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raceAhead: The New Attack on Transgender Rights

A new report from The New York Times sent ripples of alarm through the LGBTQ+ and ally community over the weekend.

A leaked memo from Department of Health and Human Services shows that the agency aims to redefine gender as a biological and fixed condition determined by genitalia at birth, and confirmed, if need be, by genetic testing. The headline on the piece is appropriately stark: ‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration.

“Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” the memo says. “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.” According to The New York Times, a version of this memo has been in circulation since last spring.

It is a clear reversal of Obama-era rulings which recognized gender as an individual’s choice and which allowed their full participation in federal programs ranging from the military to health care. The HHS memo currently takes aim at Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in education programs that take government aid. If successful, the move would eliminate protections for some 1.4 million Americans who identify as transgender.

“I can’t say it was a total surprise,” says Michaela Ivri Mendelsohn, a transgender activist, employer, and founder of TransCanWork, an organization that helps corporations become more welcoming to transgender and non-binary employees and connects them with job-seekers. She worries that the new definition is the first step of a broader strategy to strip transgender people of anti-discrimination provisions in the workplace and beyond. But, she says, “That’s where corporate power comes in.”

Through her work with Out and Equal, an organization that supports LGBTQ+ protections globally, she’s seen corporate engagement on transgender rights grow into a force to be reckoned with. “Nearly all Fortune 500 companies are members [of Out and Equal],” she says. “Partly because it’s the right thing to do, but also because research shows that millennials prefer to work for companies that support diversity.”

Mendelsohn recalls the organization’s national summit in 2016 when it was announced to the crowd that overnight that the state of North Carolina had introduced the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which limited LGBT people access to public bathrooms of their choice. “There was silence in the room. Then every one of the executives got on their devices back to their communications departments and asked them to put out statements against the bill,” she says. “I still get chills thinking about it.” The bill was partially repealed the following year.

While we wait for the statements and open letters from corporate allies, it’s worth exploring the smaller actions anyone can take today if they’re inclined to show support, even if they don’t personally know any transgender people or fully understand what’s at stake.

First, get yourself comfortable.

GLAAD has a helpful guide to help you better understand what it means to be transgender and how to speak to people with respect. Buzzfeed collected some ideas from transgender people about how to help others feel welcome, valued, and safe in social gatherings.

Next, look around.

This comprehensive list from also offers helpful changes you can support to make sure your workplace is as welcoming as possible. Some ideas include making sure that transgender and non-binary gender identification options are available on forms and documents, including experts who happen to be transgender at conferences and panels, creating and supporting inclusive bathroom policies, and making sure there are specific references to transgender people in your anti-discrimination policies.

Then, check-in.

If you’re lucky enough to work at a company with an LGBTQ employee resource group, reach out to them today with a simple message: How can I show support? Then, accept any invitation that follows. “We need our allies,” says Mendohlson. “When individuals use their voice, corporations do too.”

And, allyship can saves lives. A study from the University of British Columbia shows that LGBTQ students who have a “gay-straight alliance” type of organization at their schools are less likely to be bullied, discriminated against, or have suicidal thoughts or actions. Here’s the kicker—the same benefits extend to straight students too.

Final thing. If you’re leading an LGBTQ ERG and are in a position to keep track of how many ally-related messages you receive, publish the numbers if you can. It’s a quick and crude data point but it measures the willingness to stand for others in the face of a clear threat.

Let’s paint a picture of corporate inclusion, shall we? Please share this widely and then ping me (she/her) with any positive news and I’ll amplify anything you’ve got.

