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Joe Biden Transgender Rights: Why Obama Administration Will Need Extra Push for Trans Rights

Last week, Vice President Joe Biden called transgender discrimination “the civil rights issue of our time.” His comment has elicited different reactions. Some are quite skeptical, given the timing of Obama’s same-sex marriage support and Biden’s comment during an election year. Others, including those at transunitedforobama.org, cheered and welcomed the historical remark.

Few mainstream sources reported on Biden’s remarks; further, the very few which did, like the Huffington Post and Politico, provided few details about the administration’s record on transgender rights, even in the article by the Advocate. Instead, they all mentioned Biden’s advocacy for transgender rights within the context of Obama’s stymied endorsement for same-sex marriage, a perennial issue that dominates discussions of LGBT rights.

But is the dominance of same-sex marriage more a problem of journalistic favoritism, or is it the singular priority pursued by the Obama-Biden administration, whose support comes from many gays and lesbians?

Let’s evaluate some highlights from the administration’s record in the last four years.

 1) Housing

In February 2012, a new policy went into effect that ensures that all core Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs are open to all eligible individuals and families, regardless of “actual or perceived gender identity.” The National Center for Transgender Equality provides a resource guide to understand your rights under the Fair Housing Act, non-discrimination laws, and the HUD new policy.

In 2011, Bryan Samuels, the Commissioner of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children, Youth, and Families circulated a memorandum that emphasized the “fundamental belief that every child and youth who is unable to live with his or her parents is entitled to a safe, loving and affirming foster care placement, irrespective to the young person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

2) Health care

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also confirmed that Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which bans sex discrimination in federally-funded health services, includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity. However, health insurers are not required to cover transition surgery. Despite the continued ban on transgender individuals in the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs ensures that transgender veterans have access to health care, including sex-specific care and transition-related procedure, but not sex or gender-reassignment surgery.

3) Immigration

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memorandum in April that updates its policy on gender designations on documents (such as Employment Authorization Documents, Refugee Travel Documents, Permanent Resident Cards, etc.) issued to transgender individuals.

The memo states that “Applicants who claim to have changed their gender may seek issuance … of documents reflecting the new gender.” It also states that if a marriage is recognized as a heterosexual marriage under the law where the marriage took place, the federal government will continue to recognize the marriage for immigration purposes regardless of a person’s subsequent gender transition.

4) Employment

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a transgender employee or job applicant because of the person’s gender identity, based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In light of new identity verification processes, the Social Security Administration will also put an end to a gender verification process that cost many transgender workers their jobs. And Kylar Broadus, founding Executive Director of the Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC), became the first openly transgender person to testify in front of the U.S. Senate during a hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

5) Education

A letter sent out by the Obama-Biden administration 2010 clarifies that harassment which targets transgender students is forbidden under Title IX of the Education Code. The letter was sent to 15,000 school districts, and federally funded colleges and universities.

So how should we interpret these milestones? Those at Trans United for Obama have pointed out these accomplishments as reasons to urge for Obama’s re-election. Natasha Lennard of Salon, however, dissents. She questions the timing of the remark and points out the ongoing mistreatment of trans women in the criminal justice system, such as in the case of CeCe McDonald. Another not very transgender-friendly point in the administration’s record is the continued exclusion of transgender personnel in the military despite the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. But I think Mara Kiesling, the Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, sums it up best when asked her thoughts on Biden.

“I just want to note,” she said, “that right now, civil rights is the civil rights issue of our time. Our civil rights are really under siege for lots of different kinds of people. For the people who are black or who are immigrants or are Latino, senior citizens and for regular old people. There are forces that really want to undermine individual rights and civil rights, whether it’s in the name of profits or the interests of wealthy people and corporations.”

The right to vote is one such right currently under attack. Photo ID requirements for voting and registration “under the pretext of preventing voter fraud” could end up becoming a barrier for immigrants and people from low income backgrounds to vote. Although Reuters reported that voter suppression claims may have been exaggerated by the Democrats, new ID requirements would still disproportionately affect transgender voters. 

If there is one thing then that we can take away from Biden’s remark, it is this: A re-elected Obama would give us more hope for greater transgender inclusion and rights, but not without a good fight from advocates and activists.

Author's note: For a global listing of events and vigils commemorating International Transgender Day of Remembrance, please visit http://www.transgenderdor.org/. The International Transgender Day of Remembrance bears witness to those who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred and prejudice. Votingwhiletrans.org provides information on how to protect your right to vote.

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