March 2, 2017 at 5:08 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Transgender Task Force relaunched amid ongoing anti-trans attacks
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) is the new leader of the Transgender Task Force. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) is the new leader of the Transgender Task Force. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Amid the Trump administration’s rollback of guidance protecting transgender students and increasing reports of anti-trans violence around the country, members of the U.S. House have relaunched the Transgender Task Force to draw attention to harms facing the transgender community.

The new leader of the transgender caucus in the 115th Congress is Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), who spoke at an event Thursday outside the U.S. Capitol to support trans people.

“You shouldn’t have to battle for the protections that most of us take for granted because representatives should always have their back,” Kennedy said. “To the transgender community, the one message that we can deliver to you today is that this task force has yours, no matter the opposition, no matter the setbacks, no matter who occupies the Oval Office.”

Kennedy assumes the leadership of the Transgender Task Force in the aftermath of the retirement last year of former Rep. Mike Honda, who has a transgender granddaughter and previously led the task force.

The seven members of the bipartisan transgender Task Force in addition to Kennedy are Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Facilitating the Transgender Task Force is the LGBT Equality Caucus as well as openly gay members of the U.S. House — Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) — who were present at the relaunch event on Capitol Hill.

The relaunch of the caucus comes one week after the Trump administration revoked Obama-era guidance prohibiting schools from discriminating against transgender students or denying them access to the restroom on the basis of gender identity. The stated reasoning for rescinding the guidance — which is based on well-established interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — is that the issue is best left to the states, not the federal government.

Pocan said the country has made “incredible progress” on extending legal protections to transgender people, but they’re under threat in the Trump administration.

“Our children and our teacher understand the importance of respect and fair treatment for everyone,” Pocan said. “Unfortunately, extremist voices on the right still don’t understand the simple idea that our children seem to understand.”

Polis said during the event the Obama-era guidance provided “clarity” to schools on transgender bathroom access and revoking it has left schools in confusion.

“In fact, the joint guidance was issued because school districts requested it,” Polis said. “Countless lawsuits have been filed against school districts because they either did or didn’t give transgender students access to facilities in accordance with their gender identity. The guidance helped alleviate all those lawsuits and unfortunately, with the rescindence of that guidance, schools are now subject to more costly lawsuits and uncertainty, and transgender students can continue to be denied access to the appropriate facilities.”

Accompanying the relaunch was the publication of an open letter from 122 House members organized by Pocan calling on the Trump administration to put back in place the transgender guidance and meet with families to understand better the implications of the rollback.

“Title IX provides transgender students the right to equal treatment in accordance with their gender identity,” the letter says. “Unfortunately, rescinding this guidance only serves to confuse school administrators and take away a vital tool for students and their families who want to be treated with dignity and respect. Further, this action sends the wrong message — a very dangerous message — to transgender youth and their peers.”

A White House official responded to the letter by emphasizing President Trump’s position the issue is best reserved for the states, not the federal government.

“As President Trump has clearly stated, he believes policy regarding transgender bathrooms should be decided at the state level,” the official said. “The joint decision made by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education returning power to the states paves the way for an open and inclusive process to take place at the local level with input from parents, students, teachers and administrators.”

In an interview with the Blade prior to the event, Kennedy said the relaunched task force would seek advancements in three main areas: health care, health disparities and education.

Because of the Task Force’s emphasis on education, Kennedy said it is “disappointing and telling” that revoking the guidance is among the first acts of the Trump administration.

“While some folks might say that’s not a big deal, the fact is that when children are in hostile environments in school it makes it a lot more difficult to learn,” Kennedy said. “There’s data out there showing children who experience bullying are twice as likely not to pursue post-secondary education.”

The Transgender Task Force announcement follows a spate of anti-trans violence around the country. At least seven transgender women, six black, have been murdered so far in 2017 — two of them in the past week in New Orleans.

Kennedy said he would seek to address anti-trans violence by highlighting the challenges faced by transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, and looking at potential reforms both at the federal and local levels.

“For policy makers and particularly members of Congress who might not have had exposure to members of the transgender community before — in their work prior coming to Congress or even as members of Congress — making sure that they’re aware of some of these challenges, understanding how existing policies affect members of the community and trying to mobilize some of those federal resources and policies working with state and local authorities is critical to this,” Kennedy said.

Also speaking at the relaunch event was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who referenced an amicus brief led by House Democrats in the Supreme Court case filed by transgender student Gavin Grimm, and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Nearly 200 lawmakers signed the brief, which was led by Polis, Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) and submitted to the Supreme Court Thursday when briefs were due in favor of Gavin Grimm.

Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, was present at the event with HRC President Chad Griffin and said the relaunch “could not come at a more important time” after the Trump administration rescinded transgender guidance.

“Following the rescinding of life-saving guidance last week by the Trump administration, many transgender young people woke up the next day wondering whether the heart of this country is big enough to love them, too,” McBride said. “And while no single act by a president can fully rescind the protections to transgender people, there is no doubt that this disgraceful action fostered bullying in classrooms and state legislatures.”

Also present at the event was Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán, policy counsel and Trans/GNC Justice Project Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, who emphasized the importance of the task force in a statement to the Blade.

“At a time when the transgender community faces a full-fledged assault on its rights and in the wake of the Trump administration’s assault on the right of transgender children to be safe and free from mistreatment and abuse in schools, we need initiatives such as the Transgender Equality Task Force more than ever,” Rodríguez-Roldán said.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the Transgender Task Force demonstrates the arms of the federal government work for all people, including those who are transgender.

“This is our Congress, that is our Supreme Court and the White House is our White House,” Keisling said. “This is our president and we demand a president who is an adult, I demand a president who thinks through things, I demand a president who makes decisions carefully and after talking to the people it affects.”

Making a joke that a lack of transgender inclusion in America would be along the lines of having a “Trump without a ‘T,'” Keisling said she expects to continue to fight.

“We’re here, we’re not going away, we’re going to work hard, we’re going to advance our agenda,” Keisling said. “Trans people need this. The transgender people of color who are under fire every day in our cities and towns. We’re not backing down.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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