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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 Transexuality.org 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.