When the news broke last week that the Trump Administration is considering legally defining gender as biologically fixed at birth, a panic took hold in the transgender community.
“Trans people are not new to dealing with bullies,” says Elena Rose Vera, deputy executive director of the suicide prevention nonprofit Trans Lifeline. Yet when the memo was released, Trans Lifeline’s call volume “immediately quadrupled,” Vera says. “After decades of work to build a more compassionate and equitable society, [these] attacks seek to punish them for the joy they have found, to drive back progress by any means necessary.”
The memo, drafted by the Department of Health and Human Services, is the latest in a series of statements and legislation issued by the administration that have left the transgender community feeling under siege. In the face of this news, Trans Lifeline views their work as more critical than ever. “I have lost many friends and loved ones in the community to violence and suicide — people who faced systematic and constant deprivation, humiliation and trauma,” says Vera. “Every one of those lives was precious.”
Other activists agree. “The erasure of your identity and your very existence makes you panic at your core,” Zeke Christopoulos, a transgender man and director of the advocacy group Tranzmission, told The Guardian. “It felt like a kick in the stomach.”
We must not give up the fight. But in the face of this affront on my existence and the existence of my community I choose love not fear. We exist and always have.
Trump Administration Eyes Defining Transgender Out of Existence https://t.co/G4rKB1mVfe
— Laverne Cox (@Lavernecox) October 21, 2018
Trans Lifeline, which Vera says is the only crisis support hotline program run completely by and for the transgender community, aims to both support people on the brink of crisis and empower them to live healthier and more financially stable lives. A recent study found that 29 percent of transgender people in the U.S. live in poverty, more than double the national average, while housing and employment discrimination can push transgender people into less-than-legal forms of employment to make ends meet.
In 2017, Trans Lifeline merged with Trans Assistance Project, a microgrants program that helps pay recipients’ legal and administrative fees and guides them through the process to attain documents like passports, driver’s licenses and immigration papers. The goal is to give transgender people the tools that “make a happy, hopeful and honest life more possible, reducing the circumstances that lead to crisis and despair,” says Vera. Thus far Trans Lifeline has distributed over $166,500 to transgender people in need and have answered over 55,260 calls for help.
Activism and advocacy within the transgender community are critical, but everyone has a role to play in making the country safer for trans people, Vera says. “We all have friends, family, neighbors — perhaps a religious community, or a union, or a school or workplace — who we can talk to about treating trans people with respect,” she says. “Trans people have always existed, everywhere in the world, and no power in the world could keep us from existing.”