Trump’s Anti-Trans Policy Efforts Aren’t New—and Their History Is Horrifying

Transgender sex workers at the popular Berlin gay bar Marienkasino in the 1920s (Image courtesy of the Magnus Hirschfield Institute)

On October 21, a leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services revealed yet another horrifying new policy proposal from the Trump administration. The draft proposal obtained by the New York Times detailed plans to establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX as binary, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals one has at birth. Any claim of discrimination would have to be clarified through genetic testing, and the policy would eliminate the concept of gender by arguing that only biological sex exists—a move that would not only result in the removal of all federal civil-rights protections for transgender people, but enable the wholesale erasure of the transgender community.

Though pundits were quick to claim that the leaked proposal was just that, the more specific policies that came to light in the following days leaves no question that this administration is serious about targeting the trans community. The Justice Department, for instance, wrote a brief to the United States Supreme Court stating that businesses should be allowed to discriminate against transgender people with impunity. The U.S. delegation to the United Nations has also called for protections on the basis of gender to be removed from all the UN’s human-rights documents. Other inhumane policies are likely to follow.

These evil policies are unsurprising to those who’ve been following the Trump administration’s ongoing attempts to target transgender citizens. We’ve already witnessed attacks on transgender youths’ right to use the bathroom, on the rights of transgender people to openly serve in the military, and on transgender prisoners. Some transgender women have reported having their passports revoked, with the government claiming that documents confirming their gender are invalid. The administration has even limited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to assert that transgender people exist.

As a transgender woman, these new policies terrify me and jeopardize the survival of myself and my loved ones. It also hearkens back to Post–World War II Germany, when trans people in the Weimar Republic had their hard-earned rights disastrously stripped away. The Weimar Republic was a time of great social progress for Germany’s transgender population, who at the time were called (and self-identified as) “transvestites.” (The term was coined by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in his 1910 book Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress). In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Science) in order to research and advocate for sexual minorities, as well as house a large archive of queer history.

Hirschfeld’s work achieved some tangible success including decriminalizing both lesbian sex and female sex work. Though he strongly advocated to repeal Paragraph 175, the German law that prohibited sex between men, his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Overall, though, Hirschfeld’s advocacy greatly improved the lives of trans people. His science-based argument that being transgender was a naturally occurring phenomenon that deserved political inclusion had widespread impact on both social policy and scientific advancement: He was able to help trans people get legal name changes and recognition for passports that protected them from police harassment for “crossdressing.”

He was also an early pioneer in gender-confirmation surgery and hormone-replacement therapy. The Weimar era’s trans community was flourishing on its own as well. As Germanic scholar Katie Sutton wrote in her 2012 article, We Too Deserve A Place In The Sun: The Politics of Transvestite Identity in Weimar Germany, a rich subculture emerged as trans people created their own media—magazines, movies, and stage plays—that allowed them to build a social community and engage in self-advocacy. (Many by-trans-for-trans magazine inserts appeared in lesbian magazines, disproving the transphobic notion that lesbian communities have always rejected trans women.)

But the burgeoning trans community was also restrictive in many ways. Sutton points out that trans community leaders “embraced a politics of respectability and invisibility as the path to claiming a place within German public life.” Bourgeois claims to respectability and inclusion in the notion of citizenship and its protections resulted in the exclusion of many trans people—particularly those who were poor, or sex workers, or who couldn’t “pass”—from the larger community. In other words, certain trans people were able to leverage their privileges to access certain rights at the expense of others.

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And then the Nazis came to power. As a Jew, Hirschfeld and his Institut had long been a target of Nazi rhetoric, so one of the first things they did after  gaining control of Berlin in 1933 was ransack the Institut, destroy the building, and burn the entirety of its archive. Hirschfeld, abroad on a speaking tour at the time, was never able to return home. He died from a heart attack in 1935. Meanwhile, the Nazis revised already-extant laws —such as the ban on gay male sex—to target trans people, and created new policies that led to the incarceration, castration, and eventual extermination of trans people. In the span of a few years, Germany turned from one of the most progressive places for trans people to live into the main instrument of their destruction.

The transition from Weimar to Nazi Germany and Obama-era to Trump-era United States have striking similarities. In both nations, a moderately progressive government that granted limited rights to certain segments of the trans community was replaced with a fascistic government determined to rescind all existing protections in favor of new, repressive policies. And it’s that moderate, limited part that we must learn from if we want to prevent another genocide of trans people.

By aligning themselves with bourgeois liberal politics, the victories of a handful of “respectable” trans people were limited, excluded large swaths of their fellow trans citizens, sacrificed unity, and were easily dismantled as soon as a bigoted government came into power. The Obama administration achieved a similar kind of limited success in areas such as military inclusion, government document changes, and bathroom accommodations. These victories were significant, but also came at the expense of addressing issues such as poverty, the criminalization of sex work, and the violence inflicted on transgender women of color—and, as we’re now seeing, the Trump administration will gladly erase all them with the click of a pen.

Since bourgeois policies are destined to fail the transgender community, we must instead turn to supporting systemic revolutionary change. Refusing to acknowledge that this is fascism and must be met with resistance enables it to spread. Debating fascists only serves to present their worldview as valid of consideration. Instead, we must support the work of anti-fascists who are putting their bodies on the line to stand up against this regime by any and all means necessary—including acts of violence against them. After all, Adolf Hitler wasn’t defeated through civil dialogue.

The Trump regime’s proposed anti-transgender policies are the workings of a genocidal government that has been explicitly targeting minority communities for incarceration and expulsion. But we can take one further lesson from this moment’s horrifying resemblance to the fall of Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazi rule: Hitler tried to erase trans people from history, but we are still here. Trump is trying to do the same thing, and while his policies will lead to many deaths, he will never succeed in wiping us all off the map. The transgender community is resilient, and we aren’t going anywhere.

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by Jes Grobman
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Jes Grobman is a graduate student of both social work and human sexuality education in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.