US threat to transgender, intersex, women’s and gay rights

By Savi Hensman
October 29, 2018

The US government is seeking to roll back the rights of transgender and intersex people, women’s rights and those of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Disturbingly, religion is being used as an excuse for measures that cause harm and division.

To protect those most at risk and human rights for everyone, it may be helpful to deepen understanding and unity among those facing different kinds of discrimination, as well as getting better at talking with government supporters open to dialogue.

Removing protection from trans and intersex people

On 21 October 2018, the New York Times described a leaked memorandum (from the Health and Human Services (HHS) department , part of President Donald Trump’s administration. This sparked widespread concern.

Under the previous government, the law prohibiting sex discrimination had been interpreted as protecting transgender people too. Last year however, a new head of the HHS civil rights office was hired, Roger Severino. A Catholic lawyer passionately conservative on sexuality (though with a good track record on some other issues), he formerly worked at the right-wing Heritage Foundation.

Reportedly the memo that calls for gender to be determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” People would be classified as either male or female, depending on their genitals at birth, with any dispute sorted out through genetic testing.

When Donald Trump was questioned on how this fitted in with his campaign pledge to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, he gave the baffling reply that “I’m protecting everybody. I want to protect our country” .

This attempt to dress up prejudice in pseudo-scientific terms  has been condemned by experts. For a start it leaves many intersex people, who are not born biologically wholly male or female, in a situation where their very existence is denied. Up to 1.7 per cent of the world’s population may fall into this category.

However the intended targets are transgender people, of whom there may be 1.4 million in the USA, though the impact on their families mean that far more people may be affected. Many have tried unsuccessfully to fit into expected gender roles based on their registered sex at birth but feel relieved, and better able to contribute to society, when accepted as transwomen, transmen or non-binary.

Many already face discrimination which damages their health and wellbeing. Attempts to override their legal status, as well as making it harder for those seeking to transition (especially if this requires surgical or hormonal procedures), are making matters worse.

The US government has gone even further by urging that the word ‘gender’ be removed from various United Nations human rights documents. This would leave trans people at yet greater risk in countries where state repression and violence are routine.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is already urging the Supreme Court to rule that laws preventing sex discrimination should not prevent employers sacking staff simply for being transgender. The DOJ is backing a funeral home which fired a staff member for transitioning, though sex and gender are not relevant to the job. If the boss wins, it will set a dangerous precedent, as well as further undermining workers’ rights.

Allowing injustice against lesbian, gay and bisexual people

This is part of a wider attack on LGBT rights. If it succeeds, lesbian, gay and bisexual people may also find themselves arbitrarily fired or denied public services. As well as narrowing the definition of sex discrimination in law, the Trump administration is trying to broaden ‘religious’ opt-outs, undermining healthcare and other services.

This does a grave disservice to religion as well as LGBT people. Freedom to practice one’s own beliefs is very different from imposing them on others, quite apart from the fact that compassion to all is central to many people’s beliefs.

Yet groups which want the right to discriminate are currently using the courts to pursue their agenda. The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is a huge boost, increasing the likelihood of judgments in their favour.

Rolling back women’s reproductive and other rights

Opposition to legal abortion is part of the Trump administration’s appeal to some Christians, though many others believe it should be a woman’s own choice or fear a return to illegal and dangerous procedures. Internationally 5-13% of maternal deaths are thought to result from unsafe abortions .

US leaders have already slashed access to safe abortion for some of the most impoverished people in the world. Though abortions in the USA are not funded by the government, it is considering a ‘gag rule’ to make it harder for family planning agencies to refer clients who might want an abortion. This may force some health professionals to act in ways they consider unethical.

HHS is already blocking young refugees, who are often sexually assaulted while trying to reach the USA, from terminating their pregnancies. Sometimes such measures are promoted as ‘pro-family’; but the official in charge reportedly also ordered officials to stop using a spreadsheet to keep track of children removed from their parents, making it harder to reunite them. As those with this agenda grow more powerful, more women may be affected.

Better access to contraception can reduce abortion – but this too is under attack. Large parts of the country are likely to become ‘contraception deserts’, where only ‘natural family planning’ – not having sex at certain times, a less than reliable method – is on offer at clinics. Women who are on low incomes, young or with limited education may be particularly hard hit.

The US authorities are even allowing a mobile app called Natural Cycles to be marketed as a form of ‘contraception’.

Progress towards equal pay for equal work has also been stalled, in particular moves to make large organisations come clean about any pay gap between male and female employees. A watchdog has alleged that the White House adviser Ivanka Trump played a part.

Some uncertainty remains over the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act 1994, through which help for domestic violence services for survivors of all genders has been funded. Due to expire at the end of September, this has been extended for a few weeks by President Trump  and negotiations are taking place on what happens next.

Domestic abuse continues to have a huge human and social cost but the legal aid and public benefits programmes on which survivors rely are facing huge cuts.

Responding effectively to an attack on national ideals and human rights

The US authorities, already much-criticised for how ethnic minorities are treated, are rapidly rolling back the rights of women, transgender and gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Many people, of course, fall into more than one of these categories.

These measures, together, affect many millions in the USA alone, as well as those who rely on them financially or as caregivers. Many are already campaigning vigorously – and working hard to mobilise voters for forthcoming mid-term elections.

More generally such moves seem to contradict the ideals of equality and freedom which many Americans hold dear, as well as faith-based values of love and justice to which millions aspire. Christians committed to justice have been mobilising .

These developments also disregard international human rights agreements, such as the 2005 Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. However Trump continues to command widespread support within sections of the public.

To counter this more effectively, it may be useful to strengthen unity among those targeted in different ways, as some are already working to do. For others, though, it may be hard to recognise the seriousness of others’ suffering when under pressure oneself – and some kinds of identity-based politics may not help. In some cases, those opposed to greater equality may frame rights for different communities as competing. In countering this, sensitivity and may be needed so as to explore areas of difference and how any tricky issues can be addressed.

In addition, effective strategies to win over those Trump supporters open to persuasion, rather than just condemning them, may be required. Empathy-based approaches, for instance, can change attitudes, as well as tapping into those positive values which others hold.

This can be hard if feeling understandably angry at attacks on people or ideals one holds dear. Space may be needed for those affected to express indignation, sorrow or loss. It may also feel as if a suitably moral response means avoiding dialogue, in case this seems to give credibility to wrong views. Yet this approach has left a gap for the far right to exploit people’s grievances and offer false solutions unchecked.

The USA and wider world appear to be at increasing risk from ways of thinking at types of leadership which exclude, oppress and put peace and the environment at risk. For people of goodwill, of all faiths and none, urgent action is needed.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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