Many in Idaho’s transgender community, which has been successful in winning protections on the local stage, were shocked but not surprised by recent whispers that federal intentions to narrow the definition of gender could undo the work of trans groups nationwide.
The New York Times reported on Oct. 21 that the Department of Health and Human Services is pushing for a legal definition of sex under Title IX, a law made to prevent gender discrimination in education services.
The change would narrow defining gender to biological characteristics, reported the Times, taking significant recognition and rights away from transgender individuals. The department is quoted as saying in a leaked memo that the there is a need to create more specific gender definitions determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
Under the proposal, a person’s gender is restricted to male or female and unchangeable, based on the genitalia at birth.
Members of Idaho’s transgender community who spoke to the Idaho Press see in the legalese a calculated attempt to claw back civil rights, after already seeing the push against transgender individuals joining the military and transgender use of public bathrooms.
“No one can take away who you are,” Èva Lopez, a Nampa minister and transgender woman said. “But people can take away things that affirm who you are.”
The argument from the department for the change is that all government agencies — including education and health care services — should operate with a consistent definition of gender with disputes being solved by genetic testing, reported the Times.
Particularly jarring for the community is that the Times story comes during a period of relative success for transgenders rights in Idaho, both in the judicial arena and through municipal ordinance in several cities.
In March, an Idaho magistrate judge for U.S. District Court ruled the state’s law forbidding any changes to the gender listed on a person’s birth certificate violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment — ordering the state to allow changes. Idaho was previously one of the four states that had denied the change alongside Ohio, Kansas and Tennessee.
Advocates with the “Add the Words” initiative have urged Idaho lawmakers to update the state’s human rights act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Without such update, transgender individuals aren’t protected against employment or housing discrimination.
Thirteen cities in Idaho have some sexual orientation and gender identity anti-discrimination protections in place, Boise passing the ordinance in 2012 and Meridian in September this year.
Kristin Blevins was sitting in a transgender individual support group meeting one week after the 2016 election, and everyone was worried. Now, two years later, the Boise resident sticks to the five or so places in town she can go without that same fear of facing backlash.
“I keep to myself a lot,” she said. “Or when I go somewhere different, I take friends with me.”
Blevins started her transition from male to female on Dec. 26, 2015, when she thought it was a good time to come out. But now — with the steady number of policy proposals threatening transgender rights — she doesn’t see things improving as they once were.
Things will get worse, she said, before they get better.
“All I want to do is live and live happy,” said Blevins. “And not have to force it all the time.”
Twin Falls resident and transgender man Brandon Connolly echoed Blevins in his fear that attitudes toward transgender rights will get worse before anything improves. As a member of the transgender community in a more rural area of Idaho, he questions how the limits made to transgender rights will trickle down and affect his family.
“Something good about Twin Falls is that everybody knows you and it can be comfortable,” he said. “But something bad about living in Twin Falls is that everybody knows you and it can be very uncomfortable.”
The last two years saw record numbers of transgender individuals killed by violence in the United States. In 2017, 29 deaths were recorded, and in 2018 there have been 22, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Transgender women of color have been especially targets of violence.
The transgender community is small — an estimated 1.4 million people within the U.S. and 4,750 in Idaho, according to 2016 statistics from the Williams Institute. Idaho ranks 43rd of the 50 states on number of transgender residents. The community suffers from being disconnected and dispersed, transgender individuals said.
Connolly said he has anxiety over the day he might be a victim of violence driven by hateful policies. Being transgender, he said, is just one part of who he is.
“I am also an amputee, I am a person of color,” he said. “It disappoints and scares me to think that somebody is going to hurt me on just this one part of who I am. And it would leave my wife with an empty part of her life.”
Many felt the same — being transgender is just one part of the lives they live.
In May after graduating from Idaho State University master’s counseling program, Dianne Piggott will be the first licensed transgender woman counselor in Idaho. For her, these policy changes are ultimately symbolic.
“It hurts people, and that is the goal,” said Piggott. “But they do not erase the progress that has been made in the courts.”
Transgender woman Èva Lopez said she has spent enough of her life remaining silent. Now, a member of the ministry team at the Nampa United Church of Christ, Lopez preaches the religion she loves to a congregation that is open to and provides a safe space for transgender individuals.
“You can pretend people are black and white,” Lopez said. “But in between the pages are color, and you can’t ignore it.”
Lopez struggles with being the target of such policies when her religion discourages her from harboring hate toward those making them.
Despite possible federal policy changes that would chip away at transgender rights, members of the transgender community say they are not the only ones who have noticed.
Bobbie Angel, a transgender woman, said that even friends who were once unsure about her transition are reaching out to her in support, and the push against transgender rights has caused all of her allies to be even more in her corner.
Angel began her transition 10 years ago and was scared of how she would be treated, but news like this makes it even scarier than it once was.
“This type of policy makes it scarier for people, especially people who haven’t come out,” she said. “Those who are marginalized need support.”
But justice for the transgender community isn’t impossible, she said.
“We need to make our voices heard,” said Angel. “And the way we are going to do that is through the ballot box.”
This month marks the 20th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, the event aiming to bring awareness to violence against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.
“At no point are trans people asking for anything special,” said Piggott. “They’re asking for the same chances as everybody else.”