Despite a few contradictory overtures to LGBT Americans on the campaign trail, during his first two years in office, President Trump established that he’s no friend to that community, particularly not people who are transgender. Trump has already rescinded an Obama administration memo allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, and attempted to ban openly transgender people from serving in the military. Last week, he escalated his war on transgender people even further. The Guardian reported on Thursday that American diplomats have repeatedly sought to replace the word “gender” with “woman” in U.N. human rights documents, changing terms like “gender-based violence” to “violence against women.” A day earlier, the Department of Justice told the U.S. Supreme Court that employer bias against transgender workers doesn’t violate federal civil rights law.
But the most sweeping anti-transgender proposal was unveiled last weekend, when the New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Resources is preparing a draft memo that would formalize a restrictive definition of gender. “Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” the memo reportedly states. “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.”
That would imperil Obama-era policies that extended certain civil rights protections to transgender people, and shape the way the Trump administration interprets and applies Title IX.
DHS officials have been privately arguing for the past year that Title IX’s ban on discrimination “on the basis of sex” does not apply to gender identity (or even homosexuality). Roger Severino, who heads the HHS office of civil rights, would not speak to the Times, but the paper noted that he’s already made his opposition to transgender rights clear in public statements. Severino came to HHS from the Heritage Foundation, where he led the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, and once wrote a piece condemning the Obama administration’s “attempts to impose a new definition of what it means to be a man or a woman on the entire nation.” At HHS, Severino is part of a larger ideological cohort. The department has reportedly become a magnet for culture warriors, who have used its resources to prioritize partnerships with conservative, Christian organizations. “It’s supposed to be the faith-based partnership center, not the Christian-based partnership center,” one anonymous staffer complained to Politico in January.
The Trump administration’s institutional preference for conservative Christianity isn’t a new development. Nor is it much of a mystery. Trump needs an energetic base, and white, evangelical Christians are happy to accommodate him — as long as he delivers for them. Trump’s personal motivations in restricting transgender rights don’t seem to run much deeper than that. But the question of why Trump’s Christian allies — whether they are evangelical or Catholic, like Severino — are so focused on reversing protections for a group that makes up less than 1 percent of the population bears further examination.
For white evangelicals in particular, culture war isn’t just about abortion. Rather, it’s a broad effort to bestow the federal government’s imprimatur on a specific definition of the family. That unit — the “natural family,” in the parlance of its advocates — consists of one man and one woman, in a committed, complementary relationship. Traditional gender roles are the foundation upon which the notion of the natural family is built.
For instance, the Southern Baptist Convention, a predominantly white, evangelical denominational body with over 15 million members in the U.S. and its territories, holds both that transgender identities are invalid, and that men and women have different spiritual gifts, which makes them suited to different social and religious roles. SBC churches do not allow women to preach, and in 1998, formally adopted the position that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband. Of course, Trump isn’t universally popular within the SBC (some members even protested Vice-President Mike Pence’s appearance at their annual meeting in June), but considering the group’s demographics and doctrinal commitments, one omnipresent statistic bears repeating: 2016 exit polls found 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.
And while evangelicalism is hardly the only religious tradition to uphold traditional ideas about gender and the family, its adherents defend them with remarkable fervor. Eighty-four percent of white evangelicals told the Pew Research Center in 2017 that they believe gender is fixed at birth, compared to 59 percent of black Protestants, 55 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 51 percent of Catholics.
What distinguishes evangelicals from other traditions, like Catholicism or Protestant denominations, explained Central Michigan University lecturer Sara Moslener, is a fixation on gender and sexuality as a “boundary marker,” and access to power. “What’s happening right now is there’s this kind of religious nationalism. You have people in positions of power who are able to influence policy in this way, and we can see that their religious-based understandings of gender and sexuality become policy,” she said.
Moslener, the author of Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, said that evangelicals have found a way “to tap into the greater cultural anxieties of this moment.” She continued, “That’s what evangelicals are really good at doing; identifying an anxiety within the culture and then exploiting it and saying, ‘See, our way of making sense of things is the best way for the nation.’ And that way their ideas remain relevant.”
Various far-right Christian groups that ally with the Trump administration promote the idea that transgender rights, indeed the very notion of transgender identity, threatens traditional families. The Family Research Council has committed itself to this point of view since its founding in 1983. Though the group’s beliefs resemble those of the SBC, FRC is an overtly political organization committed to a radical redefinition of the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections. FRC favors an expansive religious freedom right that includes the freedom to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And it is a powerful force in Washington, with well-established links to the Republican Party. FRC’s president, Tony Perkins, advised Trump during his presidential campaign. Once in office, the president appointed Perkins to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The group also referred to Severino as a “movement ally” in a January post celebrating Trump’s “healthy respect” for HHS.
FRC is implacably opposed to feminism, marriage equality, and anti-discrimination rights for trans people. “Men and women are different, not just in morphology (form) or physiognomy (appearance), but also neurologically and emotionally,” Regent University professor Rob Schwarzwalder wrote in a 2013 memo for the group. “This claim certainly is biblical; God made Adam a ‘suitable’ partner for life and intimacy, a woman. But it’s also born-out in hard science: Men and women have very different ways of thinking and responding that affect judgment, preference, and conduct.”
Marriage, Schwarzwalder went on to argue, had an essentially procreative function, which same-sex marriage subverted. Similarly, the idea that gender is not fixed at birth upends his conviction that men and women are irrevocably, psychologically distinct from each other.
“Attacking transgender people is at the heart of the evangelical defense of marriage that argues that marriage should be between men and women,” said Heron Greenesmith, a senior research analyst for Political Research Associates, a left-leaning group that tracks the activities of the Christian right. “You have to keep that definition of man and woman very, very tightly defined in the face of science and social science and the lived experience of transgender and gender non-conforming people across the world.”
The HHS memo, if released as reported, is cruel to people whose identity falls outside the traditional gender binary. So is the Department of Justice’s argument against workplace protections for trans people, and efforts to make U.N. policy statements on human rights abuses less inclusive. But they intend something more than cruelty. The culture warriors making policy in the Trump administration mean to impose discipline — to disappear identities that contradict their understanding of the world.