On Sunday morning I read the news and promptly started loading little piles of laundry into the compact but heavy washing machine I had hauled from the hall closet and angled awkwardly in the bathtub. I didn’t have the energy for words that morning. After reading the headline ‘“Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration” I was immediately struck by a compulsion to clean things, to direct my anxiety into a productive activity. I thought: At least I can take care of my apartment, even if I can’t take care of my country.
Between loads, I read the full article, taking cold comfort in the smell of detergent. I was—as we all are—horrified by the Trump administration’s latest attack on transgender people. It felt horrible because there was our president and his cronies talking about and planning new ways to kill me, to kill everyone in my community, from behind closed doors. And there were protesters gathering in Washington Square Park. And here I was, silently doing laundry, listening only to the bang-bang-bang of an unbalanced load.
In any situation, there are at least two people trying to control the language. The Trump administration, as inept as they may be, knows particularly well that to change the words is to change the culture. This is exactly what they are trying to do because evangelical domination over the United States would require victory on two fronts: uniform bigotry across all branches of government and a restriction of who is allowed in public space. Language is the means to accomplish both.
The Department of Health and Human Services memo, which was first reported by The New York Times, seeks to define gender “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective, and administrable.” It ignores current medical consensus and the existence of intersex individuals; it states that “sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits, identifiable by or before birth.” It would require “the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, [to] constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”
For the government to suddenly come up with a new definition of anything is an unusual move. As Rachel over at Autostraddle says, “although the Obama administration issued guidance on legal interpretations for courts regarding sex and gender, they generally functioned as guidance, not commandments.” And in many ways, it feels like déjà vu. It was just a year ago that the Center for Disease Control issued instructions prohibiting the word “transgender” from being used in this year’s budget documents. And back then, Mora Keisling, Executive Director for the National Center for Transgender Equality said in a statement, “This would be an unprecedented attack on transgender people, science, and public health itself. To pretend and insist that transgender people do not exist and to allow this lie to infect public health research and prevention is irrational and very dangerous.” And here we are, a year later, and the Trump administration is ratcheting up that attack. How many times do we need to repeat ourselves?
Every time transgender issues have come up on the national stage the last two years, there has been a vocal group of people who say “do not take the bait,” or “disagree but quietly,” or—as Michael Barbaro of The New York Times says, “this is above all about messaging to conservative voters rather than creating policy.” This is always a cynical take and puts even well-meaning people in the position of agreeing that transgender people are not unique individuals but rather pawns to be sacrificed and moved around in electoral strategy.
If what the memo suggests comes to fruition—and it’s safer to assume that it will, rather than hope that someone within the administration can somehow prevent their worst instincts—and this uniform definition were accepted by Department of Education, the Department of Labor, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Justice, it would set a precedent across the entire government. It would increase the likelihood of future court decisions in its favor. It would put all transgender people at risk, as there would be no medical documentation, no court orders, and no expert that could overrule a person’s genome or birth certificate. It would, most importantly, be used to prohibit anyone, cisgender or not, who does not conform to rigid gender stereotypes from using public amenities and accommodations. This change in language was never about bathrooms. It was about who is allowed in public. If you cannot use the restroom, you cannot go where one might not be available. If a restaurant has the right to turn you away, you will not go anyplace where you might need or want to eat.
We have seen this pattern of language manipulation—the decision to refer to goods and services as “free speech”—play out in the Supreme Court’s June 2018 decision on Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. We are seeing it in all sorts of laws being drafted by Republican legislatures in states nationwide. It is clear how they will side when the definition of gender is left to them.
As scary as all of this might be, there are some things that this rule could not do. As Keisling notes, “It would not eliminate the precedents set by dozens of federal courts over the last two decades affirming the full rights and identities of transgender people. It would not undo the consensus of the medical providers and scientists across the globe who see transgender people, know transgender people, and urge everyone to accept us for who we are. And no rule—no administration—can erase the experiences of transgender people and our families.”
This is scary. And it is all right to be afraid, to be angry, and to not know what to do yet. But as of yet, this is not an actual change in policy, and there are things that we can do before it is. If the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services do change their policy, there is a 60-day window to allow for public commentary. So we should comment and comment until it is decided, and even then keep commenting on the willful manipulation of language. If you can vote, you must vote. If you are voting in Massachusetts, question three will ask voters to uphold or repeal 2016’s anti-discrimination protections. If you can afford it, donate to The Center for Transgender Equality, Trans Lifeline, The Trevor Project or others. If you can march, you should be marching. If you are trans and tired and afraid, take the time to celebrate yourself, to express joy in being trans, despite the risk, and to celebrate having made it this far. If you are trans and need help, or you need someone to talk to, call The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386 or Trans Lifeline at 877–565–8860. Both are available anytime, day or night.
Above all, what we need to do is remember that trans, gender-nonconforming, two-spirit, and intersex people have always existed all over the globe and that the loss of that knowledge is due to colonization and the intentional obliteration of queer language. We need to be speaking in an intentional way, to ensure that our language is not used against us, or redefined, or stripped away. Do your laundry, turn off your phone, tweet #wewontbeerased and share your selfies so we can see your beautiful trans face. But at the end of the day, say, say, say, and don’t stop saying meaningful and deliberate things.
Don’t let your definitions be changed.