First-term congressperson Rep. Marie Newman (D‑Ill.) drew unexpected attention in February — both gratitude and virulent attacks — for discussing her transgender daughter while speaking in favor of the Equality Act in the House.
“I rise today on behalf of the millions of Americans who continue to be denied housing, education, public services and much, much more because they identify as members of the LGBTQ community; Americans like my own daughter who, years ago, bravely came out to her parents as transgender,” Newman said. “I knew from that day on, my daughter would be living in a nation where, in most of its states, she could be discriminated against merely because of who she is. And yet, it was still the happiest day of my life, because my daughter has found her authentic self.”
In response, first-term congressperson and QAnon supporter Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R‑Ga.) attacked Newman’s family online by tweeting anti-trans vitriol at Newman’s daughter, a college sophomore, intentionally misgendering her.
When Newman then installed the blue, pink and white trans flag outside her office, across the hall from Greene’s, the Republican legislator responded to the symbol of equality with a pointed sign: “There are TWO genders: Male & Female. Trust The Science!” Greene recorded herself hanging the sign and posted the video for her Twitter followers.
The interaction is a microcosm of a larger culture war centered on transgender and nonbinary people, as virulence against gay, lesbian and bisexual people has lost its luster in stirring up the right-wing base in a post-marriage equality era. Greene’s video is intended to shock, to sow fear, to send a message — and to rally the Christian Right. On video, she smugly dusts off her hands.
Attacking trans people’s right to exist has become a major rallying issue for the Right. Christian Right-affiliated lawmakers and advocacy organizations — bolstered by anti-trans feminists, the alt-right and QAnon — have begun in effect hanging signs like Greene’s across the country with their attacks on trans justice. Outside sports arenas, doctors’ offices, schoolrooms, college dorms and HR departments, they demand: “There are only two genders,” “Biology isn’t bigotry,” and “You’re not welcome here.”
On social media, right-wing outlets dominate the conversation around trans rights. According to Brennan Suen, LGBTQ program director for Media Matters, “Right-leaning pages earned nearly two-thirds of interactions on posts about the Equality Act and 88% of interactions on posts about [Dr. Rachel] Levine,” the new assistant secretary for health and the first openly trans person confirmed for any position by the Senate.
The Right has declared war on a community in desperate need of protections. Trans people face barriers and discrimination in every aspect of life, from jobs and housing to healthcare, education and social services. Three in 4 trans people report workplace discrimination; 1 in 4 report that discrimination resulted in job loss. Trans people are three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population, and Black trans people are up to four times more likely. Twenty-nine percent of trans people live in poverty.
To be a trans person is to live with the constant threat of harassment and violence. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reports 46% of trans people had been verbally attacked in the past year; 9% had been physically attacked. The list goes on. Their workplaces are vandalized; they are denied healthcare; one-third report experiencing homelessness; 40% have attempted suicide. When incarcerated, most trans people are held in cells that don’t match their gender, making them highly vulnerable to sexual abuse (and often denied hormone treatments).
Trans people, especially Black trans people and trans sex workers, are statistically more likely to be murdered.
The Equality Act does not begin to solve all of these issues, but it adds a layer of protection by updating federal civil rights law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s a start.
Meanwhile, trans people are notably absent in conversations at the federal level. There has never been a trans or non-binary person serving openly in Congress. But Newman — along with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D‑Wash.) — is part of a small number of congressmembers (so far all women) vocally in support of their trans and nonbinary family members.
“You know, I’m immensely proud of my daughter,” Newman told CNN on February 25. “All anyone is asking for is to be treated as anyone else and that’s what I want Rep. Greene to see.”
Only a few months into her term, Newman gained national attention as a candidate going against her party’s establishment in primarying an anti-choice incumbent Democrat. She has yet to make her mark policy-wise, but after speaking in support of the Equality Act, Newman is on the radar of LGBTQ rights organizations.
In a letter coordinated by Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ lobbying group, more than 2,800 “parents of transgender, nonbinary and gender-expansive youth” thanked Newman for “publicly representing our pride in and love for our children.” The letter goes on, “Your presence in the Capitol gives us hope for the hundreds of thousands of transgender children and adolescents throughout our country and that they will soon be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.”
Rep. Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted her support to Newman as “the mom of one trans kid to another.” Jayapal was an original cosponsor of the Equality Act in 2019. When the bill first came up for debate, she shared, “My beautiful, now 22-year-old child told me last year that they were gender nonconforming. The only thought I wake up with every day is: My child is free. My child is free to be who they are, and in that freedom comes a responsibility for us as legislators to protect that freedom.” (Her child has since come out as trans.)
As Jayapal tells In These Times, “I think of [the family of trans people] as being bridges. … We don’t yet have a member of Congress who is trans, so the next closest is those of us who have [trans] family members.”
Jayapal, who leads the left wing of the House as chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is well known within LGBTQ advocacy circles for her commitment to the kinds of laws and policies that would create a vital safety net for transgender people, including healthcare, anti-poverty, migrant justice and justice for those harmed and targeted by law enforcement. She introduced the House Medicare for All bill in 2019 and 2021, which would specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of “sex, including sex stereotyping, gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy and related medical conditions (including termination of pregnancy).”
