How LGBTQ People Can Fight a Trump Administration
How does an administration hostile to LGBTQ rights shift the playbook for transgender activism?
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten
In the wake of last month's election, marginalized communities threatened during Trump's campaign—immigrants, the poor, people of color, LGBTQ people and others—have been left to grapple with an uncertain future.
For transgender Americans, a Trump administration signals the possible end of legal protections gained under Obama. Over the past eight years, various executive agencies, administering housing, health, education and more, have made clear that transgender people are protected under existing laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex. This has allowed transgender students broader protection from discrimination in schools, extended greater legal rights to homeless transgender people in public housing, and given many access to life-saving medical care under the Affordable Care Act. In these and other ways, President Obama and his administration have saved untold trans and gender-nonconforming lives.
These protections are now in danger. On the back of one of the most discriminatory party platforms in the GOP's history and flanked by a vice president with a demonstrated and vested interest in rescinding LGBTQ rights, Trump will enter the White House carrying promises to roll back each of President Obama's executive orders, including those protecting LGBTQ employees of federal contractors from discrimination and transgender students' rights. He has promised to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which legalizes a variety of anti-LGBTQ discriminatory acts in the name of religious freedom, and his incoming cabinet is already riddled with appointments who oppose LGBTQ rights.
In these and other ways, a White House led by Trump and Pence portends havoc for the LGBTQ community. Transgender advocates fear their administration will present immense challenges to the mission of transgender activism, and legal experts agree: "All the necessities to survive and thrive in this country are on the line following this election," Kris Hayashi, Executive Director of the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center, recently told me.
How can we even do our work under a Trump administration? It's a question I found myself asking the day after the election, and one that has stalked me since; as a lawyer and advocate for trans communities and a transgender person myself, I've found it hard to imagine the future of my own work and that of my colleagues under Trump's federal government. It is an environment that seems so antithetical to our physical and psychic wellbeing, both in spirit and action, that it has felt easy to despair for the future of the safety and legal protection of transgender persons in this country.
But even with the accumulated threat that Trump and his ideology represent to our community, the answer is simply that the future of our movement must react in turn. We must become both more subtle and more bold in how we fight back against those who would see us as less than human.
Moving forward, this means that we cannot simply embrace a strategy of focusing on formal federal legal protections. No federal law or Supreme Court decision has ever ushered in the end of racism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia. Particularly with a federal administration that is hostile to civil rights wholesale—and LGBTQ rights in particular—our efforts must be aimed at state and local strategies, grassroots organizing, and coalition building across movements.
That said, a hostile administration and significant barriers to progress at the state level are nothing new for the LGBTQ rights movement. After Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage in May 2004, 11 states voted to amend their state constitutions to bar marriage equality at the ballot in November of that year. Before that, federal laws like the Defense of Marriage Act, Don't Ask Don't Tell, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, immigration reform laws known as AEDPA and IIRIRA and a welfare reform law known as the Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act all targeted LGBTQ people throughout the 90s in ways both explicit and implicit. Their consequences persist today, particularly for LGBTQ prisoners, immigrants, and people in poverty.
History has been rife with roadblocks to justice like these, and the barriers to trans survival we face are not new. What must change going forward is how we address them.
Rather than turn to what Hayashi identifies as "backroom negotiation or compromising in order to maintain a seat at the [federal] table," we must "intensify our efforts to organize and win hearts and minds locally through community-based public education campaigns, to invest in our people through leadership development and training, and to protect each other." His comments are echoed by Dean Spade, founder of the New York City-based Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Spade believes Trump's rise redoubles the need for trans activists to deepen their connection to local, community-based work in a way that "means supporting individual people in prisons, jails and detention centers, people facing eviction and foreclosure, homeless people facing sweeps, trans and queer people of color facing police harassment in the street."
If avenues to gain or maintain legal protections at the federal level are shut down, there will be ways forward in state legislatures and state courts. If state legislatures and courts become inhospitable, we will turn to base-building and public education strategies to move public understanding about trans people in their stead. The goal over the course of the next four years will not be to win every fight—if we're always winning, we're not taking on the right fights. Instead, we must assess where we can learn, build and grow as individuals and as movements. At times, that will mean losing forward, or sitting some battles out for the sake of others. It will mean finding ways to energize those battles from the base up, and bringing our most vulnerable constituents to their center.
In an interview with Truthout last month, Muslim-Iranian author Hoda Katebi called on activists to "consume what lights your soul on fire" and "love our people intensely and intentionally." That's not a mere aspirational attitude—it's a roadmap for how we can do our work. To Hayashi, this means "building alliances across movements for social and racial justice, supporting local transgender and gender-nonconforming leadership and organizing movements, and protecting folks in the immediate-term as best we can." We have models for all this, notes Spade, in organizations like his Sylvia Rivera Law Project and others, like Trans Justice Funding Project, that provide legal support to transgender individuals who face a biased criminal justice system, working to develop trans activists and political leaders, and organizing to combat structural inequalities on a local level.
For generations, transgender people have been showing out for each other in ways that have gone unrecognized. When the legal system has failed them, or itself enacted violence against them, they have built social and organizational survival networks of their own. "Now is a good time to take a page from Miss Major," the groundbreaking trans activist and leader, notes Spade: to "open up our wallets and homes to each other, be shameless in our queerness and our transness, give each other loving affirmation, listen to the experiences of those whose lives are erased by the current surge of trans visibility, and stick around in community through thick and thin until we are old and wise like her."
These are our community's legacies: survival in the face of violence, resistance in the face of legal repression, and love in the face of hate. Now is the time to build locally, to organize with intersectionality and to fight uncompromisingly. We will see you in the streets, in our legislatures and in our courts. Now, as ever, our work has just begun.
This article is part of the VICE series The New Queer. Read the rest of the package here.