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Trump's War on Trans Rights Is Cynical and Terrifying

Why is the president so intent on persecuting trans people?
Left: Jennifer Sims, a trans US Army captain, photo by Matthias Schrader, AP Right: Donald Trump, photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets reported that the White House is about to release new guidelines for transgender military service members. It's expected that this will be a ban on trans people enlisting as well as a halt to spending on medical procedures for active-duty military members. It could also include the dismissal of trans troops.

If these guidelines go into effect, they will no doubt have some devastating effects on the lives of trans soldiers. But the message the Trump administration is sending is not limited to the armed forces. The military is an allegory for American society itself; when transgender troops are told they cannot serve, trans citizens also hear the message that we're not welcome here. The move on its own is a devastating blow to the trans community, but adding this to other anti-trans decisions by this administration represents a near complete rollback of the trans rights gained under Barack Obama.


The question on many minds today is why? What's driving the White House's almost singular focus on hurting the future of transgender Americans? The answer, it seems, is a combination of many different political and personal motivations.

Politically, the fight for trans rights is still in its relative infancy, having taken a back seat in the LGBTQ movement to allow during the push that culminated with the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. In the wake of that ruling, social conservatives needed a new fight to focus their fundraising apparatus against. They targeted the trans community.

Early in 2016, the Family Research Council released a five-step plan to oppose the trans rights movement. The conservative Christian group stated aims are to rescind Obama-era trans student guidelines, ban transgender troops from the military, end gender changes on all official government documents, pass religious freedom and bathroom bills in as many states as possible, and ban transition care from being covered under any federal healthcare programs, including Medicare. Completing all five steps would effectively drive trans people out of everyday public American life.

In the 2016 presidential election, religious conservatives broke for Donald Trump in near-record numbers despite his complete lack of outward Christian piety. Now, clearly, Trump is paying them back. With another religious right–friendly justice on the Supreme Court and abortion rights as deadlocked as ever, delivering on rolling back trans rights is the lowest-hanging fruit left with which Trump can appease his religious base.


Despite his insistence that he's a supporter of LGBTQ people and the photo of him holding an upside-down pride flag, Trump himself has shown little interest in supporting a trans community struggling with issues around accessing employment, housing, and education. And whatever Trump's personal views, he's appointed quite a few people with anti-LGBTQ views and sometimes direct ties to the FRC to key positions. (Vice President Mike Pence, an outspoken Christian conservative, also has a long history of homophobic opinions.)

In addition to trying to deliver a return on investment for his religious base, Trump apparently thinks he's found a winning issue to campaign on. On the day when Trump sent his initial tweets about banning trans soldiers, an anonymous senior White House official gave a statement to Axios that laid bare the politics of the ban: "This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue. How will the blue-collar voters in these states respond when senators up for reelection in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plan of their campaigns?"

It's a cynical calculation designed to play on the inherent discomfort that many voters have with trans and gender-nonconforming people. Dividing people over the fear of the "other" has been a Republican tactic dating back to the civil rights era, and it appears Trump isn't afraid to use that to his own electoral advantage.

But there is also a more personal—and petty—reason for Trump to roll back trans rights. Earlier this month, European officials told BuzzFeed that Trump is singularly obsessed with rolling back every key policy from the Obama era. From new gender change rules on passports to the aforementioned trans student guidelines to the ending of a previous ban on trans people in the military, trans people saw great gains in rights under Obama. If Trump views everything that Obama did as a mistake to be reversed, trans rights would certainly fall under that category.

For trans advocates, several key battles loom on the horizon. There have been rumors for months that the administration is planning on ending the Affordable Care Act's section 1557, which banned discrimination in healthcare on the basis of gender identity and opened the door finally for trans people to access transition care through their regular health insurance after blanket exclusions on policies were lifted to comply with the rule. Millions of trans Americans depend on this new coverage for much needed transition care (including me). Dismantling section 1557 would decimate the trans community.

Trans people in America have every reason to be scared of what might come next. So far, Trump has made his way through nearly half of the FRC's five-step plan for eliminating trans people from American society. The trans community is small, with little electoral clout. They've often been sacrificed for political expediency—it's now up to their allies to help them.

Follow Katelyn Burns on Twitter.