New trans protections face strong conservative opposition on Hill

A palm of the hand with a transgender flag painted on it
A palm of the hand with a transgender flag painted on it. (Photo: Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Efforts by House Democrats to extend federal civil rights protections to transgender individuals encountered determined opposition from Republicans who claimed the move would endanger women. The Republican argument sometimes verged on the outlandish, as when one congressman mused about President Trump becoming a woman.

At issue before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning was a bill, known as the Equality Act, or H.R. 5, that would make transgender people a “protected class” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination based on race and ethnicity, among other factors.

Democrats framed the issue as that of equality. “We see you, we support you and we believe in you,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, addressing viewers of the hearing in the LGBTQ community.

“You are worth fighting for,” he added a few moments later.

The hearing comes as transgender rights have become a furiously debated cultural and political issue. President Trump has reversed Obama-era directives, including one that allowed trans people to serve in the military and another that allowed trans students in public schools to use bathrooms that conformed to their gender identities.

“Transgender Rights Are Under Siege in Trump’s America,” read a headline late last year in the left-leaning Nation magazine, echoing a popular conviction among progressives.

Republicans at Tuesday’s hearing avoided Trump-like invective, carefully espousing respect for transgender rights, while also steadfastly arguing that such rights should not be expanded. That argument was predicated on the conviction that men masquerading as women would exploit such protections by using women’s bathrooms or playing on women’s sports teams. The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., worried that H.R. 5 would “codify an internet phenomenon into federal law,” implying that trans identity was little more than the product of social media peer pressure. That view has been widely disputed.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said he was concerned about “bad actors,” using as a hypothetical example of Trump declaring himself the first female president.

“Who would celebrate that?” Gaetz wondered.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo, posed an even more outlandish scenario to one of the witnesses, Jami Contreras, who faced discrimination in seeking medical care for her child because she is in a same-sex marriage.

“Is it your position,” Buck asked Contreras, “that an Orthodox Jewish doctor whose grandparent was killed in the Holocaust be required to work with a Nazi patient?”

Nazis are not a protected class, meaning that adherents of a political ideology — in this case, fascism — are not covered by the anti-discrimination statute of the Civil Rights Act. A seemingly confused Contreras answered by pointing out that she and her wife were raising their child according to “Christian values” and wanted only protection from prejudice.

Carter Brown, founder of the group Black Transmen, made the same point, describing how he was mocked and maligned at work for being trans. He was eventually dismissed from his job, but had little legal recourse, since Texas law does not have protections for trans people.

“My experience left me embarrassed and vulnerable,” Brown said.

Seventeen states have gender-identity protections, according to the National Transgender Law Center, while 27 states have either few or no such protections.

The core of the Republican argument at the hearing was that any fluidity in gender identity is a choice. That choice, they argued, would largely be exercised men attempting to masquerade as women. H.R. 5 “automatically privileges the rights of biological men over biological women,” as Rep. Collins put it, describing the bill as nothing more than “identity politics with no basis in science.”

Science, in fact, increasingly does not appear to be on Republicans’ side. New research suggests that biological gender and sexual identity can be uncoupled, meaning that terms like “biological men” and “biological women” have less relevance. Nor is there evidence that expanded trans rights result in greater harassment of women.

Several Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee argued it was ironic for the Republican Party to cast itself as the party to protect women, given its opposition to reproductive rights and paid family leave,.

Not all of the law’s critics were conservatives. “We risk losing all of our sex-segregated spaces if H.R. 5 passes,” said Julia Beck, a self-described “radical feminist lesbian” who believes, along with many conservatives, that trans rights infringe on the rights of women.

And Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., cited a recent article critical of H.R. 5 by Andrew Sullivan, a writer for New York magazine. Sullivan, who is openly gay, wrote that what he called transgender “ideology” is a “threat to homosexuality, because it is a threat to biological sex as a concept.”

The hearing, which resolved little, came two days after the international Transgender Day of Visibility.


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