Moving to Maryland from Brazil made a world of a difference for senior Ana Sampaio, who is genderqueer and uses the they/them pronoun. For 16 years, they lived in Brazil—a country where a federal judge ruled that homosexuality is a disease in 2017. There, Sampaio said they felt unsafe and unwelcome coming out. But after moving to the United States, a country that is arguably more accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals than Brazil, and coming out, Sampaio now fears the government could soon discriminate against them again.
The New York Times reported Oct. 21 that the Department of Health and Human Services was considering removing “transgender” from existence under federal civil rights law. To the federal government, non-binary and transgender individuals would no longer be represented in federal documents and potentially wouldn’t be defended in federal civil rights lawsuits. Since the proposal defines gender by a person’s biological genitalia at birth, with the department only considering “male” and “female” as categories, transgender and non-binary individuals around the country worry that the plan will erase their gender identities.
Across the country, members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community are protesting the proposal with the trending hashtag, #wontbeerased, and are preparing to challenge the federal government if the memo is implemented. At Whitman, members of the Pride Alliance Club are promising to raise their voices if the plan goes through.
“It’s very disturbing,” club president Aubrey Lay said. “This administration has not been entirely accepting of the transgender community, but this is outright erasure. I know for me and a lot of other members of the LGBT community, it’s a scary development.”
The proposal isn’t the first time the president has targeted the LGBTQ+ community. The Trump administration prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using “transgender” as a term in official documents and rolled back federal Obama-era protections that allowed transgender students to choose the bathroom and locker room that matches their gender identity. Trump also signed a proposal that banned transgender people from military service if they “have undergone gender transition,” but several court orders blocked the ban.
Memo could encourage more employment discrimination
Under the memo, people who discriminate against transgender people wouldn’t be punished because Title IX—which outlaws workplace discrimination on the basis of sex—wouldn’t include “transgender” as an identity. The Department of Justice told the Supreme Court Oct. 24 that it’s lawful to discriminate against transgender employees based on their identity.
Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argues that Title VII protects transgender employees, the memo refers to Title IX, so it could still lead to workplace discrimination, Lambda Legal attorney Ethan Rice said.
“It’s completely unprecedented that the DOJ would go against another federal agency in their statement,” Rice said. “It reasonably could incentivize more employers to discriminate against their employees or potential employees.”
Transgender people are already twice as likely to be unemployed as cisgender people, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Sampaio wants to be a public school teacher when they grow up and thinks the memo would impede their goals.
“The change could influence my ability to get a job or how students and faculty treat me,” Sampaio said. “I wouldn’t want to be refused a job or discriminated against just because I want to give education to kids.”
Memo could lead to denial of healthcare to transgender and non-binary individuals
Doctors could deny care to transgender patients, and medical providers could choose to misgender, or identify their patients as the wrong gender, Georgetown University healthcare analyst Katie Keith said. In 27 states—excluding Maryland—there are no clear, state-level anti-discrimination protections for transgender individuals. If the memo is implemented, doctors and providers potentially wouldn’t face repercussions in these states, Keith said.
“It could be far more than refusing to deliver gender surgery,” Keith said. “It can be as critical as refusing to see a patient for a flu because they’re outed as being transgender. That could be really harmful for all transgender individuals, and it could set a dangerous precedent about treating members of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Plastic surgeons in the U.S. conducted over 3,250 operations to help transgender people transition in 2016. Seventy percent of transgender and non-binary individuals have faced “serious discrimination” when seeking healthcare, according to a Lambda Legal survey.
“When providers, hospitals and doctors see a potential change in the federal government’s wording of gender, it could embolden them to discriminate more against transgender and non-binary individuals without fear of consequence,” Rice said.
Memo could lead to misgendering students and employers
The Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Labor and Justice could classify health, school and other records under an individual’s birth identity. As a result, schools and employers would know if a person is transgender, Keith said.
“For people like me and for some of my trans friends who change their name at school, it’s scary that there’s a chance we could be outed when we apply for a job or even go to school,” said senior Urban Seiberg, who uses the they/them pronoun. “Already, there’s a lot of unintentional or intentional misgenderment at Whitman and it could get worse if the plan was to go through.”
Community members react in response to the memo
In Spanish classrooms, some teachers have begun to end words with the “@” symbol in addition to the traditional masculine and feminine endings, Spanish teacher Fabiola Katz said. Katz’s son is transgender, and using this symbol is a way to promote LGBTQ+ inclusivity in her classroom, she said.
“I always ask my students the first day what their preferred pronoun is,” Katz said. “Some kids don’t feel comfortable opening up and they don’t know what the teacher thinks, so it’s opening the door and saying that whatever kids want to be, they’re welcome in my classroom.”
Navy Lieutenant Kris Moore is a member of SPART*A Pride, an organization of LGBTQ+ people who have served or currently serve in the military. Moore is a transgender man and said he thinks the military ban and memo don’t represent the feelings of most people in the military.
“As far as the military goes—those of us not dealing with the politics and bureaucracy—we see good change,” Moore said. “We are observing our brothers and sisters coming together to support transgender service members. On the ground level, we need to continue to set the example and to do our jobs to the best of our ability. If people stop making such a big deal about why we shouldn’t be here, they may have a chance to see why we should be here.”
At the University of Maryland, the LGBT Equity Center sent a letter to LGBTQ+ students on campus, assuring them that the organization would take all necessary actions to change the policy if it’s implemented.
“We have already seen folks driven away from military jobs and scholarships for being trans. We know more people are having to sue to access their rights instead of being able to access their rights through administrative processes,” Associate Director Shige Sakurai said in the letter. “The fact that I’m having to write this letter shows how much fear and misinformation even the prospect of policy change creates for our communities.”
Lexie Bean is a non-binary trans author and a domestic violence and sexual assault victim. Bean said that they’ve heard derogatory terms directed toward them and worries the government wouldn’t check this hatred against non-binary individuals if the memo is implemented.
“People have called me a failed boy or a failed girl,” Bean said. “The memo, even if it never sees the light of day, still shows that the government doesn’t care about me and that the government doesn’t have my best interests at heart.”
For the Pride Alliance, the memo is another reason to rally for more protections for transgender students, Lay said.
“If the proposal goes through, we would raise our voices,” Lay said. “It’s unclear where we’ll be a week or a year from now, but we’re going to make sure that people know that transgender people exist, regardless of what the government says.”