On Sunday evening (October 21) The New York Times published “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration,” an alarming article about how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is pushing relevant government agencies to adopt an anti-trans definition of gender.
That definition, contained in an HHS policy memo The Times obtained, would “narrowly assign gender based only on the genitals that trans and gender-nonconforming people are declared to have at birth.”
Mere weeks before the midterm elections, the definition would strike at the heart of Obama administration policies that expanded the definition of gender.
More from The Times:
The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.
The impacts of a narrowed definition could be many. Think bathroom bills, health insurance coverage, prison housing policies and work discrimination, among many other issues.
As we talk policy and next steps, it becomes imperative for us to engage in deeper conversations that are racially explicit. As media and community response continues to build over the coming hours, days and weeks, we urge you to consider the following recommendations and observations:
Transgender and gender non conforming people of color remain the most impacted by harmful anti-transgender policies, so should be at the forefront of policy and strategy conversations. Avoid internalizing or promoting narratives that attempt to center Whiteness and remove the experiences of people of color from the conversation.
In moments of political and social intensity, the conversation about social change often defaults to baseline themes around “equality” and “diversity.” This is problematic because we exist in a society founded on White supremacist ideals that used words like “equality” without an understanding of structural racism. The baseline for how we measure success, defeat, and when and how to create change shouldn’t be guided by Whiteness. Resist becoming “colorblind” and focus on creating strategies and amplifying work and narratives that are lead by those most impacted — transgender and gender non conforming people of color.
Say No to Politicos Defining Our Lives as “Wedge Issues”
We’ve seen some commentators say that this strategically is a “losing issue for Democrats” or a wedge issue that will harm those who “touch” transgender rights in the upcoming midterm elections. We should be wary of narratives that talk about our community like chess pieces. Transgender rights are not a wedge. Transphobia is an already-existing wedge in our movements that the Trump administration knows to exploit.
Institutional transphobia and White supremacy have in the past undermined and slowed LGBTQ victories. This is an opportunity for our movements to learn from past mistakes. We should organize against any frames that pit transgender rights against the success of other issues or candidates we believe in. Look to who takes a firm stance against transphobia, and push those who remain silent.
Remind Folks That We’re Part of a Well-Established International Movement
We should demand frames that include an international and historical understanding from all media outlets. The phrase “radical gender ideology” used by the Heritage Foundation is a dog whistle to an international coalition of far right groups who have been working in places like Poland, Brazil, Uganda, and Mexico to roll back laws that guarantee safe and affordable access to abortion, transgender rights laws and other laws that protect LGBTQ people, women and working-class people.
“Gender ideology” is a growing straw person argument that links a rising tide of xenophobia and racism to a variety of gender justice issues. The phrase has been used by far right activists like Rick Warren, who famously campaigned for Proposition 8 in California and then traveled to nations like Uganda and Rwanda to promote anti-LGBTQ legislation. The phrase has been used by the Catholic Church to advocate against women’s rights at the United Nations, and by far-right groups in Europe to imply that feminists, immigrants, LGBTQ people and Muslims are damaging the foundations of the family.
Many LGBTQ immigrants arrive in the United States fleeing the impact of “gender ideology” frames and policies that were incubated in the U.S. by organizations like the Family Research Council (designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center). Human rights activists globally report how authoritarian governments undermine pro-democracy movements by targeting queer and feminist organizers. LGBTQ migrants and refugees are often fleeing this political violence when they arrive in the U.S. Likewise, we are part of an international democratic movement that is feminist and pro-queer. At times like these it is imperative that we stay curious about where, when and how this language and these ideas arise. We are not alone.
Remember: We Still Fine AF*
Amid all of the chaos and fear mongering, it is imperative that we as transgender and gender nonconforming folks remember who we are in relationship to one another, not just who we are to the state. We are creativity, vitality and life. We are healers and freedom fighters, parents, lovers, siblings and friends. We have been creating an existence within systems and structures that do not seek to serve us for centuries. Community care is life. Consider who it is that you are accountable to and reach for them. Check in on your folks, cook for one another, rage, reflect and cultivate joy. Practice caring in the ways that feel authentic and good for you—this could include donating your time, energy or other resources to organizations and formations that are led by and actively seek the leadership of transgender and gender nonconforming people of color such as: BreakOUT!, Casa Ruby, FIERCE, Audre Lorde Project, Transgender Law Center, GSA Network, National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, Two Spirit Nation, Trans Women of Color Collective, Black Trans Advocacy, Trans Latin@ Coalition, Marsha P. Johnson Institute and Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
Key Jackson is the director of Movement and Capacity Building at Race Forward, the racial justice organization that publishes Colorlines. Jackson is a 1st nations/Black queer radical dreamer who is committed to weaving the strength of their community into sustainable social change. A founding member of Black Youth Project 100 New Orleans, Jackson has spent the past 15 years fighting for queer, youth, educational, housing, immigrant and racial justice. Drawing on their lived experience as a low-income, queer person of color, Jackson, has co-founded multiple youth-centered initiatives and has provided formal and informal trainings to hundreds of youth, organizations and communities across the United States.
Malcolm Shanks is senior trainer and content coordinator in Movement and Capacity Building at Race Forward. They co-facilitate Race Forward racial justice trainings and provide coaching and consulting to organizations and institutions that need support in developing practices that produce racially equitable outcomes and promote racial justice. Prior to coming to Race Forward, Shanks worked as a campaign organizer for LGBTQ state and local campaigns, and created training and leadership development opportunities for organizers and activists across many movements, specifically focused on those whose work combined racial, economic and gender justice agendas. They are also co-creator of the zine Decolonizing Gender: A Curriculum.
*AF is shorthand for the colloquial expression "as fuck."