‘Frontiers: Inside the Outsiders’ is Pi Comment’s very own column tackling social issues from the perspective of students. Following the revelation of Trump’s scheme to rewrite gender identity, Emily Schone urges us to stay on high alert against the insidious drift towards the exclusion and erasure of transgenderism.
It seems a day doesn’t go by without some new, glaring headline featuring Donald Trump’s latest denouncement. A cursory Google search of Trump’s activity in the last twenty-four hours says it all: President Macron received a Twitter tongue-lashing over France’s internal military affairs (“Very insulting!”), CNN’s Jim Acosta was branded a “rude, terrible person” for his decision to pick up a microphone during a press conference, and “nasty loser” journalist April Ryan had several similar pleasantries slung in her direction. In this climate, the President’s toxic rhetoric has become somewhat diluted by its own frequency; we read, we hear, some nod, most sigh, we move on. It is all the more important, then, that we stay alert to the more sinister claims hidden behind the name-calling and finger-pointing.
On Sunday 22nd October, The New York Times released an article about a memo circulating amongst Trump’s Administration. It proposed that gender, as a term, was to be defined as a biologically-determined condition – i.e. that a person’s gender should be made ‘fixed’ based on their sexual organs at birth. Essentially, any dispute about an individual’s gender would not be accepted based on lived experience; instead, a person would be required to undergo ‘genetic testing’ in order to obtain medical/legal confirmation of their gender identity. This proposition is the latest in a line of anti-trans action: take Jeff Sessions’ reversal of the policy protecting transgender employees from discrimination, for example, or the dismissal of Obama’s push for acceptance which encouraged schools to allow trans pupils to use toilets matching their gender profile.
The reasoning behind this, according to President Trump? “I’m protecting everybody.”
His statement is both misinformed and dangerous at the same time. Not only does it imply that transgender people are something to be protected from – labelling their very existence as a threat – but, with his characteristic empathy, Trump excludes the transgender audience as ‘Other’; outside of the group, removed from ‘everybody’. It appears that this exclusion is only the precursor, and that the end-goal is their complete erasure – by attacking the very roots of a subgroup’s identity, the identity ceases to exist. Trump’s new (read: Orwellian) stance is perhaps best summarised by UCLA legal scholar Jocelyn Samuels: “What they are saying is you do not get to decide your sex; it is the government that will decide your sex.”
It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s threats as outrageous – of the wall-building, Mexican-funded, Russia-denying variety – but when placed in context with the UK’s recent ‘academic pushback’ you can see why fears of erasure are very real in the minds of those in the President’s firing line. I’m a first-hand witness: five days before The New York Times article, UCL’s English group chat started firing off messages, with petitions and signatures stacking up on my screen. The premise? A Guardian article headlined “Academics are being harassed over their research into transgender issues”. Here’s an excerpt from the piece: “We represent a newly formed network of over 100 academics, most of whom are currently employed in UK universities. We are concerned, from a range of academic perspectives, about proposed governmental reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, and their interaction with the Equality Act.” In short, the article is an open letter from these concerned academics (including UCL’s Dr Julia Jordan) expressing alarm at “the introduction of self-ID for gender reassignment” and “the suppression of proper academic analysis and discussion of the social phenomenon of transgenderism”.
The foundations of the letter aren’t necessarily harmful – free speech and the ability to express concerns are undeniably important in a time where ‘fake news’ and censorship creep ever-closer – but, much like Trump’s white-knight claims of “protecting everybody”, it is the language used that gets under my skin. Again, it’s this constant referral to ‘transgenderism’ as a sort of exception, a social phenomenon, something separate and unusual and removed from the ‘norm’, privy to academic analysis. To me, at least, I find it difficult to understand why we feel the need to do this, when somebody’s gender is 1) deeply personal and not really of society’s concern, and 2) no more extraordinary than anything else constituting human identity. Research is one thing, but openly expressing alarm over self-ID gender reassignment when trans people are already being forced into smaller and smaller spaces seems ignorant at best, and frightening at worst. Although prior to the US controversy, and potentially well-meaning, I would argue articles like this contribute to the climate of fear regarding trans exclusion and erasure.
What can we do to make changes? Awareness, for a start – hashtags like #Won’tBeErased are a good insight into protest movements taking place in and outside of the States; donating to organisations (money talks!) to facilitate change; reach out, support friends and family, be aware of the very real fear within the community and be mindful of the distress it can cause. We might not be up there with the orange-skinned and tiny-handed in terms of making policies, but we can work to show compassion in what sometimes feels like an environment deficient in empathy.