Audrey Leiker says President Donald Trump’s administration is trying to make her disappear.
Days after The New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services is leading an effort to define gender as purely biological under federal law, Leiker showed up to a rally outside the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City to assert her identity.
“They’re trying to legislate us out of existence,” said Leiker, who’s transgender. “And it’s not going to work.”
In a memo reviewed by The Times, the Health and Human Services Department argued that government agencies should adopt a definition of gender based “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
The proposed definition would define sex as an immutable characteristic determined at birth on the basis of genitalia and would run contrary to the gender identity of roughly 1 million adult transgender Americans.
“I wish I could say that I’m disappointed, but we’ve been under constant assault ever since day one” of Trump’s presidency, Leiker said. “So it’s not surprising, but it’s infuriating just the same.”
The administration has sought to bar transgender people from serving in the military and has challenged civil rights protections for the community in the country’s health care law. Now, transgender activists say, this move, which is still under consideration, would negate their legal recognition altogether.
Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams called the proposed move, coming so close to November’s midterm elections, a “despicable” effort to score political points.
“Science has shown over and over again there’s not just a binary of male and female,” he said Saturday. “There’s a vast intersex community as well that has characteristics of both sexes in one person. The human body and human lives are incredibly complex, and Trump wants to be incredibly simple in his definitions.”
Williams fears the impact this proposal could have on the lives of members of the transgender community in Utah, where the youth suicide rate has grown at an alarming pace, according to recent studies conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The state’s suicide rate among young adults ages 10 to 17 had more than doubled from 2011 to 2015, swelling at an annual clip nearly four times faster than the national average — and it’s thought that LGBTQ youths are at higher risk.
“Whenever any population is targeted by the state or by the president or by faith leaders,” Williams said, “it has a damaging impact on their psychological well-being.”
More than 70 people showed up at the “rally against Trump’s transphobia” on Saturday afternoon, carrying transgender pride flags and signs emblazoned with messages like “Trans Lives Matter.” The rally was organized by the University of Utah Students for a Democratic Society, whose members gave short speeches and led the crowd in a series of chants.
Erin Eccleston, a U. senior, came with her parents, Joey and Laurie Eccleston, in an effort to protest the proposed Trump administration policy.
“What it does is remove that we could even possibly exist by saying that [gender] cannot be changed ever, so identifying this way is not even legally recognized,” said Erin, who is transgender. “It is erasure in that way.”
As part of the legal battle over how to define gender, the Utah Legislature is expected to consider a bill in its next session from Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, that would set standards for gender sex designations on legal documents. Without a clearly delineated policy, he has argued that courts are handling such requests differently.
An Ogden judge ruled in 2016, for example, that he did not have the authority to change a person’s gender and denied two petitioners, whose legal documents bear the new names they had chosen to reflect their gender identities but still list the sex assigned to them at birth. Those denials are believed to be the first issued in Utah. The Utah Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case.
As transgender Utahns wait to see what the Trump administration will do next, Leiker said it was important to her to show up Saturday for those who haven’t come out yet and for the larger community.
“Visibility is very, very important,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure people know we’re here.”