I am the mother of a transgender child, a child who does not identify with the sex on his birth certificate, and I can’t begin to tell you how terrified I am by this week’s news about the Trump administration’s proposed reinterpretation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded schools.
The Department of Health and Human Services is considering a new rule that “would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with,” according to a summary of the proposal in the New York Times.
Since this administration has taken over, it has tried to systematically strip away the rights of transgender people — and succeeded on some fronts. Trump officials have sought to ban them from the military and are no longer recommending that schools support trans kids using the bathroom of their choice (or that schools provide gender neutral bathrooms).
Already, in many states and municipalities, discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity is not explicitly prohibited in most contexts.
The proposed revisions of the Title IX law would set transgender rights back in one of the few places it has seen advances — educational settings.
The government is basically signaling it’s okay to discriminate against trans people in their workplace, housing, medical facilities, and, now, schools.
The civil rights laws that protect cisgender people (the ones who identify with the sex that they are born with) will not be afforded trans people. To achieve that end, the new interpretation defines them out of existence. If you’re thinking of the Nuremberg Laws, you’re not alone.
When Violet came out to me as transgender and gay, at 13 years old, I had a little panic attack — or not so little. I didn’t care that I would never go wedding-dress shopping with my daughter (I’ve been married twice; it ain’t that fun), but I worried about the world’s response. Trans people struggle in big and small ways every day. My own kid, who exists in a pretty accepting and loving family and community, had two years of never using public bathrooms. (This is physically uncomfortable and medically unhealthy.)
He didn’t want to use the girls bathroom because it felt wrong, and when he used the boys' bathroom kids yelled at him. He failed gym in ninth grade because in his first semester he didn’t know where to change. Only later in the year did the school create a transgender locker room (which was actually the visiting team’s locker room).
That’s exactly that kind of accommodation, however imperfect, that the proposed new rule will make less likely.
And the psychological effects of this policy shift could be far worse. Some 80 percent of transgender people report having been harassed as children. In 2017, 29 transgender people were murdered in the United States, the most ever recorded. (Hmm … what changed about 2017, can’t put my finger on it.)
In addition, trans teens are far more likely to attempt suicide than cis gender teens. Roughly 50 percent of trans boys and 30 percent of trans girls have attempted suicide at least once. And exactly what those kids do not need to hear is that their government doesn't believe they exist — or that the government wants to erase their identity from federal law, which sounds like a science fiction nightmare.
Beyond the legal issues — the potentially lost services for trans students, such as health programs, support groups and specialized activities — immense emotional and psychological damage comes along with the knowledge that the government has the power to either sanction or obliterate your existence.
What possible reason could they have for this? This isn’t about tax cuts for rich people. I get what they’re going for with that, but this? I want to sit down and introduce them to my kid and say, “Really? This is a threat to you?” This is institutionalized meanness.
The first election Violet was conscious of was 2008. We went to vote together, that tiny little 5-year-old hand pulled the lever for Barack Obama. The next morning I said, incredulously, “Violet, Barack Obama won!” But Violet was unfazed. Obama was the good man who was supposed to win. (His administration would go on to issue a 25-page document detailing policies and practices to support transgender students in schools, colleges and universities across the country.) In all of the stories we read, the kind, brave, principled people triumphed. The wicked and hurtful people went away or learned their lesson. In today’s world, Cruella de Vil would have a thriving coat factory.
When Violet was in second grade, I introduced him to “Free To Be You And Me,” a hugely important album for me as a kid. If you don’t know it, the message is basically that boys and girls can do anything they like. Boys can play with dolls, girls can win races, it’s all right to cry, you shouldn’t dress your cat in an apron just because he bakes.
Violet liked it okay but didn’t marvel at the messages. We knew a little boy who wore princess costumes, and we socialized with gay mixed-race couples with kids. I took great joy in the fact that my 5-year-old took it for granted that he’d be allowed to do anything in his life. And if he realized, nine years later, that his gender at birth didn’t have to be his gender for life — that was okay, too.
That world is not the world of my 15-year-old — Violet’s age today — and I am brokenhearted. But the struggle is long from over. No one, not this government or anyone else, can erase my or anyone’s child by reinterpreting a statute.
The arc of the moral universe is being mercilessly bent in grotesque directions. But it’s not broken, yet.