Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Transmissions: At war


Illustration: Christine Smith
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Prior to the 2016 election, I recall writing about how the election of a president is not simply the election of one person, but a whole administration – and how the actions of the incoming administration would shape this country in much the same way the largely transgender-positive policies of the Obama administration shaped the last eight years.

Since Donald Trump took office, we have seen how this has played out, with the proposed transgender military ban now being fought in the courts and elsewhere. It was clear that this was an administration that would choose to be openly hostile to its transgender citizens, and willing to use transgender people as a scapegoat in the same way it has used Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans, and others.

So it wasn't necessarily a surprise last week when we saw Attorney General Jeff Sessions make the most sweeping moves against transgender people. We knew it was coming – we just did not know when.

With a presidency that is foundering, it may simply have been a move Trump was willing to jump on now before it was too late. Or, perhaps, it was to appease the religious right while shifting the narrative away from things the administration would rather see ignored. It's hard to say for sure.

Not happy to stand in the spotlight for one, Sessions gave us two days of really horrible news.

He first reversed course on the Justice Department's policies that had declared Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as being trans-inclusive. Sessions' memorandum flies in the face of a lot of established law, even while he tries to say this is an issue of law over policy.

"Although federal law, including Title VII, provides various protections to transgender individuals, Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity per se," said Sessions in this memo. "This is a conclusion of law, not policy. As a law enforcement agency, the Department of Justice must interpret Title VII as written by Congress."

In was 1989, in the Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins case that the issue of sex stereotyping was upheld under Title VII. In short, the ruling made it clear that "acting like a woman" was not a requirement of women in the workplace. It's not exactly a leap to see how this also applies to gender identity and expression. There are decades of case law that Sessions seems willing to ignore.

Just one day after his memo on Title VII, Sessions issued a memorandum on federal protections for religious liberty. This is something that was threatened from the first few weeks of the Trump presidency, and was routinely expected to be presented as an executive order. The memo is little more than a policy that gives carte blanche for discrimination, provided you cloak it in religious language.

Make no mistake: such a policy makes discrimination against LGBTQ people a sanctioned, protected thing under this administration. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, this "permits federal agencies, government contractors, government grantees, and even private businesses to engage in illegal discrimination, as long as they can cite religious reasons for doing so."

And you thought just attempting to bar us from public restrooms was bad. This is far-reaching, and in some areas could cut you off from food, housing, employment, and any other basic necessity.

The person at the counter at your local motor vehicle department or Social Security office can refuse to assist you, or you may be barred from care at a VA hospital. You could even be refused service at a restaurant, the local department store, or anywhere else for that matter. Any business can, in short, put a "no transgender people" sign on their door, claiming that the mere existence of transgender people in their establishment infringes on their religious freedom.

I should add, too, that these moves are in line with organizations such as the Family Research Council, which immediately set up "snitch" telephone hotlines to report businesses that aren't protecting their employees' religious "right to discriminate." I'm sure that these will be used to harass or harm people, all in the name of religion.

So here we are, faced with a government that is making it all that much easier to discriminate against us while simultaneously declaring that it won't stand with us when we're the ones discriminated against. In short, the Department of Justice under Sessions has just declared war on LGBTQ individuals, and in particular transgender people.

We may not have started this fight, but it is up to each of us to end it. This administration wants to use us as a convenient scapegoat and wedge issue at best, and wishes to see us eliminated at worst. It is more important than ever that we rise up and be heard. This has very rapidly escalated into a fight for our very existence – and not only within the eyes of the law.

Rest assured that if they've gone as far as they have, then they will indeed go farther, attempting to push us further into the closet or an early grave. We can't let them win.

I call upon every one of us to fight back. Write your member of Congress, aid your trans and LGBTQ organizations, get out and march, or do whatever you can do to push back against these attacks on our lives. Speak out, be visible, and be loud.


Gwen Smith misses those quiet times of 2016. You'll find her on the web at



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