence.
Some trans activists ran as candidates for state positions in the November midterm elections. Two trans women, Democrats Lisa Bunker and Gerri Cannon, were elected to serve in New Hampshire’s House of Representatives, Colorlines.com said. This makes them the first openly trans people to win and serve in their state legislature.
At least five states are pushing for a new law under the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) that would allow anti-transgender discrimination under the guise of “sincerely held religious belief”.
They now have a national supporter in a pivotal place: the new head of the HHS is Roger Severino, an anti-transgender, anti-LGBTI and anti-abortion activist who built his credentials working for the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation.
Severino, a Trump supporter, wants to stop trans people from serving in the military, opposes equal marriage, defends gay conversion therapy and has been outspoken against schools and other institutions accommodating transgender people. The so-called “public bathroom” debate has been led by conservatives’ dog whistling about harassment and assault in response to moves to give trans people access to bathrooms and dormitories.
He has been an outspoken critic of section 1557 of the Affordable Health Care Act which determined that discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is a form of sexual discrimination.
Severino is behind the January announcement of a “Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom” within the HHS. It aims to “vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom”.
The HHS Office of Civil Rights purports to want laws and regulations that “protect conscience” and “prohibit coercion on abortion and assisted suicide in HHS-funded or conducted programs and services”.
Severino co-authored a paper with Ryan Anderson in 2016 that spelled out his opposition to the anti-discrimination provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often called “Obamacare”.
The religious right is seeking to push the clock back to allow discrimination against some of the most vulnerable sections of the community.
Sally Goldner, a spokesperson for Transgender Victoria, told Green Left Weekly that the US administration’s attacks on trans and gender diverse people is an attempt to defect from severe economic problems, particularly high unemployment.
“Preying on people’s fear and uncertainty by attacking women, trans and young people works nicely for those with the power,” Goldner said.
But the Trump administration is facing resistance on many fronts. A younger generation understands gender in a more fluid way and is more willing to accept the science.
Goldner said that they are also more likely to be influenced by the #MeToo movement against violence against women. They also want to live in a world which “respects people, regardless of their gender”.
The American Civil Liberties Union said that while the Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on the matter, the US Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law bars the federal government from discriminating against people based on their transgender status or gender transition.
On November 6, the state of Massachusetts became the first state to uphold protections for transgender and non-binary people at the ballot box. Voters passed a measure in a referendum to preserve the state's anti-discrimination law.
In a sign that public opposition to discrimination against trans people is splitting even Republicans, Republican governor Charlie Baker, who signed the law into existence, campaigned for the law be upheld.
The American Academy of Practitioners (AAP) estimates that 0.7% of teens from the ages 13 to 17 identify as transgender. This means even conservative religious families are having to come to terms with the changing gender of their offspring.
The AAP is unequivocal that, in this “rapidly evolving clinical field”, discrimination and stigma need to be eliminated if transgender and gender-diverse children are going to be able to grow into “happy and healthy” adults.
Providing “a safe and inclusive place for transgender and gender-diverse youth, who have high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use, self-harm and suicide” is essential, it said.
The pushback against the Trump administration’s proposed gender definition changes is even finding expression among a powerful bloc of corporations, including Apple, Amazon and Facebook.
A statement from more than 50 companies released on November 1 defended the “millions of people in America who identify as transgender, gender non-binary, or intersex”. It opposed “any policy or regulation that violates the privacy rights of those that identify as transgender, gender non-binary, or intersex”.
The Trump administration and the religious right are also pushing their agenda in international bodies, such as the United Nations. The October 26 Guardian reported that US officials at the United Nations want to remove the word “gender” from UN human rights documents.