By Tey Meadow, author of Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century
How might it feel, as a young transgender person in this country, to be told by your government that you do not exist?
According to a memo leaked to the New York Times, the Department of Health and Human Services is undertaking efforts to restrict the legal and administrative recognition of transgender Americans, in what appears to be the single most violent and directed measure ever enacted. This policy would make permanent and unchangeable the gender marker assigned any individual at birth, essentially preventing transgender Americans from changing their documentation to match the ways they live their lives and identities. It will do far more than previous attempts by the Trump administration to roll back efforts to protect transgender students from discrimination in schools; it will effectively constitute an act of government hate speech, whose sole purpose is to malign the very existence of transgender Americans by saying they do not exist in the eyes of the law.
This policy will have real world practical effects for trans youth, including restricting their access to basic life necessities like education and medical care. Poor families will be especially hard hit, since their lives are more closely intertwined with low-level bureaucrats at social service agencies, hospitals, homeless shelters and welfare offices. All of these are institutional spaces where gender markers matter. They structure access to spaces, resources, and forms of recognition that are basic to social life.
These material consequences will prove dire for many trans youth. For all youth, this policy will also exact a form of psychic violence that will be difficult to measure but no less debilitating. It will inscribe in the clear letter of the law the antipathy some adults have for children who transgress gender norms. What this will mean for individual children’s senses of their worth as individuals and as citizens is harder to predict. But two things seem likely: first, this measure will encourage a general climate of intolerance and may well lead to physical violence and exclusion. And second, even without overt violence, its very existence will harm the social and emotional well-being of transgender young people.
We have clear evidence that transgender youth who are surrounded by supportive, affirming adults grow into healthy, productive, self-actualized adults. Youth facing hostile, disaffirming and violent social environments, in contrast, are no less likely to be transgender, but they do suffer from anxiety and depression, struggle in school, and have diminished chances for productive work lives as adults.
In my research with families raising trans and gender-nonconforming children, I saw the ways the administrative contexts surrounding individual kids affected, not only their chances to participate in the social worlds their peers inhabited, but also the security and safety of their families themselves. Families in intolerant social environments faced threats of physical violence, exclusion from the public school system, medical institutions, community spaces and more. Some families even faced interventions by social services agencies seeking to punish them for afforming their children’s trans identities. I saw parents temporarily lose custody of their children to false allegations of abuse, and many more families terrorized by needless threats for doing nothing more than advocating for their child’s identity in public. It’s hard to imagine the policy suggested by HHS would do anything but intensify the bureaucratic scrutiny on these families.
Recent studies already show that the overwhelming majority of educators report that the rhetoric around the election of Donald Trump negatively affected the social climate for racial, religious, gender and sexual minorities in America’s schools. Some social scientists posit that public statements from the administration may actually create “echo chambers” of hate speech, leading to increases of actual physical violence as well. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that children, empowered by bullying and hateful rhetoric from the very country in which they live, will feel empowered to terrorize the trans youth in their communities.
On the most basic level, however, the true violence of this directive will be to tell the nearly 1% of U.S. children likely to grow up to be transgender adults that they simply do not exist. That their identities, the lives and their futures simply don’t matter to the adults who are tasked with representing their interests. The effect of such a hateful and damaging political rhetoric on the developing psyche of children is impossible to estimate, but we already know it will be significant. This is a form of social violence and exclusion that is unprecedented, and we must resist it with everything we’ve got.