The New York Times reported on Sunday about a leaked memo that revealed the Trump administration’s plans to redefine gender and sex to essentially strip trans and gender non-conforming people of federal protections. In the hours after the report, trans and gender non-conforming people and their allies pushed back with viral memes that read “Trans people cannot be erased” and even a hashtag, #WontBeErased.
But, for me, as a nonbinary person living in rural North Carolina, the memo is already my reality.
The Times reported the memo’s plan to redefine gender as a biological state “that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” It seeks to define sex as “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.” Trans and gender non-conforming activists have vehemently rejected the definitions in tweets and op-eds, saying that they erase the identities of trans and intersex people.
The memo would dangerously roll back Obama-era protections for trans people. But trans people like me who live in rural areas are already erased everyday and often don’t receive those protections. For me, the Trump administration isn’t saying anything new — it’s simply playing rhetorical catch-up with how most trans people are actually treated: like they don’t exist; like they’re a burden. So when people share “You won’t be erased” memes as an attempt at allyship, it highlights for me how shockingly unaware they are of what life is actually like for trans people in most of the United States.
When I first moved back to North Carolina I visited an “inclusive” community health center in Chapel Hill — the kind that has the rainbow stickers on the door and in the office. When I filled out the intake form, though, I saw only two options for gender: male or female, as well as “gender preference,” which listed trans and nonbinary identities. Even in “inclusive” spaces, being trans and nonbinary is often still treated like a request for different pizza toppings.
“For me, the Trump administration isn’t saying anything new — it’s simply playing rhetorical catch-up with how most trans people are actually treated: like they don’t exist.”
I wrote down my pronouns, but I was still repeatedly misgendered during my visit, even by the clinic’s social worker. And I’m not alone: A recent study found that trans people “suffer significant health disparities” and often don’t seek care because they can’t access providers who are sufficiently knowledgeable about trans people. These disparities are even greater for people in rural communities. And when trans people do seek care, they can face discrimination or outright rejection from providers, as many health care providers and mental health professionals often conflate being trans with mental illness because they still define gender as male and female and as being assigned at birth.
If Trump’s memo became policy, it would no doubt make things worse for all trans people. But #WontBeErased gives this country more credit than it deserves — it presumes that trans people were granted rights in the first place when, in most of the country, that is far from the case. Out here in rural America, a six-year-old was forced to urinate on herself because she couldn’t use the bathroom of her choice. Out here, trans adults are still followed into bathrooms and harassed. And out here, many trans people cannot access support because there simply isn’t a nearby LGBTQ center.
The memo’s twisted reality — one that leads to trans people, especially trans women of color, facing higher murder rates and higher rates of suicide — is something that already exists and that most “allies” have done little to fight. Many of the “allies” I see sharing “You can’t be erased” memes are the same people who are too afraid of using gender-neutral pronouns publicly. They’re the same people who haven’t stood up for trans people in public or at protests. The reason the Trump administration’s memo can exist is because most of the United States is still successfully erasing trans people, and most “allies” haven’t done anything about it.
This is an ongoing battle that trans people have largely been fighting alone. If our existence matters, it’s time for allies to show it. Being an ally is more than posting memes — it’s a long term process that includes donating to grassroots LGBTQ organizations, trans rights organizations, and bailout funds; volunteering for your county’s Democratic party and voting; and initiating conversation with your cisgender friends about Trump’s memo and how you’re supporting trans people.
As someone who is recently out as nonbinary, I was eager to share a positive #WontBeErased story, but how can you erase someone that’s still fighting to exist?
Josephine (Jo) Yurcaba is freelance writer based in West End, North Carolina. They cover politics, sexual violence, gender, and pop culture.