How Republicans Laid the Groundwork for Trump’s Assault on Transgender Existence

Protesters demonstrate against President Donald Trump's plan to ban open transgender military service.
Protesters demonstrate against President Donald Trump’s plan to ban open transgender military service. Jewel Samad/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The Republican campaign to deny the humanity of transgender Americans has now reached its logical endpoint. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration seeks to redefine the sex of every American in a narrow, unscientific, and intentionally trans-exclusive manner. The Times quotes internal memos stating: “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

The immediate intent of this change would be to cut transgender people off from accessing protections under existing civil rights laws, many of which bar discrimination on the basis of sex. The long-term implications of the government defining sex in a manner that intentionally excludes intersex people and sexual minorities are impossible to overstate. This is a radical attempt to overturn the scientific framework and legal precedents that have allowed for the recognition of trans people’s existence. But the Republican Party has been telling us all along that it would rather trans people did not exist. It should come as no surprise that the Trump administration is trying to erase us altogether.

Have you heard the joke about how Democrats don’t even know the difference between a man and a woman, so how can you trust them on [insert issue here]? If you haven’t, you’ve been living under a rock. For years conservatives have been inserting anti-trans talking points into every campaign, every policy discussion, large and small. We’ve seen it on the national level, as when Sen. Ted Cruz used Donald Trump’s tepid support of Caitlyn Jenner to attack him in 2016:

All this snarking is intended to undermine the ability of transgender Americans to advocate for our rights. The campaign against us has been so effective that even many ostensible liberals have piled on, suggesting that supporting rights for transgender people is an unaffordable luxury in today’s climate. In theory, this line of thinking goes, all people may be entitled to dignity and respect—but supporting trans people is just too hard in the face of constant anti-trans mockery. (If it seems too difficult for Democrats to push back against the constant drumbeat of anti-trans talking points from the right, imagine how it feels to push back when it’s your own existence on the line.)

Naïvely, liberals who opposed pro-trans policies generally assumed that conservatives simply wished to maintain the status quo—to preserve legal discrimination against transgender people in housing, employment, and medical care. Even after Trump announced a total ban on transgender people serving in the military, they did not recognize the conservative push to erase our identities altogether, to outlaw a legal transition from one gender to another. The news of Trump’s legal redefinition of sex proves just how wrongheaded that assumption always was. Conservatives are now saying, loud and clear, that they will not be content as long as transgender people exist. A GOP that believes it can redefine the sex of transgender Americans is a GOP that could end legal document changes, restrict transition-related medical procedures, or bring back archaic laws that criminalized dressing as the opposite sex.

Even if the Republican Party went no further—and believe me, it won’t stop here—the current attack on legal protections for transgender people is grave enough already. The Department of Health and Human Services is eager to redefine “sex” so that it can deny coverage of the only effective treatment for gender dysphoria: transition. While transition-related care may be politically controversial, medical evidence has shown that it is safe, effective, and necessary for trans people suffering with dysphoria. That’s why mainstream medical organizations support transition care. In the Department of Education, redefining sex will prevent young people from accessing equal accommodations at school. Redefining sex within the Department of Justice—something Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already attempted to do—will further cement the new reality that transgender Americans do not have legally recognized rights in the workplace, where LGBTQ people face routine discrimination.

It’s a difficult time to be a progressive. The fundamental American values we’ve long used to measure progress are suddenly under attack. Trump and the GOP have shown that they do not believe in human rights at home or abroad. The rights of asylum-seekers and children of migrants have been illegally done away with. Our rhetorical commitment to supporting human rights abroad no longer obtains. In light of this dramatic shift away from upholding human rights, the rights of transgender people may feel secondary, dispensable.

But whenever the left agrees to a compromise on basic principles, whenever we accept that some groups’ rights are more equal than others, the message we’re sending is that human rights are ultimately negotiable. The GOP didn’t stop with demonizing Muslims or Hispanics. It won’t stop with trans people, either.