Why transgender rights are the civil rights thermometer no one can afford to ignore
It’s not as if transgender rights weren’t being undermined before Donald Trump shuffled into the White House, but under his watch, things are definitely getting worse for the community. The Obama White House and Justice Department had stood up for transgender rights and put in place some protections for them, but within just the past few months, transgender rights have become the civil rights thermometer we all really can’t ignore.
The truth is, if Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions can just decide to interpret things like the Civil Rights Act however they want for trans people, they can do it for any other community, too. And even if they never do, the fact that they’re targeting transgender people is more than enough.
It’s not like we didn’t know this was coming. Trump’s stance on LGBTQ rights, and especially for transgender people, has long been confusing as hell. After the Orlando shooting in 2016, for example, he promised to protect the LGBTQ community, because you know, Florida is really important and he had to be “against” a radicalized American terrorist. But that was anti-immigrant rhetoric in a pro-LGBTQ mask. He’s never been a real ally to anyone but himself.
Once upon a time, back in 2000, Trump was all for LGBTQ people serving in the military. He didn’t mention trans people at the time (since not a lot of people had them on their political radar anyway), but once said in an interview with The Advocate, “If a gay person can be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or take another position of responsibility, why can’t they serve this country in the military?”
In 2016, in regards to North Carolina’s transgender bathroom bill, he noted that the state was “paying” for their bigoted laws and that it was a “very strong” thing to force people to use bathrooms based on their birth certificate. Back then, it appeared that Trump didn’t care what people did as long as they weren’t in the way of his winning or making people money, ya know? Which, to be fair, would be a perfectly acceptable way to live.
But to win the Republican nomination, he had to embrace conservative values, and most conservatives don’t even believe that gender identity is a real thing. They insist that gender is about whatever reproductive organs you’re born with, which is just not true. He recruited Mike Pence to be his running mate, who famously champions conversion therapy and other dangerous ideas about the LGBTQ community, such as joking about “hanging them all” one day. So, obviously, protecting transgender people was going to be an issue while Trump was in office.
What he could have done, politically even, was not go backwards. But whether it’s his ignorance or extreme desire to overturn everything the Obama administration touched, Trump has been extremely dangerous for trans people. One month into his term as president, he rolled back the mandate that Obama’s Justice Department had to ensure that trans students were able to use a bathroom that corresponded to their gender identity and not their birth certificate. Then he announced, seemingly out of nowhere, that he would ban transgender people from serving in the military.
This week, a second judge has blocked the move to ban trans people from the military, but not for lack of the administration’s best efforts to make it happen. All of these made headlines and got people activated, as they should have. But arguably the scariest thing Trump’s let happen under his watch happened in early October, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a memo saying that the Justice Department would be reversing former Attorney General Eric Holder’s directive and no longer interpret “sex” in the Civil Rights Act to mean gender identity. As the New York Times reported, Sessions says that “sex” meant only “biologically male or female” and that the Civil Rights Act does not ban “discrimination based on gender identity per se, including transgender status.”
Sessions wrote that his department would “take that position in all pending and future matters,” “except in cases in which a controlling lower-court precedent dictated otherwise, in which case it would reserve the option to revisit the issue on appeal,” according to the Times.
That means that a trans person can’t bring a lawsuit against an employer or landlord for discrimination. Essentially, they made it so that trans people just *don’t* have rights under federal law.
That’s crazy, right? Like, imagine if the government just all of a sudden said they wouldn’t interpret “race” to mean anything other than white or that women didn’t have a right to be in public spaces. Those are things that have happened in this country before, which the Civil Rights Act aimed to correct. Transgender people are still fighting for initial recognition and protection under federal law.
What makes transgender rights so urgent, aside from the obvious fact that they’re human beings and deserve every chance at happiness and success, is that multiple studies show that support from their communities and families is essential to their livelihood. According to the Trevor Project:
Laws that revoke protections and strip transgender people of their humanity, like saying that their gender identity is a “myth,” embolden bigots and make the world literally less safe for transgender people. Imagine knowing that suicide, homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health rates are disproportionately higher for a community, that they could be lowered with support from their communities, and then signing off on legislation to make discriminating against them legal, anyway? That’s the world all of us are waking up in every day now.
If your own civil rights are important to you, then civil rights for the transgender community has to be important to you, too. Trump’s Justice Department is taking bolder and bolder moves toward stripping rights from so many Americans. They’ll naturally start with the more vulnerable groups, the ones who have most recently even gotten protections and recognition, but you can be damn sure that’s not where they will stop.