Schuyler Bailar is a senior at Harvard University and a member of the school’s swim team. Originally recruited onto the Harvard women’s team, he instead started swimming on the men’s team in 2015 after transitioning and becoming the first publicly documented NCAA Division I transgender man to compete as a man in any sport.
A pioneer on the front lines of the national debate about gender, Bailar is speaking out about a discussion underway in President Trump’s administration to redefine the word “gender” and change the way it legally treats transgender people. Trump this week said his administration is “seriously” considering a change in definition that would view a person’s sex as a biological fact determined at birth.
Researchers say that is not true; instead, they say gender identification solidifies several years after birth. It is not clear why some people are physically born one sex but psychologically are the opposite, but experts say several factors are involved, including genetics, hormone levels and life experiences.
The Trump administration’s proposal sparked criticism from human rights activists, including Bailar. Referring to a draft proposal reported by the New York Times, Bailar wrote this on Instagram and received many messages from people offering support while others expressed distress:
Today I feel sad and tired of this fighting for existence. Today I cannot seem to find the right words. I’ve written all day, angry at the world. I’ve decided this feeling is allowed. I am allowed to be angry. I do not have to be strong all the time. I am allowed to feel discouraged. To feel sad. To feel exhausted. Because I do. And that is okay. I keep breathing. Tomorrow I will wake up and put my swim suit on and I will continue this. This living. Because the very act of living is refuting his every word. I live. I exist. We exist. — Sometimes the fiercest revolution is the quietest. It whispers with every breath: I am here. I am here. We are here. You cannot erase us.
Bailar also said this:
Regardless of what this memo could imply in the future, this moment right now matters. This is another public statement that demands that I, and every other trans person, think about -- and mostly likely question -- the validity of our existence as people. And that is exhausting. I want to live in a country in which I do not spend a majority of my breath proving my existence. My breath should be proof enough.
A Washington Post story on the administration proposal says:
The Health and Human Services Department has been pushing for the change, a fresh and direct aim at transgender rights, hoping other departments embrace that approach for sweeping impact. But it is unclear whether there is support for the broader effort or whether the regulation would be issued at all, as some in the administration are pushing back.
Such a change seeks to negate claims that gender identity — rather than biological gender — can be used for protection under federal civil rights laws such as Title IX, which bans sex discrimination. If such regulations were adopted, the federal government would consider a transgender person’s sex to be what is determined at birth rather than the gender with which they identify.
The New York Times’s report detailed a memo obtained by the paper that said the administration was proposing use of this definition:
“Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth. . . . The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”
While exact numbers are not known, it is estimated there are as many as 1.4 million adults in the United States who identify as transgender. Transgender people have not yet won the legal and social acceptance in this country that gays and lesbians have in recent years.
The Washington Post reported that while the Department of Health and Human Services is pushing the idea, the Education Department is not eager to follow. That agency, which implements civil rights law regarding sex discrimination in the nation’s schools and colleges, is headed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is said to privately support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. She did, however, support Trump’s decision last year to rescind the Barack Obama administration’s guidance protecting the right of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.
Under Obama’s policy, gender identity was seen as a protected class, and transgender students could file complaints about being mistreated as a result of their gender. Should the Trump administration go through with this latest proposal, the legal rights of transgender people would be affected, even though some federal courts have recognized transgender status.
Despite the Trump administration’s stance, some schools have taken steps to accommodate transgender students, including opening all-gender bathrooms and housing. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Brown University are just some of the schools that place free menstrual products in some gender-neutral and men’s bathrooms to help transgender students.
Earlier this year, Bailar and student David Pfeifer founded a support group at Harvard for student athletes who identify as LGBTQ, called QUADS, or Queer Undergraduate Athletes That Do Sports.