On Point

Corporate board directors are not that into diversityA new PwC survey of corporate directors shows that while 94% agree that diversity brings unique perspectives to the work of a board, some 52% of directors dismiss the quest for more diversity as an exercise in political correctness, and some 48% say shareholders are “too preoccupied” with the topic. Paula Loop, leader of PwC’s U.S. Governance Insights Center, tells Fortune’s Claire Zillman that this indicates director “fatigue about this topic even though investors and shareholders don’t appear ready to move on.” Guess how the resistance to diversity breaks down along gender lines?Fortune

There has been no change in level of racial discrimination in the job market since 1989
This is the discouraging finding of a new study from researchers at Harvard, Northwestern University, and the Institute for Social Research in Norway. The team analyzed more than 54,000 job applications and found that white applicants received 36% more callbacks than similarly qualified black ones and 24% more callbacks that Latinx ones. “[A]lthough we do find some indication of declining discrimination against Latinos,” they write, and “a striking persistence of racial discrimination in US labor markets.” Vox has an analysis here, the study is below.

An elderly woman is the focus of a racist rant on RyanAir
It was a particularly nasty incident, caught on video by a fellow passenger of the Irish discount airline. A 77-year-old black woman back from a family holiday to commemorate the anniversary of her husband’s passing was berated by a fellow passenger who threatened to push her and called her an “ugly black bastard.” Flight attendants moved the woman to another seat and did not remove the abusive passenger. The video, now viral, has been referred to the police. The airline made no public comment nor apologized to the woman or her family by press time.
Huffington Post

Another “hidden figure” dies
Raye Montague shattered the glass ceiling as a Navy engineer who became the first woman program manager of ships, and revolutionized ship design with a computer program she wrote in the 1970s. Arkansas colleges wouldn’t offer engineering degrees to black students, so to achieve her dream of being an engineer, she first got a job at the Navy as a clerk-typist and began adding essential skills by studying at night. She was also something of a wizard. When asked to design a new type of ship, “[i]t would have normally taken two years to produce a rough design of a ship on paper, but during the heat of the Vietnam War Ms. Montague was given one month to design the specifications for a frigate,” writes Katharine Q. Seelye. “She did it in 18 hours and 26 minutes.”  Her many extraordinary contributions went unnoticed until the Navy lauded her work in 2017 as their own “hidden figure.” She died last week in her hometown of Little Rock, Ark. at age 83.
New York Times


The Woke Leader

This profile of Eve Ewing will make your day
The sociologist, poet, author, teacher, organizer, cultural advocate and raceAhead treasure is even busier than her resume suggests; she has a new book out this week (“Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side,”) consultants on W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America show, and is even hosting a podcast. But it was her latest gig as a Marvel comic writer that has gotten her the most buzz of late. She’s been tapped to write “Ironheart,” the first solo title featuring Chicago’s own black girl genius, Riri Williams. The comparisons between Williams and Ewing are simply too delicious to ignore.
New York Times

The other side of Sears: Jim Crow destroyer
This essay from economic historian Louis Hyman began as an epic Twitter thread. His thesis was poignant: Yes, the Sears bankruptcy was an important news story, but not entirely for the reason one might think. It turns out that the once-famous catalog was a lifeline for black shoppers during Jim Crow, who often had to endure threats, indignities, and violence to shop in person for life’s necessities. He begins by explaining the not-so-slippery slope of allowing retailers to discriminate. “In 1883, the Supreme Court voided the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had banned discrimination in public businesses like theaters, restaurants, trains and shops,” he writes. “The loss of political rights, then, followed the loss of consumer rights.” The Sears catalog introduced in 1891 offered low prices and credit and did not discriminate. “All of a sudden, black families could buy whatever they wanted without asking permission.” 
New York Times

Early Jim Henson didn’t mess around
This isn’t about race, exactly, but it clearly highlights his evolution of thought and a renewed embrace of a better standard of decency. Jim Henson and his muppets starred in commercials back in the 1950s; it’s sort of hard to believe with all the casual muppet violence that Wilkens Coffee didn’t become a more enduring brand. Enjoy.


Like racism and all forms of prejudice, bigotry against transgender people is a deadly carcinogen. We are pitted against each other in order to keep us from seeing each other as allies. Genuine bonds of solidarity can be forged between people who respect each other’s differences and are willing to fight their enemy together. We are the class that does the work of the world, and can revolutionize it. We can win true liberation.
Leslie Feinberg