On Wednesday, during his first joint address to Congress, President Joe Biden made his support for trans rights clear—but he didn’t exactly provide many specifics about how he plans to translate rhetoric into action.
“To all transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people who are so brave, I want you to know your president has your back,” he said Wednesday.
The words were weighty, especially coming from a president who’s brought up trans people and the issues that shape their lives since the literal first day of his presidency. They were especially striking in the wake of the Trump administration, which was determined to stamp out trans rights and protections. But Biden’s declaration also arrived at the same time that statehouses across the U.S. are unleashing a devastating wave of attacks on trans people. And Biden offered little information about how, or if, he plans to counter these attacks, or force an intransigent Congress to protect LGBTQ+ rights on the federal level.
“I’m very thankful for this. But, what does having my back mean?” tweeted Kai Shappley, a trans 10-year-old turned activist who has spoken out against a Texas bill that would make providing gender-affirming care tantamount to child abuse. “Like, if the bills pass in Texas will you keep them from putting my mom in jail?”
In his first 100 days as president, Biden has taken some action to protect trans youth. His Justice Department recently withdrew its support for a lawsuit in Connecticut that sought to block trans athletes in the state from participating in girls’ sports. (That lawsuit was dismissed this week.) And on his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order affirming that Title IX—the famed law that prohibits sex discrimination in education—bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports,” the executive order declared.
But so far this year, legislators in at least 31 states have introduced bills that would exclude trans athletes from participating in sports that match their gender identity, according to CNN. Twenty states have also introduced bills that would block trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care.
On Wednesday, the same night that Biden addressed both houses of Congress and the country, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, signed a bill into law to block trans girls and women—the target of much of this legislation—from playing sports that correspond with their gender. Hours later, the Florida state Legislature rammed through a ban to do the same, in a move that Democrats denounced as breaking the rules.
Zoom out further, and the current picture for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. becomes even bleaker: State lawmakers have introduced more than 250 anti-LGBTQ+ bills this year, including the anti-trans bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The organization has declared that 2021 is set to become the “worst year for LGBTQ state legislative attacks'' in recent memory.
Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, told VICE News early this year, before Biden took office, that his administration could go after states that enact anti-trans laws in court as well as use federal funding as a cudgel.
“We know that the Biden administration is gonna take an aggressive and protective position on trans rights,” said Strangio. “There’s definitely a risk that states will either be sued by the federal government or put their Title IX funding at risk.”
The Biden administration has yet to sue over a single anti-trans bill passed this year, although it’s early days for any litigation.
Meanwhile, the Equality Act, a federal bill meant to expand LGBTQ rights and protections, has languished in the Senate since its passage in the House in February. On Wednesday, Biden urged Congress to get the Equality Act to his desk so he could sign it.
But the fact that he had to make that request at all reveals the feds’ lack of action on the topic. Biden had once promised to make enacting the Equality Act a “top legislative priority” in his first 100 days in office—a milestone he’s now missed.