How Washington Let the Trans Community in on That Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness Thing
President Barack Obama made history in January when he became the first president to use the word “transgender” in a State of the Union address. In the months since, the term and the community it represents have catapulted into the cultural zeitgeist, becoming more widely used—and better understood by Americans.
For many LGBT advocates, Obama’s simple acknowledgement was a powerful recognition, bestowing legitimacy upon a population that had been largely ignored by the U.S. government. It also marked the beginning of a landmark year in which trans people came to prominence in the culture, from Caitlyn Jenner's documentary series to Jeffrey Tambor winning an Emmy award for his role as a transgender parent on the Amazon series Transparent. Not only that, but Washington made unprecedented steps toward advancing transgender awareness and promoting transgender rights from health care to the military.
There’s no doubt that transgender rights have a long way to go in 2016: Advocates are still campaigning for the government to count transgender individuals in the U.S. Census; lawmakers have yet to outlaw so-called conversion therapy, despite a plea from Obama; and Congress has yet to pass the Equality Act, which would guarantee explicit protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
As the year draws to a close, here are the transgender policies, laws, and small victories from Washington that trans people and advocates around the country can celebrate.
Health Care Coverage
Transition-related health care comes with a hefty price tag, but few insurance carriers are willing to shoulder the cost, leaving transgender patients no choice but to pay out of pocket for treatments the American Medical Association says can be medically necessary, including hormone therapy. Federal employees seeking to access transition-related health care will no longer be burdened with such expenses, thanks to a government order that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, and requires federal employees’ insurance carriers to pick up the bill. In September, the Obama administration moved to crack down on industry-wide discrimination against transgender people by proposing a rule that would add sex discrimination to a list of civil protections offered in the Affordable Care Act. The proposal closed for public comments in November.
Inclusion in the Military
Researchers at UCLA estimate that nearly 150,000 transgender people—or almost a quarter of the transgender population in the U.S.—are either military veterans, have retired from the Guard or Reserve service, or are on active duty. That’s a military participation rate much higher than the general population’s. Yet no service member has been openly transgender during tenure in the armed forces, owing to a long-standing ban on people whom the Pentagon considers to have “psychosexual disorders.” That ban is expected to be overturned, however, in 2016. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter signaled the reversal last summer when he said in a statement that the military’s ban on transgender service members was “outdated” and distracts commanders from their core missions.
Acceptance in the White House
On April 8, Obama signed an executive order banning discrimination of federal employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That same day, the White House opened its first gender-neutral bathroom. But for many advocates, one of the most visible achievements at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came four months later, when the White House hired its first openly transgender staff member. Raffi Freedman-Gurspan was appointed as an outreach and recruitment director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. She had previously served as a policy adviser for the racial and economic justice initiatives at the National Center for Transgender Equality. The move was praised by LGBT leaders including NCTE executive director Mara Keisling. “A transgender person was inevitably going to work in the White House,” she said in a statement. “That the first transgender appointee is a transgender woman of color is itself significant.”
Protection From Congress
While transgender visibility skyrocketed in mainstream media in 2015, the year also marked the deadliest on record since advocates began tallying reported transgender homicides in 2006. At least 21 transgender Americans, a majority of whom were women of color, were murdered this year, according to a report published by Human Rights Campaign. To address what it called an “epidemic of violence against the transgender community,” Congress took action, forming its first-ever Transgender Task Force in November. “It is our responsibility as leaders and public officials to ensure that all people are free from the fear of persecution, prejudice, or violence just for being who they are,” Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who formed the task force along with members of the House LGBT Equality Caucus, said in a statement. “We work to highlight the issues that transgender individuals face.” Honda also introduced a bill to designate November as Transgender Acceptance Month.