While only a few months into her first term, Newman has been clear about her support for social safety nets and human rights. “Whether we are talking about LGBTQ+ equality or ensuring affordable healthcare, progressive policies have always been about recognizing that there are millions of Americans in our own communities that are not afforded the same rights as everyone else in this country,” Newman tells In These Times.
Newman is already a cosponsor of more than 100 pieces of legislation, including Jayapal’s 2021 Medicare for All bill, Rep. Chuy García’s (D‑Ill.) New Way Forward Act (which would abolish private detention centers), and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (which includes explicit funding for anti-violence and recovery services for LGBT people, which triggered opposition from the Right).
Newman and Jayapal are joined by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D‑Va.), aunt to a trans child, in co-chairing the Transgender Equality Task Force of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. In a public statement March 26, Wexton wrote that she hopes the task force can provide sustained resistance against the “dehumanizing bills going through state legislatures and false narratives being amplified by the Right and some Members of Congress.”
Rep. Greene is also not isolated in her party. Though the Equality Act passed the House, it is expected to die by filibuster in the Senate. Several opposing congressional bills, amendments and resolutions threaten to enshrine anti-trans discrimination into law — by withholding federal funds from states practicing nondiscrimination, “condemning” social media platforms for opposing anti-trans attacks, ending public health insurance coverage for trans-affirming care, banning trans athletes from school teams that match their gender identity, and undermining proposed federal nondiscrimination protections through broad religious exemptions.
Advancing Transphobia in the States
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch ruined everyone’s “fantasy SCOTUS pool” in 2020 by writing the decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, holding that Title VII’s protection against employment discrimination on the basis of sex also forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Legal experts say the ruling opens the door for stronger anti-discrimination protections in arenas beyond the workplace, such as housing, banking and healthcare.
The Christian Right responded by ramping up its anti-trans attacks. The number of state bills directly threatening justice for trans people jumped from 18 introduced in 2018 and 22 in 2019 to 54 in 2020 and 73 in in the first three months of 2021. National organizations, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Policy Alliance and the Family Research Council, are working with GOP state legislators to push anti-trans bills. With a trifecta of control in 23 states, the GOP can push through anti-trans and other right-wing legislation.
Meanwhile, only seven states in the country even have a single trans or gender-nonconforming person in the legislature (New Hampshire alone has multiple trans or nonbinary representatives). On April 6, Arkansas became the first state to enact a law banning medical professionals from providing or even referring trans youth to life-saving trans-affirming care, when the Republican-controlled legislature overturned Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto.
In Mississippi (which, like Arkansas, is a state with no trans or nonbinary representatives and a GOP trifecta in control), a new law bans trans and nonbinary student athletes from playing on the school sports team that matches their gender identity. Though opponents of trans rights often appropriate feminist language — claiming they want to protect girls and women — the Mississippi law goes further. As introduced, it required an assessment of a student athlete’s “internal and external reproductive anatomy,” “normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone” and “genetic makeup” to determine their “sex” and team membership. The process sounds invasive and violating for any student. (The much briefer text of the bill signed into law does not delve into these assessments, but the original version is telling.)
Mississippi’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, positioned this law as a reaction against one of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders, which reinforced the SCOTUS decision on trans rights.
“But for the fact that President Biden as one of his first initiatives sat down and signed an executive order — which, in my opinion, encourages transgenderism amongst our young people — but for that fact, we wouldn’t be here today,” Reeves said. (The term “transgenderism” is widely considered offensive and frequently used as an anti-trans dog whistle.)
Bridging the Divide
“When it comes to my daughter and the experiences she’s had over the past several years, without her I would not know the extent to which transgender Americans face hate and discrimination every single day of their lives,” Newman tells In These Times.
But as important as “bridges” like Newman and Jayapal are, they are not enough. “‘Secondary representation’ — people with beloved trans family and friends — is wonderful,” trans civil rights lawyer and law professor Remy Green tells In These Times. “But it is no substitute for trans people speaking and advocating for ourselves. And there remain tragically few trans voices speaking from positions of political or legal power.”
Even when clear opportunities exist to bring trans and nonbinary people into the congressional conversation to talk about our lived experiences, Congress falls short. Out of the five witnesses called to testify in the federal Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equality Act, only one, Stella Keating, is trans. The high school sophomore was forced to sit through anti-trans disinformation spouted by the two witnesses testifying against the bill, as well as the senators opposing the legislation.
True justice is won by those who demand it. And there will be no justice for transgender and nonbinary people as long as others are making decisions for us. Without trans and nonbinary people making policy decisions and weaving gender identity into progressive policy — replacing neoliberal authoritarianism with justice-driven democratic policy — leftist advocacy will fail to protect trans people’s right to live safely.
A wave of trans people are running for local office — the start of a potential, growing pipeline into higher office — and some are explicitly making these connections. Lawyer and activist Alejandra Caraballo recently ended a campaign for New York City Council that would have made her the city’s first out trans legislator.
“The fight for trans rights isn’t just about nondiscrimination, it’s about access to economic equity,” Caraballo tells In These Times. “We need our healthcare covered. We need to stop having our bodies policed. And most importantly, we need economic security so we can thrive, not just survive.”
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Heron Greenesmith is an attorney, an advocate, an author and the Senior Research Analyst for LGBTQI Justice at Political Research Associates.