I wish that a Donald Trump presidency were more of a surprise. But transgender Americans have always known how powerful hatred can be.
Under President Obama, transgender people have benefited from piecemeal progress in public policy, largely held up by executive action and court decisions. Whether they were combating housing discrimination or protecting transgender students or fighting health care exclusions, various federal departments advanced transgender equality in quiet but significant ways.
But all of that change could come crashing down in the next four years. If Donald Trump and Mike Pence make good on their campaign promises, our rights are at risk. With Republicans in control of Congress and a notoriously anti-LGBTQ vice president in the White House, many of those precarious gains made under Obama could be eliminated within days of Trump taking office.
For starters, Mike Pence has already suggested Donald Trump will roll back the Obama administration’s guidance to school districts regarding accommodations for transgender students, as Pink News reported. In early October, the VP-elect told evangelical talk radio host James Dobson that “the transgender bathroom issue can be resolved with common sense at the local level.” He was referring to a May announcement from the Departments of Education and Justice, which stated that anti-transgender discrimination in schools was prohibited under Title IX and, therefore, transgender students should have access to “facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
If that guidance gets rescinded, the issue will be referred back to “the local level,” as Pence told Dobson, which means transgender students in hostile school districts could face even more discrimination than they already do over the next four years.
But Trump and Pence might not stop at undoing the Obama administration’s progress on transgender rights. They could set back the clock on transgender rights even further.
First and foremost, a Trump presidency will have a major impact on the makeup of the Supreme Court, which could issue monumental decisions about transgender rights in the coming years. Trump has already promised that he will “not [be] appointing a liberal judge” to replace Antonin Scalia, whose death has left the court with only eight justices thanks to months of Republican obstructionism. That decision could have far-reaching effects for social issues like immigration and abortion access that were probably on more voters’ minds last night than transgender equality. But a conservative-leaning court could also devastate transgender rights just as federal courts were starting to reaffirm them, building up hope and momentum for a larger Supreme Court victory to come.
Electing Trump may delay that eventual victory by decades. In late October, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who was denied access to the men’s bathroom in his Virginia high school. If Trump and Pence get to decide who’s on the bench, the court could erase years of judicial progress for transgender rights in one fell swoop. Undoing that damage could mean waiting for Supreme Court vacancies to be filled with more progressive justices several presidents down the road.
A conservative Supreme Court would also make it more challenging for transgender people to marry. A little-known fact about transgender people is that 77%—myself included—identify as something other than heterosexual, according to an analysis published by the National LGBTQ Task Force. In other words, same-sex marriage is a transgender rights issue and same-sex marriage is now under renewed threat. In February, Trump said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that he opposed the Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage last year. When CBN asked Trump about evangelicals who wanted him to protect “traditional marriage,” he said, “I think they can trust me.” Overturning Obergefell is a long shot—as Bustle pointed out last night—but it is still within the realm of possibility.
But many of the most hurtful consequences for transgender people won’t come from the Supreme Court—they’ll come from Congress. The 2016 GOP Platform has been described as “the most anti-LGBT platform in history.” That platform directly opposes efforts to make anti-transgender discrimination illegal and it defends conversion therapy, which is still practiced on transgender people despite widespread opposition from major medical associations. Trump has also said that he will sign the First Amendment Defense Act if Congress puts it on his desk. That legislation would essentially make it legal at a federal level for employers and other organizations to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the name of “religious freedom.”
Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act would also harm transgender people. LGBTQ Americans are already more likely to be uninsured than non-LGBTQ people. For transgender people, who experience poverty and unemployment at staggering rates, the death of Obamacare could mean the loss of a lifeline. In May, as Buzzfeed reported, the Obama administration even instructed health care providers that they could not deny gender transition-related health care. Those instructions are likely imperiled now, too, which means that transgender people could face even more difficulty accessing mental health care, hormone therapy, and surgical treatment.
Of course, some anti-transgender effects of a Trump presidency could be due to simple inaction on issues like public health. In 2000, Mike Pence wanted to cut HIV/AIDS funding and spend it on conversion therapy instead. While he was governor of Indiana, Pence waited more than two months to lift a needle exchange ban after HIV began spreading among intravenous drug users in southern Indiana. Pence also cut spending for public health programs as governor. And according to the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, Trump allegedly pretended to be a donor at a 1996 event for children with HIV and then left without giving money.
If these actions are indicative of the next administration’s level of enthusiasm for HIV prevention, then transgender people have even more reason to be troubled by a Trump-Pence presidency given the disproportionate rates of HIV infection in the community. In one 2008 study highlighted by the Centers for Disease Control, a staggering 56% of black transgender women tested positive for HIV. If the pressing public health needs of the transgender community remain in the shadows—or worse, if public health funding gets slashed during the Trump administration—the repercussions will be tragic.
Ultimately, the worst-case scenario for transgender people under President Trump would be even more dystopian than our present. The federal government would either nod in agreement or look the other way while transgender people are denied employment, medical care, and access to public accommodations. There is early evidence to suggest that suicide attempts would rise among transgender students if they were barred from school bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender. And if access to health insurance becomes less reliable, the consequences for some transgender people could prove fatal.
None of these problems are brand new. Transgender people have been facing and surviving them for decades with no expectation that they would end in our lifetime. But many of us were at least hoping that our situation would marginally improve under our next president.
As it turns out, our next president is Donald Trump.