Last week, The New York Times broke news of a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services. In the memo, the department argued in favor of a unilateral definition of gender determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The department furthered in the memo that individuals would be defined as strictly male or female, gender would be determined by “immutable biological traits” (i.e., genitalia and other sex characteristics), and gender was unchangeable unless proven otherwise by genetic evidence.
The memo seems to be an attempt to legally define transgender individuals out of federal existence, not to mention the fact that it completely ignores the existence of intersex individuals. This initiative is only one of the Trump administration's latest efforts to exclude transgender individuals from civil rights protections, while rolling back Obama-era protections and more fluid conceptualizations of gender.
For example, the administration has rolled back an Obama-era guidance that required schools to allow transgender students open access to bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. Trump also attempted to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military on the basis they engendered “tremendous medical cost." This is an untrue claim. Medical costs for transgender military members were estimated to comprise only 0.01 percent of the Department of Defense’s 2018 budget. Most recently, the Department of Justice ruled businesses can discriminate against workers based on their gender identity.
The memo argues that sex directly corresponds with gender, which is untrue. At a base level, sex is determined by an individual’s sexual characteristics and is typically assigned at birth. Gender, however, is social and determined by the individual. While in the case of cisgender individuals, sex and gender directly correspond, they often don’t. Those who are transgender identify with a gender that doesn’t correspond with the gender they were first assigned.
This logic relies on the notion that sex is binary, which is also untrue. It's estimated that approximately 1.7 percent of the population — around the same amount of people born with natural red hair — are born with variations in sexual characteristics that fall out of traditional conceptions of male and female bodies. More often than not, intersex individuals undergo non-consensual, irreversible surgeries as infants, which endeavor to make intersex bodies conform to either typically male or female physical characteristics. The reliance upon a sexual binary in the memo would only encourage the miscategorization of intersex individuals and encourage the harmful surgeries meant to make their bodies conform to binary norms.
Transgender and intersex individuals are having federal protections stripped away from them in what looks like an attempt to define them out of existence. It’s not as if this is just a broadly national problem either. Just two weeks ago, the University of Minnesota College Republicans filled its panels on the Washington Avenue bridge with transphobic and about the use of an individual’s correct pronouns.
Transgender people won’t be erased, and it’s imperative that we push back against the Trump administration’s latest attack on their rights. It’s also imperative that we don’t erase intersex individuals from this conversation given that the memo also puts them in jeopardy. In short: trust, support and stand with transgender and intersex individuals, especially as the Trump administration works to define them out of federal existence.