“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth”
During former President Obama’s terms as President, one challenge he faced was in education as it relates to transgender students and their ability to comfortably use school bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Many opponents of the President cited public health and safety as reasons for why students should instead use bathrooms that correspond with their assigned sex at birth. In response to the controversy President Obama alongside the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter included a series of definitions to help schools and educators guide their civil rights practice as it relates to transgender students. I’ve included the terminology below:
- Gender identity refers to an individual’s internal sense of gender. A person’s gender identity may be different from or the same as the person’s sex assigned at birth.
- Sex assigned at birth refers to the sex designation recorded on an infant’s birth certificate should such a record be provided at birth.
- Transgender describes those individuals whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender male is someone who identifies as male but was assigned the sex of female at birth; a transgender female is someone who identifies as female but was assigned the sex of male at birth.
- Gender transition refers to the process in which transgender individuals begin asserting the sex that corresponds to their gender identity instead of the sex they were assigned at birth. During gender transition, individuals begin to live and identify as the sex consistent with their gender identity and may dress differently, adopt a new name, and use pronouns consistent with their gender identity. Transgender individuals may undergo gender transition at any stage of their lives, and gender transition can happen swiftly or over a long duration of time.
President Obama’s decision to differentiate sex and gender had major implications for Americans. Because not only did President Obama say that sex and gender were different, he also said that “schools must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity. The Departments’ interpretation is consistent with courts’ and other agencies’ interpretations of Federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination.” This letter solidified protections for transgender Americans especially those in schools. It also institutionalized linguistic determinations for classifying gender minorities. This letter was a major win for civil rights for gender minorities.
However, according to The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/21/us/politics/transgender-trump-administration-sex-definition.html), the Trump administration is considering backpedaling on the operationalization of gender and defining it as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” Although redefining a word seems trivial, it’s tantamount to erasure. By changing the definition of gender to make it synonymous with sociological understandings of sex, the federal government is choosing to mis-identify and/or ignore the experiences of over 1.4 million American people whose sex and gender are not in alignment. The Department of Health and Human Services’ proposed definition would define sex and gender as “either male or female, unchangeable and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.” Not only does this definition invalidate the experiences of queer, trans and non-binary people, it also excludes intersex people (http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex).
In the department’s memo, they argued that gender needed to be established based on “a biological basis that is clear and grounded in science.” However, this doesn’t seem consistent as the biological basis of gender identity is an area of scientific inquiry. Though it is in its infancy, it is extant. Find more information about the biological basis of gender identity here: (https://www.the-scientist.com/features/are-the-brains-of-transgender-people-different-from-those-of-cisgender-people-30027)
Trump’s attempt to erase the protections and recognitions of the civil rights of gender minorities is part of a trend of political violence against gender minorities. For example, in July 2017, Trump tweeted:
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow … Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming … victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
In March of this year, the White House followed up on his tweets saying that “transgender troops who are currently in the military may remain in the ranks… but the Pentagon could require them to serve according to their gender at birth.” His policy recommendation continued by stating that “transgender people who require or have undergone gender transition are disqualified from military service.” His recommendations are pretty baffling considering that in 2014 a UCLA study estimate that there were over 15,000 transgender service members enlisted on active duty and an estimated 134,300 transgender veterans/retirees (http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Transgender-Military-Service-May-2014.pdf). Rather than making broad statements about the experiences of transgender people, the current administration ought to begin by speaking with the over 150,000 transgender service members about their experiences and expectations in the military, or at least acknowledging their existence and active participation in our nation’s defense.
The Trump administration has a documented history of obscuring the lived experiences and existences of gender minorities. Ultimately, we must continue to elevate the narratives of gender minorities and renounce attempts by grandstanders to delegitimize the outnumbered.
We must not forget this erasure or we risk solidifying additional lies into the fabric of our nation’s history. We cannot perpetuate this erasure or we preserve the exclusionary tradition of American history. We must continue to speak or risk being complicit in the forgery of historical romanizations and beguilement.