When President Obama used the word “transgender” in his State of the Union address in 2015 — the first time a sitting president had ever done so — Mariana Marroquin experienced a sense of affirmation that the U.S. government had rarely afforded her community.
“It was something I could point to and say, ‘Look, we exist, we matter to someone at the very top,’ ” said Marroquin, a transgender woman and director of the Trans Wellness Center in Los Angeles.
Three years later, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services is reportedly considering a narrow federal definition of gender that hinges solely on sex assigned at birth, a move that would in effect strip transgender and intersex Americans of their civil rights and render their chosen identities invisible in the eyes of the federal government.
L.A.’s LGBTQ leaders see the potential policy change as an effort to systematically undermine a national recognition of transgender people ushered in by the Obama White House. And while they aren’t surprised by the Trump administration’s effort to establish a strict legal definition of sex, they say they are still alarmed.
Advocates fear the sweeping change would breed an increase in hate and violence toward transgender people, lead to new barriers in obtaining adequate healthcare and education, and induce a greater sense of hopelessness and isolation in a community that already exists on the farthest margins of society.
In the 36 hours after the New York Times first reported that the federal government may soon define gender as a fixed biological condition determined by a person's sex organs at birth, advocates’ primary concern was for the mental health of transgender people.
Aydin Olson-Kennedy, executive director of the Los Angeles Gender Center and a clinical social worker, said his organization received a higher volume of calls and emails on Monday from transgender clients and their family members. They were panic-stricken over what this proposed policy change could mean for them, he said.
“This adds a whole other layer of trauma for people who already experience a lot of it,” said Olson-Kennedy, who noted that transgender people are disproportionately affected by depression and anxiety and have higher rates of suicide.
The Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention organization for the LGBTQ community, said it has seen an increase in calls from young people who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming.
Advocates partly attribute this phenomenon to a White House that is increasingly hostile to transgender people. They point to the Trump administration’s attempt to ban them from military service; a memo from Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions concluding that civil rights laws don't protect transgender people from discrimination on the job; and the scrapping of Obama-era guidance encouraging school officials to let transgender students use school bathrooms that matched their gender identities.
In 2017, advocates tracked at least 29 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. due to violence — the most ever recorded, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Now, the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to create a legal definition of sex under the federal Title IX law that would rigidly define it as either male or female. Any dispute about one's gender would have to be clarified through genetic testing, according to the New York Times' account of an internal memo.
A federal definition of gender that does not recognize transgender people will invite more aggression against them, said Bamby Salcedo, founder and president of the L.A.-based TransLatina Coalition, an advocacy group that helps transgender immigrants.
“This sends the message that we are deviants, that we aren’t who we say we are, that we deserve to be put in our place,” said Salcedo, a transgender woman.
LGBTQ leaders also worry that the federal erasure of trans identity could restrict access to medical intervention for people with gender dysphoria. Hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery not only help transgender people align their physical appearances with their identities, Olson-Kennedy said, but they also help them exist safely in the world.
“What I’m most concerned about is what this is going to do to my trans siblings who don’t pass, people who aren’t able to move through society without extra attention being brought down on them,” said Iris Bainum-Houle, co-owner of Cuties, an LGBTQ-centered coffee shop in East Hollywood.
Most states, including California, permit name and sex to be changed on a birth certificate. But many still require a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from a doctor or medical proof of gender confirmation surgery before the certificate can be altered.
West Hollywood Mayor John Duran noted that although California is “the base for the resistance against the Trump administration and his policies,” transgender residents would still be affected by the new definition of gender any time they apply for a federal program like Medicare or Social Security. They could be met with discrimination while traveling abroad with a passport that does not match their gender presentation. And they could still be denied access to gender-specific programs at educational institutions.
The proposed definition flies in the face of decades of medical and social science research that validates the existence of gender dysphoria, Bainum-Houle said. It also fails to acknowledge the lives of intersex people, who may have been born with ambiguous sex organs.
“It doesn’t make sense, this focus on genitalia,” said West Hollywood Councilman John Heilman, who also serves on the board of OutRight Action International, which advocates for LGBTQ rights around the world. “How somebody identifies, how they present themselves — that’s far more important in terms of how we should be treating people.”
If there is a silver lining to this development, transgender rights advocates say, it is that it could motivate a newly impassioned Democrat base to vote in the midterm election on Nov. 6.
Ian Thompson, senior legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Monday in a telephone conference call with reporters that, if Democrats win the House in November, he expects the Equality Act would be “a very high priority” looking ahead to next year. The act would provide LGBTQ people across the country with comprehensive nondiscrimination protection by explicitly adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing federal civil rights statutes.
Lilac Vylette Maldonado, an advocate with L.A.-based LGBTQ organization Equal Action, said it is more important than ever for transgender and gender-nonconforming people to find strength in community, and to rail against the apathy that often accompanies hopelessness.
“We must remember that our people have faced worse than this,” Maldonado said. “We have a legacy of resilience. If that’s all we have, that’s enough.”