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The Democrats’ Neglect of Transgender Rights

It's not just about bathrooms. It's about livelihoods—and lives.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

To most political observers, President Donald Trump was never expected to champion transgender rights, but since taking office, Trump-Pence administration attacks on the trans community have been relentless. Since the start of 2017, the White House has instituted a trans military ban, rolled back protections for transgender access to bathrooms and other facilities, and erased references to LGBTQ people from government websites and from federal data, to name but a few of its actions. Recently, the administration let it be known it opposes the Equality Act, a nondiscrimination bill for LGBTQ people, which recently passed the House.

And Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a regulation that rolls back an Obama administration policy designed to protect transgender people from discrimination in health care. The Trump rule removes language from federal health care law that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.

Yet, when the Trump administration began, with the virulently anti-LGBTQ Vice President Mike Pence at Trump’s side, Democrats shrank from the opportunity to even mention transgender people by name. Various pundits and talk show hosts called the struggles of transgender people “boutique issues” and “campus pet peeves.” In April 2017, David Betras, the longtime chairman of the Mahoning County, Ohio, Democratic Party, told media outlets that he didn’t think Democrats were sending the right message to blue-collar voters.

“While Trump is talking about trade and jobs, they’re still obsessing about which bathrooms people should be allowed to go into,” said Betras, who stepped down as chair earlier this month.

Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Senator Sherrod Brown to respond to Betras’ remarks. CNN journalist Chris Cuomo pressed Senator Bernie Sanders on the issue, as well. Neither senator’s response included the words “transgender people,” although, to Brown’s credit, he acknowledged this was a matter of civil rights. When Cuomo asked Sanders what he would say to people who thought Democrats are “more concerned with bathrooms people go into [than] how they earn a living,” Sanders said it was a “very fair question.” He then pivoted to discuss wealth inequality.

But it’s inaccurate to separate economic issues from protections for transgender people. A 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) survey found that transgender people are twice as likely to be living in poverty as the general population. Many transgender people are homeless, and many delay health care due to fear of discrimination. And those supposedly trivial concerns about bathroom access are very serious for transgender individuals who have reported being harassed and assaulted when trying to use a public bathroom. Transgender people are also disproportionately subject to violence and harassment from police.

That is not to say Democrats haven’t made progress over the past two decades to acknowledge the struggles of transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people. When Trump’s Department of Education moved to roll back transgender protections advanced by President Barack Obama, Senate Democrats signed on to letters to object. This year, most House Democrats supported a resolution that expressed opposition to banning service by transgender people in the Armed Forces.

And that’s not just good policy, it’s good politics. Trans people are civically engaged and rarely identify as Republicans. Fifty-four percent of transgender citizens of voting age reported casting a vote in the 2014 election, according to the NCTE survey, compared to 42 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. Half of transgender respondents identified as Democrats, while 48 percent identified as Independents, and only 2 percent identified as Republicans.

Still, when NCTE recently asked every member of Congress to put a transgender flag outside their offices to show support for Trans Visibility Week, response was mixed. More than 100 members of Congress, including many Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination—such as Sanders and Senator Kamala Harris—did so. But that leaves more than 180 Democratic senators and representatives who decided not to participate in this simple show of support.

Democrats could have taken a stronger stand against the deeply unqualified Ben Carson during his confirmation process for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Carson has made numerous anti-LGBTQ comments over the years. But the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee (which includes presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren) unanimously voted to advance his nomination. When it came time for the full body to vote, six Democrats voted to confirm him. This month, HUD proposed a rule that allows shelters receiving federal funds to essentially deny trans people equal access. Rick Perry, who also has an anti-LGBTQ record, won the support of 10 Democrats when he was confirmed as energy secretary. Later that year, Perry said he supported the transgender military ban.

Elected Democrats should show a deeper understanding of the struggles of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people—and those communities could pressure officials to do so. But many transgender people who have been active in politics for decades, including Mara Keisling, the director of the NCTE Action Fund, told The New Republic that they’re focused on the threat of Trump, and not on Democrats whose records could stand to improve.

Still, given the polarizing nature of the Trump presidency, Democrats have an opportunity to show they understand the concerns of the transgender community while still speaking to core principles. The issues affecting transgender people do not exist in silos. Addressing poverty, immigration, and police brutality—which should be central to any Democratic message—are important for the wellbeing of many trans people.

“[Democrats] want me to say something like ‘let trans people be’ and that’s not enough, said Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul, a Salvadoran Nawat non-binary trans womxn, who is a writer and advocate for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people. “We need trans people to be housed. We need trans people to have food, to have jobs, to be able to find love, to have families, and be safe.”

Democrats—and groups that work closely with the Democratic Party—could also show more support for transgender candidates. There were nine transgender congressional candidates in 2018, but they were only able to raise $300,000 collectively, according to the Center for Public Integrity. None of those candidates won. Cameron Russell, the campaign manager for 2018 Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist, the first openly transgender major party nominee for governor in the U.S., wrote of “Democratic Party roadblocks” and fundraising challenges. Russell said traditional Democrat-allied rainmakers like EMILY’S List were “noticeably absent.”

