I have been an activist and advocate for the trans community for the past 15 years, but laboring under an incorrect assumption. That assumption is that American life and culture, as flawed as it may be, was going to progress in fits and starts as it had since 1945. To put it more poetically, the arc of history, though long, would continue bending toward justice. That assumption was just proven wrong, as we’re now living through a rupture in American history.
That rupture necessitates a look back at the Obama years with both gratitude and, unfortunately, nostalgia for what we’ve accomplished and could have continued to accomplish going forward. I will preface my remarks by saying that our progress was not primarily due to the president and his administration; we, the people, made it happen. The president demanded that we make him do it, and he did.
I will focus on the trans rights movement. Throughout the Bush years state and local anti-discrimination protections occurred under the radar, often being intermixed with gay rights, in definitions and footnotes. But that experience, as well as the ENDA debacle in Congress in 2007, which put the trans community on the LGB map, created a core of activists who were primed to move forward under the new Democratic president.
That progress began with government agencies upgrading their EEO policies to include gender identity, and a willingness to incorporate such protections in major legislation such as the Affordable Care Act. This led to generalized improvements in health care access, in the private sector (most notably by Kaiser Permanente) as well as with Medicare, the VA system and state Medicaid programs.
Such progress in health care was jump-started by the major medical organizations getting on board in support of trans health and rights, including the AMA, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, and, finally, the big one, the American Psychiatric Association and its 2011 revision of the DSM, the psychiatric bible used in courts and legislatures in the past to deny trans persons their rights. Just as the depathologization of homosexuality in 1973 by the APA led to the rapid growth of the gay rights movement, the depsychopathologization of Gender Identity Disorder led to court victories and, last year, the institution of open trans military service, long forbidden on medical grounds.
The administration also very quickly appointed several trans persons to visible posts, along with many gay appointees. Agency and White House meetings on trans issues, led by the National Center for Transgender Equality, and soon including representatives from multiple advocacy and legal impact groups, created more job opportunities and culminated last year with the Department of Justice’s historic suit against the transphobic HB2 in North Carolina, and the passionate public statements of Attorney General Lynch and Assistant AG Gupta to the trans community.
The pivotal appointment by the administration for the trans community was the nomination and confirmation of Georgetown Law Professor Chai Feldblum to the federal EEOC. Her work with her fellow commissioners, leading to the unanimous Macy decision of 2012, stands tall. State and, most importantly, federal court decisions, beginning in the 6th Circuit in 2004 and eventually including decisions in most circuits, most famously the 11th Circuit of Alabama, Georgia and Florida whose decision in Glenn v. Brumby added the trans community beneath the umbrella of the 14th Amendment, will probably be the most beneficial and lasting for the community.
Administrations change. The coming change may very well be catastrophic. However, unless the federal judiciary is purged, the momentum in federal courts developed under President Obama will probably last into the future. Most importantly, the actions of the community in coming out and being seen, which enabled and encouraged the work by this historic administration, will be essential for future progress toward greater equality.
The president gave us a tremendous lift. Now it’s up to us to persevere.
Dana Beyer is a longtime D.C.-based advocate for transgender equality.