“First, equality applied to rich, land-owning, white, Protestant men,” said Joe Kennedy III, the Democratic Congressman representing Massachusetts, last month. He sat in an overstuffed armchair in his office, where a framed picture of his grandfather, Robert, hung over the door, as he outlined the progress—and failings—of America’s foundational principles since their inception. “If you weren’t those things as you made a life in an earlier era of the United States,” the younger Kennedy continued, “you didn't really count.”
Kennedy’s urge to correct for the inequality he sees is at the heart of his position as chairman of the Congressional Trans Equality Task Force, and as a new leader for transgender rights in Washington. Kennedy’s mission, he said, is to deliver for all Americans on the promise etched on the edifice of the Supreme Court building across the street: Equal Justice Under Law. “Obviously, that’s not the case. The Task Force is trying to make the case that this is not just an issue for transgender Americans. This is about the very core of the foundation of a society that still falls short of what we actually set out to end.”
The Task Force was first established in 2015, three years after then–sitting Vice President Joe Biden called the fight for transgender liberty “the civil rights issue of our time.” The Obama administration unarguably advanced transgender rights more so than any other, achieving, among many other things, health coverage for trans Americans under the Affordable Care Act.
But under President Donald Trump, the renewed pressure to eliminate protections and guidance surrounding trans equality has reached an inflection point: The effort to remove trans men and women from the armed services has been approved by the Supreme Court (though it remains unenforceable because of a nationwide injunction) and further anti-trans legislation is proposed diffusely across the nation. The broader future for transgender people in America is ominously stained by a October 2018 New York Times exposé of a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services outlining the Trump administration’s plan to redefine gender based on sex assigned at birth and genetic testing—metrics that would erase any formal recognition of transgender identity from federal institutions.
Following the publication of the exposé, Kennedy led an initiative to stop the administration’s plans. “The administration is basically saying, ‘Your government does not stand for you, we want to pretend that you do not exist, and we're going to make it essentially such that our documents indicate that you don't,’” as Kennedy said of the memo.
The memo, which the Times did not publish in full, has not been released by the government. “I would love to see it,” Kennedy said, sitting up in his chair as he questioned why the memo should remain private. “If you're not willing to share it, it's probably because you don't want people to know what you're going to do. You're either ashamed or scared. Or probably both.”
On March 15, on the floor of Congress, Kennedy asked DHHS Secretary Alex Azar about the memo. At first, Azar refused to comment on the existence of any “preliminary memo,” but then stated he would not share it with Kennedy because it is “internal.”
"If you're not willing to share it, it's probably because you don't want people to know what you're going to do. You're either ashamed or scared. Or probably both."
In a statement to Broadly, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson wrote, “We do not comment on alleged, leaked documents that purport to indicate the status of deliberations or the focus of the department. The Obama administration’s broad definition of ‘sex’ was enjoined by a federal court on a nationwide basis in December 2016 and the Obama administration did not appeal.”
In his wider work with the Task Force, one of Kennedy’s focal points is the passage of the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act in such a way as to make the redefinition of gender outlined by the Trump administration illegal, as well as the Do No Harm Act, which aims to prevent people from using religious freedom from discriminating against others, legislation Kennedy recently re-introduced to the House. On February 27, the day after he spoke to Broadly, Kennedy attended a House Armed Services Committee hearing in support of transgender active service members speaking before Congress for the first time in history to offer contextualizing testimony on President Trump’s military ban.
The increased support for transgender people’s civil rights has been reflected in the actions of other Democratic lawmakers in the current Congress. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico made headlines in late January after the Supreme Court ruled to advance the transgender military ban and she placed a trans flag outside of her office. “If we say 'equality for every human being,’ I feel like we need to stand by that,” the freshman representative told Broadly in her office on the day before the House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Like Kennedy, Haaland frames transgender liberties as an intersectional issue. “I know what it's like to be in a marginalized community,” Haaland continued. “I'm Pueblo-Indian. Prior to colonization, we embraced trans people in our communities. Still to this day, we love them and accept them in our families.”