Deja Lynn Alvarez, the first transgender woman to run for Philadelphia City Council, said she joined the race because she thought there were better ways to address the homeless crisis and poverty. But Alvarez, who finished 10th out of 28 candidates in the May primary, said that there hasn’t been enough of a change in LGBTQ organizations to focus on transgender people’s struggles or support trans candidates.

“I thought there was more of a shift than what I’ve seen since I’ve gotten into politics,” said Alvarez. “I’ve been around the national organizations and been to events and there is still a lot of misogyny in it and a lot of transphobia in it.”

“They’re much more focused on the gay man running for office than the trans woman,” she said. “We’re missing the camaraderie.”

emem obot, an LGBT organizer and activist from the South Side of Chicago, said Democrats need to show they understand that transgender and non-binary people are also affected by attacks on reproductive rights. obot said it’s clear that “liberal white feminism” is still leading the Democratic Party on these issues.

We’re not really having a broader conversation about… how we see patriarchy and who it affects,” obot said, “and we’re not garnering support across people and across identities.”

The 2020 candidates’ records on transgender people and policy vary widely, but they all have something to learn. Some of them are learning faster than others. Last year, Warren tweeted out her support of transgender children. And in January, the senator responded to a question about her 2012 comment that transition-related medical care for a trans woman in prison is not a “good use of federal dollars.” A campaign spokesperson told ThinkProgress that Warren now “supports access to medically necessary services, including transition-related surgeries,” for people incarcerated at correctional facilities. Warren recently shared a plan to improve policies for LGBTQ people. But as Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, rightly pointed out on Twitter, the proposal doesn’t address how the criminal justice system oppresses trans people of color.

As California attorney general in 2015, Kamala Harris signed off on briefs that opposed transition-related care for transgender inmates. Earlier this year, when questioned on this by The Washington Blade, Harris attributed the position to decisions made by staff, but said that the “buck stops” with the AG, and she took “full responsibility for what [the] office did.” In the same January interview, Harris also stated that she had disagreed with the decision, and “worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Department of Corrections would allow transitioning inmates to receive the medical attention that they required, they needed and deserved.”

In 2017, Joe Biden said that transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time. More recently, however, the former vice president called the current vice president, Mike Pence—the man LGBTQ organizations say is likely driving the administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda—“a decent guy.”

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend Indiana, would be the first openly gay president if he won the 2020 election, and he has said many of the right things in the early days of the campaign.

He doesn’t hesitate to defend transgender people’s access to bathrooms corresponding to their gender, and said, referencing the experiences of trans women of color, “I know that I need to stand up for her, just as others have stood up for me.”

But aspects of Buttigieg’s record don’t line up with his supportive rhetoric. On some issues that affect the trans community, such as criminal justice and homelessness, the mayor hasn’t stood at all. Buttigieg doesn’t think convicted felons should be able to vote, and in South Bend, the eviction rate doubled under his leadership. Community members concerned with homelessness have also been critical of his approach.

In Bernie Sanders’s case, he has recently improved his defense of transgender people’s rights. After the House passed the Equality Act, he called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the legislation to the Senate floor. Like Warren, he has also paid close attention to economic struggles and that focus would likely benefit transgender people.

Many of the candidates running for president were also among the lawmakers in the House and Senate who overwhelmingly supported SESTA-FOSTA, 2018 legislation nominally intended to curb sex trafficking that many sex workers fought against. Sex workers and their advocates said the legislation doesn’t actually punish the traffickers, fails to do anything to protect sex trafficking victims, and would make it more difficult for workers to screen clients for safety. Trans people are undoubtedly affected by this legislation since 12 percent of respondents said they have participated in sex work, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.

Whether the politicians took these positions out of ignorance or expedience, the transgender community doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for lawmakers to figure it out. Lives and livelihoods are on the line. It is time for Democrats to fully embrace their oft-claimed mantle as the party of inclusion. It is essential that high-profile candidates (and the party rank and file) do not erase transgender people from discussions of the American working class. It is this level of engagement that Democrats show they are fighting fearlessly for the wellbeing of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people. Democrats need to demonstrate that they care as much about transgender sex workers or about transgender immigrants fleeing persecution as they do the white and more economically advantaged members of the trans community. Candidates also need to ensure that voters understand that the fight to defend trans people from discrimination and violence is central to the mission of the Democratic Party because the party opposes discrimination and violence against any marginalized group.

Keisling, from the NCTE Action Fund, said equality for transgender people will ultimately advance because lawmakers and presidential contenders know “our cause is righteous.”

We’re not asking for free ponies,” she said. “We’re asking for our lives, for liberty, for freedom, for the American promise. We are one of the very many groups who have received that check and wasn’t able to cash it.”