What The Conversation About Trump’s Memo Is Missing, According To 4 Transgender Activists
The New York Times reported Sunday that the Trump administration is considering legally defining sex as "either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with." Since the article was published, there's been a lot of talk about what this new definition could mean for transgender individuals and the threat it could pose to trans rights. But what's been left out of this nationwide conversation?
Bustle spoke to four transgender activists on the phone to expand on what we're not talking about when we talk about Trump's latest anti-trans move. They are Charlotte Clymer, press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign; Kheryn Callender, a children's books author; Maddy McKenna, a model and YouTube personality; and Rye Young, the outgoing executive director of Third Wave Fund, an organization that supports gender justice groups with grants and other funding.
The group talked about the erasure and visibility of trans people, Trump and the media, resilience and self-care. This is what they said.
Callender: I always want to get to the why. I want to understand. I mean, of course, this is all white cis-men looking for their power, but kind of just analyzing the why of it. To them, I think it's just kind of a threat that people can define themselves and go beyond the boundaries of what is a man and a woman.
McKenna: Like what is the actual reasoning that you have for doing this — other than it's two weeks until the elections? This isn't taking our country in a progressive way at all. It's just dehumanizing us and trying to get these trigger words for the far-right voters.
Clymer: I've been asked several times by folks what was my initial reaction. I tell them that it's heartbreaking but it's also not surprising. LGBTQ people have been talking about the threat of this White House since before they took office. Given their track record over the last two years, from the attempted ban on transgender people in the military, to turning away transgender kids from the Department of Education, to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention literally being ordered to ban the word transgender in their reports, it's as though a lot of folks woke up and realized that they're for real. But they've been doing this stuff for quite a while now. What I find particularly frustrating are those that are still telling us to calm down.
Literally yesterday — and I keep using the word literally because I really want to get the point across that this is happening right now — the solicitor general argued before the Supreme Court that civil rights protections should not be extended to transgender people. I just really want cisgender folks and the LGBT community in general to understand this is an enormous threat, and it's not going away.
Young: I also feel like something that the media falls into is making this all about Trump and the White House. It's always been about these right-wing politicians doing whatever they can within the bounds of the law, and sometimes going beyond the law, to erase trans people from all kinds of services. The media can overstate how much this is about Trump and about turning out to vote and it'll all go away, when we've known that this was actually just an extension of a strategy that's been being pushed by the far right for a very long time.
I do agree that it's not about trans people at the heart. It's really about consolidating power for these men. They understand that when they put a transphobic or a very strict anti-abortion ballot measure out there, what they're also asking their voters to vote on are voter restriction laws and redistricting rules, where they get to hold on to their power for a really long time.
McKenna: I live in Burlington, Vermont, so it's very small and mostly white liberals. And they ask me, "Maddy, like, do you really think this is going to pass? Do you think the courts will allow this?" And I don't think it's a matter of them allowing it to happen or it passing, I think it's just the fact that this is invigorating people to think that they have power to treat us however they want. It completely is going to screw people up when it just comes to how you treat your neighbors. It's based off of ignorance and, like I said, it comes at a very strategic time.
Callender: Because I just came from New York and I'm in Philadelphia right now, I feel like I'm in a bubble. I keep forgetting what the rest of Americans can be like in terms of actually having these views. It shouldn't be a surprise, but it always is a huge surprise whenever something like this happens. Of course, the next step is to vote and to continue to do the important work that you're doing. But I always wonder if there are other strategies or other things we could be thinking of doing to get people on a human level to realize that this is wrong. That we're human beings.
Young: Something that has always been a challenge for me is the way that people look for signs that everything's looking up for a community. I remember that after gay marriage, everyone was like, "Wow, everything's going to be so great." Then there was that tipping point article and everyone would just say, "Things are getting better because you're in the media now, and you have these types of representation now, and we're even having this conversation, so it's fine."
It fits into the bigger context of the way that structural oppression works, where you can be having a cultural limelight moment, and things can be getting worse on a policy level, worse in terms of life outcomes. And it's hard to find outlets that want to talk about systemic oppression, because it's just not how the news media covers anything, it's all about positive spin.
Clymer: After this New York Times story dropped, I got an email from a very nice person at a local news station who wanted me to come on and debate a cisgender conservative about the validity of the trans community. I'm not sure if they realized the unintentional callousness of the email, so I called them up and I explained, "Just so you know, we shouldn't have to debate our humanity with anyone."
I thought we had a great conversation, we ended the call. I got an email 10 minutes later, because they sent an email to our press inbox at HRC, asking if anyone there would like to come on and debate a conservative about the validity of the trans community.
