Should the government be able to tell you what underwear to buy? Or what to name your children? Or how many times a day you can go to the bathroom? No. That would be invasive and wrong.
But under a new policy reportedly being considered by the Trump administration, the federal government would attempt to tell millions of transgender people like me not what we can do, but who we can be. It would attempt to tell us that, legally, we don’t exist — that in the eyes of the state, we are not ourselves.
It’s the ultimate form of government intrusion.
Trump's Department of Health and Human Services is said to have drafted a memo to federal agencies that would “erase” the legal status of millions of transgender people by using Title IX to impose an archaic definition of gender as “immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.”
Get the think newsletter.
The policy, according to reporting by the New York Times, is part of a larger attempt to roll back existing protections for transgender people fought for by human rights advocates, particularly in education and health care policy. Codifying the exclusion of transgender identity under Title IX would apply to the departments of Labor, Justice, Education and Health and Human services, allowing everything from workplace discrimination against trans people to reduced access to school facilities for trans children to disparate access to health care for members of the community.
This policy flies in the face of scientific, medical, and social consensus. At a strictly biological level, it creates a binary where one does not exist: Many people are born with ambiguous genitalia, an indisputable medical fact that the Trump administration’s memo suggests resolving through DNA testing (which the American Medical Association code of ethics warns against as part of its board's opinion that children with differences of sex development be allowed to come of age before decisions are made about their physical presentation). It ignores the reality that a person’s genitalia at birth does not define who they are, and would scapegoat an entire segment of the population.
But it is also just cruel. If this proposal is implemented, trans people would face massive barriers when doing basic things required to participate meaningfully in society. We wouldn't be able to get passports that accurately reflect our gender, start new jobs without disclosing our transgender status or use Medicaid or Medicare to access the appropriate health care.
Federal civil rights laws are not silver bullets, transgender people — particularly trans women of color — already face among the highest rates of violence and systemic discrimination of any population in the US. But gutting federal protections for trans people who are subjected to hate or educational discrimination will dramatically exacerbate the rampant abuse of trans people at the hands of powerful institutions and directly result in transgender lives being lost, particularly among the youngest and most vulnerable members of our community.
A policy that allows for increased job and housing discrimination, among other forms of discrimination, allows for government-enforced poverty and homelessness for an entire generation of people who simply want to live their lives as their authentic selves. The end goal here is no less than the complete ostracization of transgender people from public life: This is an attempt to disappear us.
But this policy will ultimately fail, even if it is briefly implemented. Like many of this administration’s other attempts to target marginalized people for political gain, there are limits to the damage the executive branch can do with the stroke of a pen. This memo may attempt to remove trans people’s legal protections from federal law, but it cannot undo the strong precedent set by several courts that say transgender people are covered by gender discrimination laws, and it cannot overrule the ability of states to enforce such protections. It can’t turn back the clock on the overwhelming medical consensus that trans people are real, and that we deserve to live our lives like everyone else.
But, even if its impact is mitigated by the courts, this attack on trans people's legal status will still lead to real harm for our community. It will embolden violent bigots and deter young people from accessing life-saving services. It’s a neon, flashing sign from the federal government to trans people that says We don’t value your lives.
Denying trans people’s existence is the tip of the iceberg, because defining your identity and choosing how to present your gender to the world is a basic form of self expression. We have always been the canaries in the coal mine. If this authoritarian attack goes unchecked, what other basic freedoms will be on the chopping block?
Even if you’re not trans, we need your help — and I don’t just mean voting on November 6. There are concrete things you can do right now to support transgender people like amplifying our voices in the media and on social media, submitting federal register comments against the policy if the administration attempts to implement it as a regulatory change, contribute to organizations led by trans people and talk to other cis people about transgender rights. Start today.
If you are trans, take a deep breath. We existed long before we had legal status, and we will endure long after this administration is a distant memory. We do not need permission from the state to be ourselves. We can get each other through this the way that we always have.
The Trump administration thinks they can erase transgender people with a memo, but they’re wrong. We are tattoos. We are permanent marker. We are mountains. We are thunder. You cannot erase us, and you cannot control us. We will fight for the basic right to be ourselves, and we will win.