A handful of presidential candidates say the needs of transgender Americans deserve more attention, and they’re making them an issue on the 2020 campaign trail.
Three candidates for the Democratic nomination spoke at length recently with the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund about how their policies on health care, education, and justice would affect transgender people. The action fund provided a transcript of a forum called Transform the White House.
During their interviews, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) demonstrated that they have been thinking about how trans people are uniquely impacted by government policies on health, justice, and education.
Shelby Chestnut, director of policy and programs at the Transgender Law Center, said it’s important that candidates make clear that they are aware of all of the ways the Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era protections for transgender people.
This includes guidance by the Departments of Education and Justice that protected trans kids from discrimination in the classroom. It also includes a proposed rule at the Department of Health and Human Services to reverse protections for trans people trying to access health care, and efforts at the Department of Housing and Urban Development that would allow discrimination at shelters.
“I think what people aren’t realizing is how severely under attack trans people are with the current administration and that any administration that would be coming in must take swift action to reverse anything that has happened to trans people,” said Chestnut, who did not directly address policy prescriptions from any of the three candidates.
Rolling back Trump administration attacks
Booker acknowledged the damage that the Trump administration has done, and emphasized the serious impact these policies have on the lives of trans people.
He was especially critical of an HHS rule that would revise Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act so that protections against sex discrimination no longer would cover transgender people. He appeared to condemn the Conscience Rule that allows health-care providers to discriminate against trans people by invoking their rights to religious freedom.
“We have to, number one, fight on these issues, but make people understand that this is vital to health and wellbeing and often life or death issues. For me, my commitment is not just trying to stop it if he’s successful, roll back [what] this administration has done, but we have a lot more advances that we have to do,” Booker said.
“The discrimination from insurance companies [and] discrimination from employers who want to use religious [exemptions] and deny people fundamental basic health care is unacceptable to me. It shows you how much further we have to go to stop the backsliding of this administration. But more importantly to advance and gained ground until we have equal health care access for all,” he said.
He also referred to some of the administration’s first rollbacks of protections for trans people at the Education Department and Justice Department, which he called “awful acts.”
Sanders also alluded to some of these attacks.
“In my office and around the country, we’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of trans people and to understand that in today’s climate, with Trump as president, there is an incredible amount of fear and justified anxiety in the trans community,” he said.
Gillibrand talked about a transgender boy she knew “through his entire grade school” and her fury that the Trump administration has, in effect, demeaned and dismissed him through rollbacks of protections for trans students. She also referred to the president’s trans-military ban.
“He needs to know that he is loved, that he is welcomed, that he can identify exactly the way he is meant to identify,” she said.
“And I hate the fact that our president doesn’t value him. And so it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to run for president because I am so against the hatred and the vile name-calling and the disregard he has for transgender Americans,” Gillibrand continued.
“Look what he’s done to the transgender men and women serving in our military. A man who has never served has told men and women that their service is not worthy based on their gender identity.”
Criminal justice and violence
Chestnut said it’s important that candidates understand the dangers transgender people face from violence on the street, violence from police, and violence within the immigration system.
At least 16 transgender people have been shot or killed by other means so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In 2018, at least 28 transgender people were killed. The vast majority of those killed were black transgender women. And some trans women have faced violence or even death at the hands of the criminal justice system.
“We’re at a moment where most people, candidates specifically, should be thinking about how to help trans people in a broad decriminalization framework and then I think within that certain categories need to be highlighted to a much greater degree than they are,” Chestnut said.
“Specifically, I think there’s a large movement toward decriminalizing sex work, but I think that should be connected to protecting trans sex workers and not just decriminalization to get at the root of discriminatory policing,” they continued.
“Then there’s a whole broad category that is a violent epidemic that is multi-year and probably at this point multi-decade, of targeting and killing of black trans women, which I think really goes unnoticed by most folks.”
Sanders, meanwhile, said there should be some kind of built-in incentive for police departments to improve their practices and prevent harm to trans people. He added that more financial resources and legal help should be provided to police departments.
” … What we want to do is provide incentives for police departments around the country to do the right thing. And that means to use lethal force, as police departments, police officers, as rarely as possible. To understand that we can deal with disturbances in ways that do not require shooting people and also to protect people such as the trans community who need protecting,” he said.
For his part, Booker commended the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
“I would want to do more than that, to start focusing and pulling together folks who make recommendations when it comes to the LGBTQ community, in general, and policing and then start to look at federal prisons,” he said.
Booker cited a spate of violent attacks against transgender Americans this year. During the first Democratic presidential debate this year, he also mentioned the murders of black trans people.
“This is something that should have everyone in this country concerned and, frankly, outraged. Your community is being disproportionately targeted with heinous acts of violence. I’m going to be someone that speaks to this crisis and begins to take specific measures to do something about that,” Booker said.
He added, “I will be a president that is a very aggressive in calling out these issues and putting forward the best of who we are to stop this kind of targeting, harassment, violence and murder.”
Sanders agreed. “I know that the trans community has been, in sometimes very violent and deadly ways, been a victim of that hatred,” he said. “So we will provide all of the legal protection that we possibly can to protect the trans community and to protect anybody else who was being subjected to hate crimes and bullying.”
Chestnut said they would like to see more candidates tackle the issue of trans people suffering in immigration detention.
A 2018 analysis from the Center for American Progress shows that LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody are 97 times more likely to face sexual violence than people who are not in the LGBTQ community. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
“Detention should be ended for all people but particularly a population that is so vulnerable and who have faced decades of violence who for who they are, where if they go back to their country of origin would likely be harmed or killed,” Chestnut said.
Booker said criticized the private prisons used by ICE to detain immigrants. “So for me this it has an urgency because right now as we sit here, there are trans Americans who are suffering at the hands of an unjust system that feeds upon vulnerable populations,” he said.
Fighting for the wellbeing of trans people
Chestnut added that broad economic and justice reform would also help the most marginalized transgender Americans.
For example, Chestnut said low-income trans people with HIV need broad access to health care. In the area of criminal justice, ending pretrial detention and cash bail “would save thousands of trans people’s lives every single year.”
They said that part of what 2020 candidates need to do is demonstrate that they will meet with trans people, particularly trans people of color, and speak about trans people in a less strained way, as they would about any other group they are fighting for.
“I don’t think the general public as a whole understands trans people’s issues and just basic human dignity for trans people,” Chestnut said. “I think part of it is public awareness and candidates need to not only have policies protecting trans people but learn how to talk about trans people in humanizing way instead of a subcategory that they awkwardly reference, usually wrongly, in a campaign speech.”
In that respect, Gillibrand communicated a passion for protecting trans people’s rights and her interest in changing the cultural conversation about trans people to foster more acceptance.
“I want transgender Americans to know that I am their voice, that I will lift up their stories. I will protect them. I will protect transgender kids as if they were my own children. It’s who I am. It’s what I believe and I want other Democrats to be put on notice that these are issues they need to lead on,” she said.
“If you see how much violence and hate is being spewed out against LGBTQ+ Americans, particularly transgender women and transgender women of color, I think we can raise up those stories so more people can have compassion, can have empathy, and can understand that this is a human right that has to be protected,” Gillibrand added.
“And you can do that with the bully pulpit. That’s what the presidency is about. Changing the conversation in a country when it needs to change and bringing people along with you.”