Ending the policy of erasure: transgender issues in 2020

The 2020 election was like no other, with an incumbent president like no other. It has revealed the United States to be a deeply divided country, where Democrats and Republicans profess fear and even hatred of each other, a country struggling to recognize one another’s basic humanity. Erasure, fear and violence are things that transgender people have long known to be deeply rooted in America.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, a not-for-profit LGBTQ+ advocacy group, over the last five years at least 127 transgender people have been murdered in the United States. The highest number of murders has been recorded in 2020 —

34 at the time of this writing — and the vast majority of those killed are Black and Latinx trans women. According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 47% of Black transgender people and 30% of Latinx transgender people “reported being denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically attacked in the previous year because of being transgender.” The deputy executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, is quoted on the organization’s website saying, “Transgender people – and particularly Black and Latina transgender women – are marginalized, stigmatized and criminalized in our country. They face violence every day, and they fear turning to the police for help.” These attacks on people simply because they do not conform to the gender binary as imposed on them at birth have been institutionalized at the highest level of American government, making this election a referendum on, among many other things, whether we as a country recognize the very existence of transgender and gender non-binary people.

In the last four years, the Trump administration has continuously undone progress in transgender rights enacted by the Obama administration. Beginning on inauguration day, the administration eliminated any mention of LGBTQ+ people from the White House, Department of Labor, and Department of State websites. This symbolic erasure signaled the administration’s intent to repeal advances in transgender rights across education, housing, employment, and healthcare.

In February 2017, the Departments of Education and Justice reversed Obama administration guidance that extended Title IX protections to transgender students. The Department of Education, in May 2020, issued a letter going so far as to say that including transgender female athletes in high school sports violates Title IX. President Trump began his assault on transgender people serving in the military with a tweet on July 26, 2017, “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” In April 2019, the military implemented its ban on transgender people serving in the armed forces. Another attack occurred in July 2020 when the Department of Housing and Urban Development reversed anti-discrimination laws protecting homeless transgender people seeking shelter and other federally funded housing services. In August 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services instituted a rule that according to Roger Severino, the director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, as quoted in The New York Times, “was ‘equivalent to housekeeping,’ and that the federal government was ‘updating our books to reflect the legal reality’ that sex discrimination language does not explicitly refer to the legal status of transgender people.” In effect this ruling states that transgender people, as a defined category, do not exist and therefore are no longer protected from discrimination by doctors, hospitals, or insurance companies.

Throughout his campaign, President-Elect Joe Biden promised to fight for LGBTQ+ rights. The Biden campaign website specifically calls out the concerns of transgender people.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence have given hate against LGBTQ+ individuals safe harbor and rolled back critical protections for the LGBTQ+ community. By blocking the ability of transgender individuals to openly serve their country, denying LGBTQ+ people access to critical health care, proposing policies allowing federally funded homeless shelters to turn away transgender people and federally funded adoption agencies to reject same-sex couples, and failing to address the epidemic of violence against transgender people—particularly transgender women of color—the Trump-Pence Administration has led a systematic effort to undo the progress President Obama and Vice President Biden made. 

The simple willingness to name transgender people is a marked difference between the outgoing administration and the incoming Biden administration. Language has power. As bell hooks wrote, “Sensitivity to language is responsibility to language, and respect for its power to call forth whatever is summoned by its use.”

The election of the Joe Biden is a big win for transgender rights. For many, it undoubtedly feels like steadying the ship after a long, deadly storm. While it is a win worth celebrating, it cannot undo the trauma caused by four years of unrelenting attacks, efforts by the Trump administration to symbolically and legally eliminate transgender people.