Emails, calls and text messages from across the state flooded into the ACLU office after reports that the Trump administration is considering a change to the interpretation of federal law: narrowing the definition of someone’s sex to male or female as assigned at birth, rather than based on one’s gender identity.
Changing this interpretation would result — quite literally — in writing persons who are transgender, intersex, and non-binary out of existence for purposes of federal law and federal anti-discrimination protections. The messages we received in response to these reports were heartbreaking. Transgender people, along with parents of transgender youth, asked if they or their children would be outed, discriminated against or erased altogether as a result of this change. Transgender and non-binary people in our own community are already too often the victims of misunderstanding and discrimination, and now fear that their own government in Washington is about to unleash war on them.
This fear was not limited to Illinois; colleagues in ACLU offices across the country reported similar calls and similar fears from residents in their states and in their own personal networks.
I found myself writing words of comfort and hope to a number of people who simply are trying to live their authentic lives, raise a family, get an education and contribute to our society. These individuals and families are part of our own communities.
The sad reality is that this policy proposal — apparently timed to stoke a specific segment of a political base just before the midterm elections — is made more cynical because it ignores the real life consequences for many families across Illinois. These families — here and elsewhere — need to know that the trans- and non-binary community and their allies, including the ACLU, will resist this cruelty.
For decades, federal courts have increasingly ruled that protections against sex discrimination protect those who are transgender. President Barack Obama and his administration recognized this common-sense approach to combatting discrimination, and took steps to prohibit discrimination against transgender people in our public schools, in employment and in access to health care. The Trump administration’s “October surprise” radically reverses these court rulings to define all persons solely on the basis of the sex they were assigned at birth.
This attempt to profoundly reshape the reality of people’s lives as well as the law ignores established science and accepted medical standards, which understand that gender is determined largely by our own identity and brain function. For those who are transgender or non-binary, their gender identity does not line up with the sex they were assigned at birth. The Trump administration is shutting its eyes to the simple reality that transgender, intersex, and non-binary people have always existed and will continue to exist.
Those frightened by the Trump administration’s attacks need to know that they are not alone in this battle. Trans- and non-binary-led organizations, along with allies like the ACLU, will challenge and fight these proposed changes in the Legislature and in the courts for as long as it takes. Just as we have fought other blind, reckless attempts at discrimination — including more recently the efforts of the Trump administration to bar transgender people from serving in the military — many are prepared to fight on multiple fronts.
Illinoisans should know that there are also state laws protecting them. More than a decade ago, the Illinois Legislature extended specific protections based on gender identity as part of our state human rights law — assuring that people who are transgender and non-binary continue to enjoy critical protections in employment, housing, education and other public accommodations. This means that even if the federal government will not provide these critical protections, the state law would still be in force.
Advocates in Illinois will continue to robustly enforce those laws.
The reality is that the Trump administration’s pre-midterm attack on transgender and non-binary people is a losing battle. Courageous, decent Americans — and many folks here in Illinois — are living their lives as their authentic selves, contributing to society and helping many understand what it means to be transgender or non-binary. The result is that our society is making progress on these issues, with growing acceptance of people — no matter their gender identity – growing across the nation.
The Trump administration’s proposal cannot change the arc of this growing understanding. The cruelty and narrow-mindedness of the administration’s views may encourage a minority to hate or fear those who are different from themselves; but, such calls for our most base emotions cannot overwhelm or drown out the change that is taking place.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to every person who is transgender, intersex, and non-binary. And we will stand up and oppose any effort to roll back this progress.
Edwin C. Yohnka is the director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.