This past Sunday, the New York Times reported on a leaked Trump administration memo outlining its plans to officially define gender as either male or female, determined at birth and henceforth unchangeable. This is a potential policy move that not only directly contradicts scientific evidence that sex has never been strictly binary and that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are definitionally distinctive terms, but also puts trans, non-binary and intersex populations at risk of being defined out of federal recognition. However, this recent news item out of the administration is by no means unprecedented. Since Trump has taken office, everything from protections for trans students using bathrooms of their choice to safeguards against medical discrimination have been rolled back. These national actions as well as local ones—like HB2, the infamous, now-partially repealed North Carolina bill that limited trans people from being able to use the restrooms that most closely aligned with their gender identity—make up a broader movement to silence and erase trans, gender non-conforming and intersex people from public existence.
If the administration and the Department of Health and Human Services approves this revocation on Obama-era civil rights, the effects would reach almost all areas of life for trans people. Everything from schools and prisons to any other federally-funded entity would be able to justify discrimination based on the fact that gender would no longer be a formally separately protected class from sex in the eyes of the government. The harm to trans people is indeed insidious and intentional, but this move also accomplishes a secondary—and possibly more immediately salient goal—for the Trump administration: galvanizing the religious and conservative voting base right before the midterm elections.
Trans people are an easy target to be the focus of politically-motivated cultural panics for a number of reasons. They only make up an estimated 0.6 percent of the population, making them vulnerable to state neglect by virtue of their small demographic size. Trans populations also are disproportionately poor and thus more likely to lack access to government IDs, which can create significant barriers to voting. Furthermore, trans women in particular are disproportionately incarcerated, a status that means a suspension of their voting rights during their sentence—or a deprivation of voting rights altogether for certain offenses in some states.
Losing the trans vote is inconsequential for conservatives. Retaining the white, evangelical vote in particular is vastly more important—81 percent of the bloc voted for Trump in 2016, after all, and 71 percent of them still support him currently. Sounding the alarm about the entirely constructed spectre of a violent trans menace to garner fear-based votes is not only a deeply calculated choice, but also an effective one.
However, what is crucial to keep in mind is that beyond the in-the-weeds scrutiny of this potential policy are actual lives. Trans discrimination is rampant nationwide in numerous manifestations: homeless and domestic violence shelters for women flat out deny trans women, over a third of trans people do not have access to health care and trans people experience unemployment at twice the national rate. This new motion to define gender strictly will only add another layer on top of the layers of systemic oppression that trans people have always faced in this country.
The end result of all of this is the same: trans suffering and death. Trans women of color experience external violence at disproportionately high rates; 29 of them–that we know of–were murdered last year, the deadliest on record. As of the writing of this editorial, at least 22 more have been murdered. Law enforcement rarely, if ever, classify these killings properly as hate crimes and only 17 states have gender identity and expression-inclusive hate crime legislation. Trans teenagers attempt suicide at the highest rates of any other teen demographic, with percentages ranging from 50.8 percent of trans men to 41.8 percent of non-binary people to 29.9 percent of trans women. With each announcement of a new discriminatory practice by the government, calls to the Trans Lifeline—a suicide and mental health hotline specifically for trans individuals—increase in volume. Clearly, the Trump administration’s actions do not exist in a vacuum. Trans lives are under attack. Trans lives are at stake. This potential regulation rollback is, at its core, murderous.
Now more than ever, trans people and voices need to be uplifted. Cisgender people—those who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth—statistically make up 99.4 percent of the population of this country and all of them are capable of being good allies. Hopelessness, in the face of these types of policies, is an easy emotion to fall back on–for transgender and cisgender people alike–but it should not overpower us. Donate to organizations making a difference for trans people like Trans Lifeline, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Planned Parenthood. Show up to local demonstrations and protests. Vote for the trans candidates running in the 2018 midterms who are fighting for the rights of all. At Duke, support fellow trans students, faculty and staff by attending a Trans 101 training at the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity and continue to hold the hospital administration accountable to demands to end unnecessary surgeries on intersex newborns. Trans people especially should remember to connect with community during moments of doubt, of pain and of fear, and know that you are not alone. Hope lies where it always has: in solidarity and collective action.
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