In House Hearings on the Equality Act, Republicans Disguised Transphobia as Benevolent Compassion

Doug Collins behind a name tag that says Mr. Collins, ranking member.
House Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug Collins speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Alex Wroblewski/Reuters

On Tuesday, the House held the first congressional hearing on the Equality Act, a bill that would add explicit legal protections under federal law for LGBTQ people, expand protections based on sex, and expand the contexts in which discrimination is prohibited. Though the bill undertakes broad remedial measures that would affect many communities, Republicans are treating it as though it focuses exclusively on trans people. And because much of the party is currently at war with what it is now calling a “radical transgender ideology,” the hearing showcased some of the most insidious anti-trans rhetoric out there.

But you might not have noticed this based on tone alone: Instead of solely denouncing trans people as perverted deviants, Republicans adopted a kind of paternal benevolence, claiming that discrimination against us is for our own good (since it will guide us back to our assigned birth sex), as well as the good of “women and girls” who are threatened by our existence. Do not be fooled by this mock compassion. It is dangerous to trans and nonbinary people, it is dangerous to all women, and we must contend with it as such.

Throughout the hearing, trans people were cast as victims of our own delusions and threats to the rights and well-being of others. In his opening statement, House Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug Collins claimed that his opposition to the bill was based, in part, on concern about what it would do to trans people. “There is no doubt in my mind that men, women, and children who experience gender dysphoria suffer deeply,” Collins said. “Unfortunately, the legislation we are considering would harm countless people who understand themselves to be transgender.”

Later, Collins elaborated with a series a distortions about the consequences of recognizing trans existence: “Under this bill, adolescents who can’t decide what major to pursue in college would be empowered to force doctors bound by anti-discrimination laws to administer hormones that could render these children sterile and conduct irreversible surgeries. Mothers and fathers who have watched their children deteriorate physically and emotionally as they transition away from their biological sex are begging Congress to listen before we leap.” This statement is full of inaccuracies and falsehoods, but veracity was never the goal. Collins’ point was this: By supporting and affirming trans people, you are feeding a harmful and destructive delusion that we are who we say we are. Forget that the real problem is that so few trans people have access to the health care that we need; Republicans feign concern for our bodies and for parents who may wish to prevent us from living full, authentic lives.

This sentiment has been echoed recently in public statements by the Alliance Defending Freedom justifying the actions of a funeral home that fired longtime employee Aimee Stephens when she came out as trans. According to Bloomberg Businessweek: “John Bursch, vice president for appellate advocacy at the ADF, says it’s healthier for people such as Stephens to try to ‘align their mind with their biological reality’ rather than to ‘change their gender.’ The funeral home wasn’t acting out of ill will, he says, but rather ‘out of love both for Stephens and for employees.’ ” Stephens’ case is currently awaiting action by the Supreme Court. (Disclosure: My employer, the ACLU, represents Stephens in the case, which was originally brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against her former employer.)

A similar idea is animating the government’s transgender military ban. The Trump administration claims that it is not a ban because transgender people who have never undergone medical treatment or transitioned can serve in their assigned sex at birth. Of course, this is a ban, since a trans person is by definition someone who cannot live and be forced daily to be treated as something we are not without distress. The argument is akin to the argument that bans on marriage for same-sex couples did not target gay people because a gay person could (and should) marry someone of the opposite sex. This is conversion therapy by government coercion, and it was on full display in the Equality Act hearing as well.

In concert with this coercive benevolence is the second animating argument advanced in Tuesday’s hearing: that trans women and girls are really males. This was repeated over and over by both members and witnesses as part of the ongoing campaign to suggest that cisgender women and girls are endangered by the mere existence of women and girls who are transgender. It cannot be repeated enough: Girls and women who are transgender are girls and women. Full stop. The weaponizing of a politically slippery notion of “biological sex” does not change that fact. Indeed, in every case I have litigated in which a government body has attempted to use the term biological sex to exclude trans people from protection, the term has been redefined over and over so that the ultimate goal of trans exclusion is effectuated. However incoherent the arguments become, the message remains the same: Trans people do not know who they are, and they should not be seen, recognized, or affirmed in their truth.

The discourse of “transgender ideology” and “biological sex” and the concerned tone of paternalistic benevolence on display Tuesday may lure some into buying that there is something dangerous about protecting transgender people under the law. But this pitch is being made by people who fundamentally believe that trans people do not and should not exist, as they invoke children and cisgender women and girls as victims of some contagion wherein people are tricked into or forced to be trans. Meanwhile, trans people are told to our faces that denial is for our own good so that we can lead “healthy” lives in our assigned sex. Do not fall for it. No one is being forced to be trans. Transness is not contagious in the locker room or on social media. We are real, and we are facing systemic attacks in all aspects of our lives. If people are convinced that we are an “issue” open to debate, then we have already lost.