Back in 2010, I had an emotional conversation with a woman I am proud to call my closest transgender friend.
She’s Lynn Conway, one of the most important pioneers in the history of electrical engineering and computer science, whose distinguished career spans industry and academia. She’s also a pioneer and a leader in transgender advocacy, having started her gender transition in the 1960s.
As she had told me for a Los Angeles Times Magazine piece, her decision cost her a job at IBM, where she already had made important breakthroughs, and access to her daughters. (Years later, she was able to reconnect.)
That conversation in 2010 drifted inevitably to political targeting of transgender individuals and the community. It came vividly back to me a few days ago, when a report surfaced that the Trump administration, in yet another medieval policy initiative, is considering erasing federal civil rights protections for transgender Americans, who number an estimated 1.4 million individuals. More on that in a moment.
Lynn and I were talking about the issue because in her home state of Michigan, two Republican candidates for secretary of state were trying to match each other’s transgender-bashing bona fides by pledging to bar transgender people from changing their gender designations on their drivers licenses. (Those licenses fall within that office’s jurisdiction.)
I could hear the anger and perplexity anguish in Lynn’s voice as we pondered why the transgender community suddenly found itself engulfed in Michigan state politics, out of the blue.
My theory wasn’t especially reassuring: In its crass and cruel quest for targets to unite its base against, the right wing had run out of admissible candidates for discrimination and abuse.
Open racism was no longer socially acceptable (though it has made a strong comeback in the Trump era). The roster of ethnic groups that could be stereotyped as undesirables had shrunk. It was no longer respectable to laugh at or denigrate the mentally ill, the homeless, the disabled.
Gays and lesbians had moved into the mainstream of culture and society. Even conservative and Republican families were finding themselves accepting gay and lesbian siblings, children and parents as worthy of familial love and respect.
Gay and lesbian characters in Hollywood movies and TV shows had started to evolve from those whose homosexuality set them apart; to those who were just like everyone else, except gay and lesbian; to those whose homosexuality was just another character trait; to those whose homosexuality was barely relevant to the story or their role in it. (To be sure, this evolution is a work in progress.)
Most importantly, gays and lesbians had acquired a political voice; gay-bashing would no longer work for a political candidate as it had in the past, except perhaps in the most benighted corners of American society.
So who was left? The Michigan candidates had made a calculated choice. In 2010, gender transition was still a rare enough occurrence — and gender reassignment surgery even rarer — that they figured they were unlikely to be hitting members of their base in the family circle.
Gender identity was (and still is) a perplexing topic for Americans. That enabled the anti-LGBTQ activist pushing both candidates over the right-wing cliff to caricature the driver’s license issue as one of “identity theft and national security concerns” because it would allow “men to falsely identify themselves as female on their state-issued driver’s license, and vice versa.”
Change would take time, but happen in the end, I told Lynn. And there was some progress. Caitlin Jenner publicly transitioned in 2015, bringing the aura of a sports and reality TV star to the issue of gender identity. Anti-LGBTQ laws in Indiana and North Carolina, with their provisions aimed at eliminating discrimination protections for transgender individuals, sparked public protests and promoted businesses to cancel or reduce development plans in those states.
Both states were prompted to roll back some of the more noxious provisions of their laws, but not entirely. North Carolina replaced its egregiously anti-LGBTQ House Bill 2 with a measure that deleted the mandate that transgender people use restrooms in public buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates.
The replacement law, however, kept a rule barring local governments from making bathroom rules and forbade the enactment of new local anti-discrimination rules until 2021.
In Michigan, Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson reversed the anti-transgender policies she implemented after winning election, once they were challenged in court.
But not a few enterprises that talked big about cutting ties with North Carolina backed off in the end. The National Basketball Assn. moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, N.C., to New Orleans to protest HR 2, but awarded the city the 2019 game after the state’s largely cosmetic redrafting. The NCAA also restored championship games to the state after the change. Even Apple, which is known as a gay-friendly company and whose CEO, Tim Cook, is gay, is still considering placing a corporate hub in North Carolina.
The Trump administration’s draft proposal on transgender rights, reported by the New York Times, is a response to a federal court case in Texas.
In that case, District Judge Reed O’Connor on Dec. 31, 2016, blocked an Obama administration rule holding that the Affordable Care Act’s prohibition of discrimination by healthcare providers on the basis of sex included discrimination based on gender identity. That protected gender reassignment surgery as well as nonsurgical services.
The rule defined “gender identity” as a person’s “internal sense of gender, which may be male, female, neither, or a combination of male and female, and which may be different from an individual’s sex assigned at birth.”
The plaintiffs in the case included Texas and seven other red states along with two Catholic organizations involved in healthcare. The religious groups asserted that the rule infringed on their belief that “sexual identity is an objective fact rooted in nature as male or female persons….ascertained biologically, and not by one’s beliefs, desires, or feelings,” and that this ostensibly objective fact is “part of the image of God.”
The case has been held in abeyance while the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services tries to rewrite the rule; some of the paperwork connected to that rewriting is what was leaked to the New York Times. Curiously, some of its language tracks the Catholic legal plea closely, as it seeks to advance a definition of gender “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
As a spiritual creed, this is unexceptionable; but it has nothing to do with science.
Among its many shortcomings is that it fails to accommodate intersex, in which an individual’s sex organs, chromosomes, or endocrine systems don’t fall neatly into the classification of male or female — but may not become medically evident until puberty or later. This may affect as much as 1% of the U.S. population.
Nor does it recognize gender dysphoria, a condition recognized by the psychiatric profession in which a person’s sense of him- or herself is at odds with gender assignment at birth.
“Gender dysphoria is associated with high levels of stigmatization, discrimination and victimization, contributing to negative self-image and increased rates of other mental disorders,” according to the American Psychiatric Assn., which adds that “adolescents and adults with gender dysphoria are at increased risk for suicide.”
As constitutional scholar Garrett Epps observed recently, the North Carolina law and others like it aim to “weaponize” birth certificates against transgender people because “they would make binding for life the assignment of sex performed at birth.”
A mature society would move beyond such reliance on a manifestly faulty paper judgment. A civilized society in the modern age would recognize its responsibility to assist those with these conditions to make their way in the world, not contribute to the stigmatization and discrimination that intensifies their pain and despair.
That’s not Trump’s world, obviously. His administration is trying to bar those with gender dysphoria from serving in the military, though its policy directive has been put on hold by federal courts. The administration has rolled back civil rights protections put in place under Obama, and the latest report indicates that it is poised to undermine the ACA protections as broadly as possible.
There is no conceivable reason to support discrimination against transgender individuals other than to show one can target a community without a strong political voice or political power.
These are the actions of bullies and cowards, pretending to be strong. For religious leaders to allow their creeds to be used against the vulnerable in this way is tantamount to draping themselves in cloaks of shame and giving up their right to be regarded as leaders at all.
Transgender individuals face obstacles and challenges, on the inside and from the outside, that few of us could ever dream of and fewer still could find the strength to endure and prevail over (to crib a line from William Faulkner).
Lynn Conway is retired now with her husband, Charles Rogers, but her work was crucial to the development of the technologies every one of us uses every day — just last week, the University of Michigan announced it will be awarding her an honorary doctorate in science in December, when she’ll be delivering the winter commencement address. Her transgender advocacy is a byword; in an email Monday, she told me, “This is a pivotal time for the trans community, when direct and supportive responses are immediately needed.”