Politics

“I’m Not a Debate. I Shouldn’t Be a Debate.”

Trans activists gather in protest of leaked Trump administration draft memo proposing denial of trans existence under Title IX.

Demonstrators holding signs that say "Trans Equality Now" and "trans people won't be erased" and waving a trans flag stand in front of the White House.
Demonstrators protest the Trump administration’s most recent incursion on trans rights in front of the White House on October 22, 2018.
Christina Cauterucci/Slate

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

Trans activist Mara Keisling pointed at the White House on Monday afternoon, addressing a crowd of a few hundred demonstrators gathered in protest of a Trump administration draft memo that would define gender under Title IX as a permanent category determined at birth through genetics and genitalia. “That building right there is our White House. This is our government,” said Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “These are our laws. We are protected as transgender people by these laws they are trying to cut us out of. And they cannot make the laws go away.”

Trust in traditional modes of political and legal recourse was high among advocates who took the mic at the protest, many of whom will likely contribute to eventual efforts to challenge the directive in court if it ever takes effect. An attorney from Lambda Legal, Sasha Buchert, led the crowd in a call and response about their next steps: “Are you ready to organize?” “Yes!” “Are you ready to sue the bastards?” “Yes!” “Are you ready to vote?” “Yes!”

When she stepped up to speak, Sunu Chandy, the legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, said she’d already told Roger Severino— the official behind the memo and Chandy’s former boss at the Department of Health and Human Services—that excluding trans people from protections against sex discrimination would be “against the law.” “The circuit courts are far ahead of this,” Chandy said. “They have said you can’t create a line between discriminating against a trans person, an LGBT person, or a woman who wants to wear pants, who doesn’t wear makeup. Discrimination based on how we present ourselves is sex discrimination.”

But Micah, a 19-year-old nonbinary person who drove to the protest from Hanover, Virginia, doesn’t trust the courts to protect their rights. “You can sue and sue and sue, and they’ll just make a new law,” they said, echoing concerns many LGBTQ activists have raised as Trump has filled federal courts with conservative judges. The sign Micah held read, “More than two genders exist. Peaceful revolution does not.”

Micah came to the demonstration with their friend from childhood, Grey, a 19-year-old trans man. When Grey first saw friends posting on Facebook about the Trump administration memo this weekend, he didn’t believe it. “Then I checked the sources and saw it was coming from the New York Times,” he said. “Then it was just fear.” Grey said he’d had to leave a previous job due to anti-trans harassment; now, he and Micah wonder if they’ll spend their entire lives in fear of losing a job or a home because of their gender identities. Neither Micah nor Grey have the support of their families, but both say they have a lot of friends and have found a strong network of community members in PFLAG.

“You never think when you’re a kid that you’re going to be fighting for your survival and your existence,” Micah said. “But that’s kind of how it’s been working out.”

Fear for trans health and lives weighed heavy on the minds of protest speakers and attendees, even as the prevailing mood remained upbeat. Masen Davis, the CEO of Freedom for All Americans, told the crowd that, as a white trans man who passes as cisgender, “it has been unique in the last 24 hours” to be reminded of the feelings of fear that consumed him when he came out in Missouri 21 years ago. Cecilia Cano, a 62-year-old mother of a trans man, said she senses that the Trump administration has caused her son to “relive some of the fears he had” when he first came out in high school. Those fears gave way to cautious optimism when the Obama administration made some progress on trans rights—progress the Trump administration’s proposed move would undo.

Cano took the afternoon off from work to be at the protest in place of her son, who lives out of state. She worries that, even if legal challenges or a future Democratic president thwarts or reverses any Trump administration infringement on trans rights, significant damage will have already be done. “I’m an elementary school teacher, and I know there are children right now who are questioning, or they know they are [transgender], and just to hear these hateful messages is painful for them,” she said. “Just the idea that somebody is thinking about taking away your rights—kind of erasing you as a human being, calling you a freak or whatever. That in itself, that hurts.”

Not so long ago, Micah was one of those kids. In high school, they took a course called “Contemporary Issues” that required students to talk through topics of political import. When trans rights came up, Micah volunteered to do a presentation for the class. Then, they had to participate in a debate over their own right to bathroom access, health care, and anti-discrimination protections. Though they weren’t out as nonbinary to very many people, they were “very out” to themselves, and they found the experience humiliating—not unlike waking up to a federal memo denying their identity and existence. “I’m not a debate. I shouldn’t be a debate,” Micah said. “We’ve got our visibility. Now we need change.”