While you might have been focused in recent weeks on flashier headlines about the latest mass shooting or the Russia probe, the Trump administration has been busy removing any mention of transgender people from federal employment guidelines.
The actions taken by the Office of Personnel Management support the assertion by the Trump administration that federal civil rights law does not extend employment protection to people based on their gender identity. Many federal courts have disagreed with this position, but the administration’s actions—especially the purge of the word “transgender” from its Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights and other websites—are quite concerning.
In October, a memo leaked to The New York Times revealed the administration’s plans to define gender as a condition immutably determined by biological sex at birth. This move would not only roll back the steps taken by the Obama administration that encouraged the establishment of gender-inclusive spaces at schools and government buildings, but would also eradicate the legal standing, indeed the legal existence, of transgender people.
Transgender individuals are marginalized, especially those who are nonbinary, nonconforming, or who don’t pass as their reassigned gender. Anyone who is visibly transgender is more vulnerable to discrimination. That’s why the Trump administration’s actions are particularly pernicious and harmful.
I’m transgender, and there was a time when I thought invisibility would make me safe, when I believed that denying the word “transgender” and distancing myself from it would keep me from feeling marginalized and discriminated against.
When I first came out and transitioned, I was very visible. I was a high school student at a school where I’d been known as a girl for three years. When I came back for my senior year as a boy, I couldn’t get away from who I had been. Everyone knew my birth name; everyone was used to referring to me as “she.”
I dreamed of leaving this far behind, of going somewhere that would let me be “just” a guy. So I did. After my first year of college in Massachusetts, I went out West, to Wyoming. I told no one I was transgender. Some people raised an eyebrow when I told them I was 19—I looked like 15. But I passed, and I lived as a guy.
And it was awful. I felt that at any time, someone could discover my secret. And I knew that because I had withheld this information about my past, in some way they would perceive me as having deceived them. And they would be right. I wasn’t living as who I truly was. I understand that for some transgender people, passing as a man or a woman is the right decision. It wasn’t for me. Invisibility was terrible.
Remember that everyone has a biological sex and everyone has a gender identity.
I’m reminded of that feeling, though in a very different way, when I read about the federal government’s “scrub” of transgender from the office of personnel management’s website, among other places. They are trying to erase us.
By reclassifying all gender-based language to refer instead to “biological sex,” the Trump administration is attempting to posit that there is no such thing as being transgender; we are only what we were born as, we are our bodies and no more. This is unacceptable.
Passing as a man doesn’t make me not transgender. Removing that term from federal websites doesn’t make transgender people not exist. It just makes those of us in the transgender community more vulnerable, more prone to be misunderstood and mistreated.
How do I resist? I can pass, but I don’t. I challenge forms and paperwork that give me only two options. I resist every opportunity to be read as “just” a man. I let people know that not everything lines up right for me, that I am, happily, off-kilter with what the world expects me to be. In other words, I come out, day after day. I don’t let people read my external expression of gender and make assumptions about my biology. I make myself visible and legible as a transgender person.
How can allies help? Remember that everyone has a biological sex and everyone has a gender identity. You can assert yours, too. Be cisgender and proud, rather than cisgender and presumptive. Use your privilege and your knowledge to teach this information to others. It can be empowering and informative to think about the ways in which your gender identity and gender expression aren’t tied to your biology—all the things that make you a woman that have nothing to do with your body, all the aspects of your masculinity that are unrelated to your chromosomes.
What can we all do? We can raise this point, again and again. We can work to pass laws in the jurisdictions where we can have influence. Maybe right now we can’t influence federal policy. Maybe our state legislature is out of reach. But what about the city or town in which we live? What about the place where we work? The church that we attend? It is important for every institution that cares about transgender people to put language about their rights into their codes and policies. This visibility is essential.
Alex Myers holds degrees in Near Eastern Studies and Ancient Judaism and is the author of two books, including Continental Divide, which was released in November 2019.