WASHINGTON — The Biden administration acted to protect transgender people from discrimination during Pride month, but trans activists want the White House to go further to address issues of violence, economic insecurity and anti-trans sentiment in culture, even when the spotlight of Pride fades.
“It sounds good to have a White House convening on transgender equality, but what does that equality and equity actually look like? Will campaign promises continue to be broken, or will we really see a shift, beyond small victories that the administration claims,” asked Sage Dolan-Sandrino, a 20-year-old trans youth activist and the inaugural Monica Roberts fellow at the National Black Justice Coalition.
“My direct ask to President Biden is what his plans are culturally, financially and legally to actively combat the violence and housing inequity and instability that Black trans folk are experiencing,” Dolan-Sandrino said.
While President Joe Biden — heralded as the most pro-LGBTQ president yet — has been praised for his administration’s work with trans people, activists hope he will take further action to make meaningful, broad-based, lasting change in their everyday lives.
To Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that provides housing and other services to homeless LGBTQ youth, there is an "epidemic of violence" and other issues for trans people that needs to be addressed.
“We have an epidemic in this country of homeless youth… transgender youth face the highest rates of homelessness of any group,” Corado said.
“We need to address the poverty in which trans communities are living. We need to address the phobia, the discrimination, the unemployment — particularly for trans women of color," Corado said.
This week the White House hosted a virtual discussion that included trans and nonbinary youth leaders and elected transgender officials like Delaware State Sen. Sarah McBride and Virginia State Assembly Del. Danica Roem, both Democrats.
'Your President has your back': President Biden addresses transgender Americans
Associated Press, USA TODAY
The White House announced on Wednesday the creation of a new Interagency Working Group on Safety, Inclusion, and Opportunity for Transgender Americans that will include federal agencies and “review policies that are upstream drivers of violence and poverty for transgender individuals, including homelessness, employment discrimination, violence and abuse, and bullying and rejection at school.”
In January, some of Biden’s first actions upon taking office were signing executive orders allowing transgender Americans to serve in the military and preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in a reversal of former President Donald Trump’s attacks on trans rights.
The former president had rolled back rules that protected trans people from discrimination in homeless shelters, ceased the collection of data on LGBTQ youth in foster care, opposed allowing trans students to participate in sports and barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using the word "transgender" in official documents, among other actions.
His Department of Education directed that Title IX prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ people. Biden also appointed Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine, the first openly transgender federal official to win Senate confirmation.
“I hope that my appointment symbolizes progress,” Levine said during the virtual event Wednesday. “As Vice President Harris has said, I recognize that I may be the first, but I am heartened by the knowledge I will not be the last.”
Corado hopes the Biden administration will appoint more transgender individuals to positions in the White House and across federal agencies “who have the expertise and know-how to address the social illnesses” faced by trans people.
“There’s more that can be done from a personnel perspective, with regard to political appointments of trans folks generally, and Black trans people more specifically, across agencies," said David Johns.
Johns, executive director of the civil rights group National Black Justice Coalition, which works to end stigma against Black LGBTQ people and promotes policies to better their lives, wants to see legislation to address the mental health issues of Black LGBTQ youth, particularly those who are transgender.
A 2020 study by the Trevor Project found that more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered suicide. Sixty-one percent said they had been prevented or discouraged from using the restroom corresponding with their gender identity.
“That's on top of what we know about how LGBTQIA+ Black youth find schools to be hostile and unsafe spaces,” Johns said. “All of that has been now compounded by the novel coronavirus’ impact on economic loss. Queer people of color are more likely to be impacted by shifts in industry or in unsafe jobs if they have a job at this point.”
According to data analyzed by the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to have lost work hours or become unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Johns and other activists also want to see the Senate pass the Equality Act, a Democratic proposal that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Biden had promised to sign the Equality Act into law within the first 100 days of his administration, but it faces an uncertain future in the equally divided Senate.
“We represent America’s future. The passing of the Equality Act is an investment in America,” said Stella Keating, the first transgender teenager to testify before Congress, during the White House conversation on trans equality. She testified in favor of the Equality Act in March.
Republican lawmakers across the country are ushering in new legislation to ban transgender women and girls from playing on sports teams according to their gender identities. Efforts to exclude trans people and, in some states, ban doctors from providing gender-affirming health care to minors, are an attempt to further dehumanize transgender people who are already some of the most marginalized in the country, according to leaders at LGBTQ organizations.
For those Republican-led states launching an assault against transgender people, it’s about pandering to their bases and inserting politics into the lives of actual people, HRC President Alphonso David said.
“That's about fear and misinformation and using transgender young people as a political tools to gain some type of benefit. The anti-equality forces all over this country have tried to use LGBTQ people for their own political game,” he said. “There is no problem with transgender girls playing sports, there is no problem with transgender people using restrooms consistent with their gender identity, there is no problem with public school teachers teaching about LGBTQ issues.”
The best thing for the Biden administration to do to address the systemic poverty, education inequities, homelessness and health outcomes in trans communities, according to Corado, would be to declare a state of emergency over violence against trans people.
“How do you address these social issues? By bringing the resources. The same way you address the epidemic of COVID. The same way you address a levee breaking in New Orleans — you are trying to save lives,” Corado said.
“Our levee has been broken, and it’s no longer leaking. We are drowning in a system, and major repairs need to be done,” Corado said.
The Human Rights Campaign has tracked the violent deaths of transgender women, totaling 44 such deaths in 2020 and at least 29 so far in 2021.
“We want to make sure that the federal government is working collaboratively and cohesively in addressing violence that's affecting the trans community,” David said.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five trans people has experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. And one in five has reported discrimination when seeking housing. The NCTE also reports that more than one in four trans people have lost a job due to anti-trans bias.
“If we're denied housing and job opportunities because we are trans then what are our choices? We are forced to enter unsafe working conditions and sometimes the unsafe working conditions manifest as sex work,” Dolan-Sandrino said.
“The reality is that trans people are forced out into the margins of society, and are forced to provide for ourselves in ways that are unsafe and unsustainable, just so that we can have a shelter, have a roof over our head, food on our plates and access the medical resources that are so necessary,” she said.
A report by the Movement Advancement Project, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Center for American Progress, and the Human Rights Campaign from 2013 found that trans workers report unemployment at 14%, which was twice the rate of the general population. Meanwhile, more than 44% of trans workers who were working were underemployed, and trans workers are nearly four times more likely than the general population to have a total household income of below $10,000.
Corado said she appreciates that the Biden administration has made a visible effort to connect with trans leaders and enact change, but it needs to go beyond the month of June, when LGBTQ Pride is celebrated.
“While we celebrated Pride across this country, there were trans people that died from this epidemic. I think we can definitely go past Pride and make good on the promise that we all are truly equal, because right now there are trans women and trans men who are dying from that violence,” Corado said.