On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering changing federal rules to define a person's gender as an immutable fact based on the genitals they were born with. The move would effectively strip trans people of civil rights they currently have—to at least some extent—under laws banning discrimination on the basis of sex. This threat to effectively erase the legal existence of an estimated 1.4 million trans people in America has already inspired protests and calls to action, as did previous moves by the administration to restrict the ability of trans Americans to live their lives freely. If Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions follow through on the proposed actions leaked to the Times, it will be the most severe rollback of trans rights to date.
If there is any silver lining, it's that the move would be widely unpopular, the kind of heinous, high-profile act of cruelty that inspires voters to strike back against the Republican Party.
Since Trump's surprise victory in 2016, Democrats have been advised repeatedly by a variety of pundits to stop focusing on "identity politics," an often vaguely defined term usually applied to perspectives or policies focused on race, gender, or sexual and gender identity. But especially when it comes to trans issues, it's been Republicans who have advanced identity-based positions: Their stance is essentially to enshrine discrimination into law, forcing Democrats to respond.
At the state level, this has most notably come in the form of "bathroom bills" that seek to compel trans people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth, laws that are often defended by absurdly linking the presence of trans people in bathrooms to crime. In North Carolina, so many businesses boycotted the state after it passed one such bill that an estimate projected it to lose $3.76 billion over a dozen years. Even though lawmakers partially repealed the law last year, it still inspired enough backlash that many Republican state legislators may be vulnerable in the November midterms. That result may have scared other Republicans—even Texas Governor Greg Abbott has backed off from championing a bathroom bill.
Public opinion is divided on trans issues in many ways. A Pew survey from last year found that 54 percent of Americans—including a large majority of Republicans—said that whether a person is a man or woman "is determined by the sex they were assigned at birth." That cuts against the somewhat more nuanced understanding of the difference between sex and gender that a lot of progressives espouse. But this attitude doesn't necessarily translate into prejudiced views: Only a third of Americans thought the country had "gone too far" in accepting trans people, that poll concluded. Other surveys have found that Americans are becoming more tolerant of trans people, and most of them oppose bathroom bills (attitudes may have shifted on the latter point since 2016, when North Carolina passed its law).
And though Republicans are more likely to hold anti-trans views, the GOP is not a monolith on this issue—in 2016, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill banning anti-trans discrimination, saying, “No one should be discriminated against in Massachusetts because of their gender identity.” (Baker, by the way, is the most popular governor in the country, according to one poll.)
That makes Trump's anti-trans agenda all the more striking. Despite making vague promises of being pro-LGBTQ during the presidential campaign, his administration has been broadly hostile to LGBTQ rights, as shown by his banning of trans people from the military and his Justice Department's shift away from protecting gay and trans people from discrimination. Those moves may be popular among the white evangelical Christians who are Trump's most devoted base, but they don't reflect the country as a whole. Multiple polls have found that Americans tend to support trans people serving in the military, for instance.
It's not clear given his history whether Trump is personally an anti-trans bigot, but he may roll back trans rights to appease those evangelicals—or because his administration is stocked with officials who favor such a rollback and he really doesn't care, to quote his wife's famous outfit. If he does approve the policies leaked to the Times, it will be one more vicious move from a White House that has made cruelty its trademark. Americans do not by and large support such cruelty, and just as was the case with North Carolina's bathroom bill, any attempt at erasure of trans people may inspire a backlash that throws Republicans out of office. Former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory may have lost thanks to that piece of prejudiced legislation. Trump could be poised to follow the same ugly path to defeat.
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