A decade ago this year, I had a rare opportunity. Rushed onto a flight in the middle of the week, I made my way to Washington, DC. I had been asked, quite at the last moment, to go to the White House to discuss transgender issues.
I felt woefully unprepared as I hurriedly wrote out a few pages of notes I wanted to discuss before heading over to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the West Wing. There, I had the opportunity to address representatives of the Obama Administration specifically on issues of anti-transgender violence.
It was both daunting and deeply flattering, to have the opportunity to sit at the center of a large table, surrounded by individuals representing the administration — and photos of the noteworthy things that happened in that room in the many decades before I came calling — and speak about the things that I find important as a trans woman who has dedicated much of her life to anti-trans murder.
I found it far more important to hear those who surrounded me speak about what each of their parts of the Administration were going to do to help transgender people like me. It was at this meeting that I fully began to comprehend that a presidency was not just about the person at the top, but everyone below them as well.
Much of what we discussed was already well established even then, a couple short years into the Obama Presidency. Many others, big and small, would be enacted over the course of those eight years.
Then it all changed.
In the past four years of the Trump Administration, I have seen everything discussed at that 2011 meeting rolled back. Far from just a military ban, we saw trans rights challenged from top to bottom. For every scant win came more challenges, more directives, more attempts to strip our rights.
To be honest, it can be hard to worry about these things, with families being separated and caged in the desert, with Muslim travel bans, and a failed response to a pandemic that has killed over 400,000 people. There’s been an amazing amount of evil done in such a short period of time.
That said, I took every trans rights loss very personally. I mentally crossed off everything lost from that 2011 meeting, with the last of it gone in the last few days of the Trump era. While I actually did expect worse for transgender people from the Administration — and I think it would have gotten unimaginably worse if Trump had secured four more years — every one of these losses elicited a special grief, a pang in my heart as I wondered if there had been just a little something more I could have done.
This past November, I honestly wasn’t sure what would take place. Frankly, as court challenge after court challenge went by, as attempts were made to invalidate votes, and as we saw rioters — whipped up by the President himself — descend on the United States Capitol, I wasn’t sure we would make it to the inauguration.
Then, once again, it all changed.
A day before the inauguration. President-Elect Biden tapped Dr. Rachel Levine, a transgender pediatrician, to be the Assistant Secretary for Health. The choice made it clear that transgender voices would be a part of this administration. It is important to note that Levine has been a key part of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response, even while facing pushback largely due to being transgender.
Then, hours after President Biden took the Oath of Office on the capitol steps, he issued an executive order that protected LGBTQ people from discrimination in schools, at work, and so on. It is largely a directive based on last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County Georgia which secured workplace protections under Title VII.
By the time you read this it is also quite likely that the Biden Administration will call for an end to the transgender military ban, one of the Trump Administration’s first big forays into stripping transgender people of their rights.
This is sending a large, tangible signal that this administration is working to protect transgender citizens of this country. That said, I’m under no illusion that this won’t continue to be an uphill battle in the next four years, nor do I feel that a future right-wing President could not simply change things once more.
Even now, scores of anti-transgender bills have popped up in statehouses across the country, seeking to roll back trans rights. Some of the worst attempt to criminalize transgender care, mandating prison time for those who provide healthcare to transgender people. Further, even though it will clearly go nowhere, a bill in the Democratically controlled house is also seeking to undermine the rights of transgender students across the country.
Seeing the Equality Act passed will be vital, even knowing that there are sure to be court challenges. We are but at the beginning of this battle to make trans rights truly complete and not so easy to wipe away. We know there will be plenty of challenges to build-in “religious exceptions” that could cripple these same rights, as well as pressure to see trans needs “slow walked” in Congress in favor of easier bipartisan victories as the populace relaxes into a post-Trump world.
It’s good to see progress once again. To be frank, it heals my heart to see these things, once lost, now return.
Gwen Smith would be more than happy to come back to DC this November, COVID-willing. You’ll find her at www.gwensmith.com