The military ban hits particularly close to home for Haaland. After the Supreme Court ruled in its favor, the one injunction that remains in place is all that keeps it from enforcement—and as of March 19, the Trump administration is proceeding with their plans to set up implementation of the ban beginning next month despite the injunction. “We can't pick and choose which veterans we want to honor for serving our country,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “My dad was a 30-year career Marine. Anyone who serves our country deserves our immense gratitude.”
Haaland’s proud display of support for trans people followed that of Representative Jennifer Wexton, who was the first to place a trans flag outside of her office. Wexton has had trans people in her life since college; recently, her niece came out as trans. “There are factions that want to drive wedges, and when a group is in a community, there's a fear,” said Wexton. Still, she believes that the Equality Act has a “good chance” of passing through the House.
Personal connections to trans people have inspired others in Congress to stand up as well. Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who has a trans grandson, was moved by Kennedy and the Task Force’s mobilization around protections for people like him. “I went to a roundtable that Joe [Kennedy] put together for parents [of transgender children],” Schakowsky said. “I just said how grateful I am that my grandson can live a world where people love and respect him. [My grandson] Isaac is standing on the shoulders of so many people who broke ground for him to live the beautiful life that he's gonna live.”
"There's a disconnect right now between the policies the administration is pushing and the common decency of the American people."
Schakowsky is proud that she can represent her grandson in Congress, and to do the work to help the community at large. “[Those who oppose transgender rights] are fighting yesterday's battle. Young people are creating a new paradigm,” Schakowsky said. “It's the future. Efforts to squelch that will ultimately be unsuccessful.”
Representative Chris Pappas, the first openly gay congressman from New Hampshire and another freshman in House of Representatives, agreed with Schakowsky. “There's a disconnect right now between the policies the administration is pushing and the common decency of the American people,” he said, suggesting that most Americans support transgender rights. (Data from 2017 suggests that social acceptance of trans Americans may be split along partisan lines, but the failure of anti-trans bills in state legislatures may signal that Americans do not want discrimination enshrined in law.)
“Unfortunately, there are too few people in Congress that are willing to have the political courage to reflect the decency of their constituents,” said Pappas. “We've got to push forward policies that are stopping the efforts of this administration to undermine equality and progress. As we talk about the Equality Act, the goal should be to build a coalition.”
Pappas said that “more than half the House has signed on as a co-sponsor” of the Equality Act, for which he is a strong advocate. To him, that’s not enough. “We need to go well beyond that. We need a big victory on this to show where the American people are today, and to give an impetus to the US Senate to act on this legislation.”
Representative Alan Lowenthal of California has been a member of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus for years, but his awareness of transgender issues is relatively fresh. “[When] Congressman Kennedy began to talk more about transgender issues,” Lowenthal said. “I began to see how this is another group that was strongly discriminated against.” Lowenthal has come to associate the cause with Kennedy’s overall role in politics. “It's almost as if I don't know what else has occupied his time,” Lowenthal said. “He has really stepped up and said, ‘This is part of my identity. This is what we're going to do while I'm in Congress.’"
Back in his office, Kennedy asked, “When is the time, if not now?” Reflecting on the memo, “It is mystifying to me that a President believes that defining people out of existence, or erasing their identity, would somehow make America stronger. This is a small, scared, and bigoted policy. It's dangerous. It is discriminatory. It's unnecessarily hostile. It's all of those things. But, again, at its core, it is contrary to our American story, and our history of becoming.” As he stood to leave for a vote, Kennedy mentioned how inappropriate he found it that the President was declaring a national emergency along the southern border to further his political agenda. “There is a crisis here,” he said. “We are ignoring the pleas of a community that is saying, 'We are going to be seen, and heard, and counted.' And our government just says, ‘We're not only going to do our best to shove you behind closed doors, but to erase you so that we don't have to acknowledge that you exist.’ That's an emergency.”