I went to a place of rage that I don't often go to. I called them back, and I left a voicemail. I'm not saying I was rude, but I was very assertive in saying that it disappoints me after the conversation we had that you would completely forego what I'm trying to tell you as a trans person.
McKenna: It's just so easy to want to shut down after all this is happening, but I think back to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Quite literally, they had no one — no one — in the country that was willing to fight for them. Even the gay white middle class said, "We don't want you, we're not marching for you." And if it wasn't for them that were just so staunch in themselves as characters, as women, to resist and be persistent, then we wouldn't be here today where we are now.
Clymer: This week has been incredibly stressful, and I've wanted to take a break and just get off social media and maybe take a week off from work. But it occurred to me very quickly that people are looking to all of us to speak up, and if we don't, it's going to make them feel worse and make them feel less motivated.
McKenna: I had a woman who was at the grocery store tell me, "I saw on your ID that you had female on your birth marker, and that gave me the strength and courage to be like, 'You know what, I'm tired of this, I'm going to the DMV, and I'm getting mine changed, too.'" I realized that so many people don't want to take these steps to improve their own lives and how grateful I am that I have the courage to do that. But if I want to just turn my head and hide from it all, it's sending a message to everyone else that they should do the same. We have to remember that we can't do that, that we are the voice for so many other people.
Clymer: I don't speak for any other trans person on this, I only speak for myself. But I felt more comfortable coming out because of Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and Sarah McBride and Danica Roem. I wouldn't have come out had it not been for them in the public eye being so brave and talking about their journey. So I do feel a responsibility to be visible and take a lot of pride in that so it gives other folks the strength to come out.
Young: Something that this is making me think about is just how important it is to take care of ourselves, and one of the things that we do at the foundation that I run is ... we have an open call for anybody who's doing teen organizing, who's working to change any systems of oppression that specifically relate to gender, race, and class, and how they all intersect together. What we've figured out from doing this work for a long time and getting feedback from people is that the healing justice work that they want to do is just as much frontline activism.
It's become a really big part of how we understand social change work. That personal and community resilience piece is just so important, and we have to stop expecting this perfect strong leader who's going to come in and save the day, and recognize that it is all of us, and we have to really take care of each other and ourselves as people and ourselves as a community.
McKenna: I think people think that in 2020 that Obama's going to get reelected or something magical is going to fall from the sky and everything is going to be erased. It's the actions that we take now and every single day that are going to help us at least pick up the trash that had happened in the last four years. Things are not going to just change the day someone else gets elected.
Clymer: I think someone mentioned marriage earlier as it being considered by some as the end of the LGBTQ debate, right? Like everything's solved by that, and it clearly was not. You can still be fired in 32 states for being trans and something like 27 states for being LGBTQ in general. As in, the employer can literally walk up to you and say, "Because you're transgender, we have to fire you." And that's legal. That's entirely legal. And folks really don't get that. So many just assume that everyone's protected under the same law, and that's not true.
Young: This is a centuries, millennia-long struggle, and of course there's going to be these setbacks and these feelings of helplessness. But I think it's important to recognize that we all are looking to do something historic, and it's not going to be about Obama or Trump or whoever comes next. It's about the long vision and the long game and how we take care of ourselves and not burn out in these moments. There's healing and there's resilience, and for me, they work together.
McKenna: When things like this happen, no matter how detrimental they can be to us, the most important thing we can do is the self-care to remind ourselves that we exist. We are worthy and we do have the same potential that anyone else does, and the same rights that everyone else does, at least on a moral level. And then use that to fuel the fire to know that what you are getting is not what you're worth.
Callender: I feel like I have been hearing quite a lot of people saying that this is the beginning of a genocide. 2017 was the highest number of transgender women killed, and we haven’t as talked as much about race. But with all the intersections, transgender women of color especially have been a victim of this already. And this is all kind of coming back to the idea of erasure.
We've been talking about visibility and the importance of visibility and the importance of knowing our history and teaching ourselves our history. It's incredibly important to know all that as well as getting to keep fighting. It's just as much of a part of the resistance as everything else and a part of our self-care, too.
Clymer: Allies have been asking me what they can do, and I've been telling them over and over and over that you need to vote. You really, really need to vote on Election Day. No ands, ifs, or buts.
When we get back Congress, we can pass the Equality Act, which will federalize protections across the board for all LGBTQ people, and that's the solution. The most important thing is voting. So if you're a cisgender person reading this, make sure you vote. That is your one mission within the next two weeks: Get out the vote.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.