On October 21, 2018, The New York Times reported that a memo had been circulated in the Department of Health and Human Services seeking to amend a law which protects against gender-based discrimination in any government-funded educational program. Part of this memo argued in favor of a legal definition of sex, with the Times citing a quote from the memo, reading “Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” If such a statement would appear in just one of our nation’s laws — or even in one of their amendments — the floodgates of legalized discrimination for the transgender, intergender and gender queer communities would open, with unimaginable consequences.
When someone comes out and begins the journey to their authentic gender, there are many milestones and turning points. A necessary step in transition is when a transgender person holds their new state ID in their hands after having their gender legally changed. It is a tangible and physical reminder that they belong to a society whose government protects them, and whose law enforcement officers look out for them. ID cards can be felt, held in a person’s hands and shown to friends. School IDs, state IDs, passports and birth certificates are among a person’s most important documents; they validate and verify identity. For many transgender individuals that simple letter “F” or “M” is something they have spent years of their lives in conflict with; being discriminated against, invalidated and excluded based on a solitary character on a piece of plastic. The significance we give to the concept of gender and what it means is something to discuss, but that’s a different conversation for a different day. Today, we have transgender people fighting for a basic right, the right to be seen and the right to be recognized as who they know themselves to be.
Ignoring the existence of transgender individuals goes against an unbroken line of court decisions in this country. With the proposed policy the administration reveals yet again that it does not care about science and will ignore it when convenient. Members of the transgender community pay taxes, serve on jury duty, vote and are required to abide by the law just like any other citizen of the United States. However, under a Trump administration, they would be barred from correctly identifying themselves to the government that profits from their tax dollars, and whose laws are supposed to, but do not currently, protect them.
Many people carry the supposition that protecting transgender children who attend public high schools and middle schools is negligible because it could “just be a phase.” The age of transition, however, is getting younger and younger. More and more high school and college-aged clients are seeking the help of NouveauShe, which offers services to help transgender women through social and medical aspects of transition. More parents and students are reaching out in order to garner support for those who are questioning their gender identity. During the past five years alone, NouveauShe has seen the average age of its advisees drop from mid-50s to late-30s.
It appears that the moment the transgender and non-conforming community experiences a brief moment of relief, finally receiving some (not even all) of their much deserved rights as citizens, our administration picks at the scab, inflicting more pain, anxiety and frustration on an already marginalized population. The bottom line is that many transgender people die by suicide, many of which are adolescents. We must remember that this memo was circulated about a law that would directly affect educational institutions, which means that it would directly affect our children. For every transgender boy or transgender girl who is allowed to use the bathroom of their gender, or who is allowed to change in the locker room of their choice, there is another who is required to use the locker room of the opposite gender, and change clothing in front of a crowd that bullies them and inflicts physical and emotional harm on them. Having a legal definition of sex and gender would lead to the latter, causing an end to gender-neutral restrooms in our schools, an end to locker room and dormitory choice and an increase of bullying. This administration is turning its back on a community that seems to get bigger and younger by the minute, not by the year or decade.
The Times also stated that “any dispute about a person’s gender would have to be clarified by genetic testing.” Before I start to debate gender, I would like to say that there have been multitudes of governments before that have forced a certain population to undergo scientific tests and experiments — most, if not all, of these governments have faded into the sands of time due to their abhorrent human rights violations. No government has the right to subject its citizens to a biological test without their consent.
Furthermore, there are many instances in the past where gender and sex has been tampered with, or decided upon, by an assumedly “more knowledgeable” third party. Hospitals used to require a certain penis length before designating an “M” next to gender on a birth certificate. John T. Money was the famous experimental doctor who so crudely stated, “for plastic surgeons, it’s easier to dig a hole than build a pole.” Many children with XY chromosomes whose genitalia was underdeveloped were horribly mutilated under his medical supervision. To this day, there are survivors of John Money’s malicious practices, who had someone else decide not only how they must identify, but how their body must look. We must return to the simple fact that if you leave genitalia alone, disregard a child’s chromosomes and allow an individual to develop without arbitrary societal restriction, they will eventually be able to tell you themselves the gender to which they belong.
For some reason, the following statement is always regarded as incredibly profound, but I think it remains rather simple: the best society is a society that provides as many paths as possible for as many different communities to flourish. It has been shown time and time again, medically, psychologically and sociologically, that the best and healthiest way for a transgender individual to flourish is to be allowed to exist in their stated gender. Why not open the floodgates in the other direction? Why not allow a community to legally define themselves, instead of posing a constricting definition upon them?
Monica Prata is a feminine image consultant for those who are transgender, transitioning or exploring gender fluidity. She is a transgender rights activist, as well as the founder and CEO of NouveauShe.