Trump’s Religious Right Team Schemes to Legally Erase Trans Identity

Roger Severino announcing the creation of a new HHS division on "conscience and religious freedom," January 18, 2018

The New York Times reported on Sunday that the Trump administration is considering a proposal by one of the administration’s highest-ranking Religious Right activists to virtually erase transgender people from legal recognition and protection by the federal government. The memo proposing the change is just the latest indication of just how completely the Religious Right has come to dominate policy-making in the administration of Donald Trump.

The push by the Department of Health and Human Services to impose a trans-denying definition of “sex” onto federal civil rights law “would essentially eradicate federal recognition” of an estimated 1.4 million transgender Americans, according to the Times story.

The effort is being led by Roger Severino, who has taken the anti-LGBT agenda of his former employer, the Heritage Foundation, into the Trump administration as director of the civil rights division at HHS. When he was named to that position, a dozen U.S. senators objected, citing Severino’s “long history of making bigoted statements toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and attacking women’s access to health care services and reproductive rights.”

One of Severino’s former colleagues at the Heritage Foundation, Ryan Anderson, is at the forefront of the Religious Right’s anti-trans crusade. Anderson’s latest book is “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.” Anderson argues that gender cannot be severed from biological sex, and that “taking our sexual embodiment seriously in public policy is not discriminatory.”

That language is strikingly similar to Anderson’s approach to sexual orientation, suggesting that if Religious Right activists in the Trump administration are successful in wiping out legal recognition based on gender identity, they may be willing to try the same with regard to sexual orientation.

Anderson is not a conservative willing to seek “compromise” in the form of religious exemptions to non-discrimination laws. He says that “sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws” are “bad public policy” and argues against legal protection for LGBTQ people from discrimination:

Sexual orientation and gender identity refers not only to thoughts and inclinations, but also to behavior, and it is reasonable for citizens to make distinctions based on actions. However, SOGI laws would prohibit reasonable decisions made in response to behaviors that are fraught with moral weight.

Indeed, Religious Right groups like the Family Research Council, which has also placed staff in positions in the Trump administration, deny the very existence of gay identity as well as transgender identity.

The Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg argues that the idea of a gay identity is “empirically false” and urges religious conservatives not to use terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, preferring constructs like “people who engage in homosexual conduct” or “people who identify as homosexual.” This echoes the practice of the Catholic and Mormon hierarchies, which use terms such as “people with same-sex attractions.” Sprigg and FRC similarly argue that transgender identity is “an objective falsehood—which no law should force others to affirm.”

Sprigg was one of the speakers in a session on “gender ideology” at the World Congress of Families global summit held in Moldova in September. His talking points included a denial that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is a form of sex discrimination. The session was moderated by Australian Patrick Byrne, author of a new book, “Transgender: One Shade of Gray.” Byrne said that laws against anti-trans discrimination are “authoritarian” and said the solution is to write the definition of man and woman into law, saying, “if you do that, you block the whole agenda.” That is precisely what Severino seems to be trying to accomplish via executive action.

The National Center for Transgender Equality denounced the “terrifying memo” being circulated within the Trump administration, calling it “a direct attack on trans people.” But Severino cannot unilaterally reverse federal court precedents, noted NCTE:

You should know that this rule will not eliminate the precedents set by dozens of federal courts over the last two decades affirming the full rights and identities of transgender people. It will not undo the consensus of the medical providers and scientists across the globe who see transgender people, know transgender people, and urge everyone to accept us for who we are. And no rule—no administration—can erase the experiences of transgender people and our families.

As a presidential candidate, Trump once held up a rainbow flag, and some of his apologists claimed that he would be the most pro-gay president ever. In truth, the anti-LGBTQ writing was on the wall once Trump decided that his route to the White House depended on a strategic alliance with the Religious Right. In return for his promises to give them the Supreme Court of their dreams and make them more politically powerful by removing legal restrictions on politicking by churches, Religious Right leaders helped generate a massive pro-Trump vote among white evangelicals. Since his election Trump has been returning the favor, giving the Religious Right whatever it wants, and reversing Obama administration pro-LGBTQ policies. In return, religious conservatives have remained his most ferocious defenders, regularly denouncing his opponents as evil, even Satanic.