Imara Jones: One of the very first things that the Trump Administration did after taking office was to roll back federal rules protecting trans students from discrimination in schools. Yep. You heard that right. One of the very first things.
BBC: Just a few hours ago, the Trump administration said it will roll back federal protection for transgender students.
Imara Jones: This rollback of rights came from Betsy DeVos, The Secretary of Education. Regardless of its callousness, this is the kind of change the administration couldn’t do without approval from Congress, basically, without any checks and balances. But when Betsy DeVos went before the House Education Committee, Representative Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon had some really tough questions for her and her Office of Civil Rights. It’s called the OCR.
Representative Suzanne Bonamici: When you rolled back that guidance, did you know that the stress of harassment and discrimination can lead to lower attendance and grades as well as depression and anxiety for transgender students? Did you know that?
Betsy DeVos: Congressmen, OCR is committed to ensuring all students have equal access to education free from discrimination–
Representative Suzanne Bonamici: Did you know, when–Sorry, I would really like an answer. Students and families need to know this. Did you know when you rolled back the guidance, that the stress of harassment and discrimination can lead to lower attendance and grades as well as depression for transgender students? Did you know that when you rolled back the guidance?
Betsy DeVos: I do know that but I will say again that OCR is committed to ensuring that all students are have access to their education free from discrimination–
Representative Suzanne Bonamici: Let me ask you this as well. When you rolled back the guidance, did you know that a study recently published by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed alarming levels of attempted suicide among transgender youth? Did you know that as well when you rolled back that guidance?
Betsy DeVos: I’m aware of that data…
Imara Jones: She was aware, and she did it anyway. But the attacks on trans people during the Trump Administration didn’t just come from the Education Department. They came from across the government. The Trump Administration executed a consistent policy to try to erase trans people and to deny basic human rights. They urged the Supreme Court to legalize employment discrimination against us, they moved to rollback housing protections. The President himself got trans people banned from the military. The Administration even sought to strip trans-inclusive language out of human rights documents at the United Nations. It was an across the board strategy to purge trans people from any official recognition and to push our community to the fringes. It wasn’t just coming from the Trump team though.
This effort to erase trans people was a coordinated attack between his administration and one of the most powerful think tanks in America. And the power of this think tank isn’t going away anytime soon. One anti-trans policy that it drove in particular is still hanging on. It gives doctors the right to turn away trans patients from medical care, even when their life depends on it.
Hi, there, I’m Imara Jones. You’re listening to The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality. It’s a podcast that’s looking at the right wing leaders’ political ideology, and power behind the rise of anti-trans hate. Now, over the last several weeks, we’ve explored the driving forces behind legislation in over 30 states to ban trans youth from getting equal access to medical care, and to keep trans girls in particular, out of sports. This episode, we’re digging into the organization behind the push to deny us rights nationally, infiltrating the federal government, especially during the last administration. And even though Trump has gone, the group behind everything they did, literally the people and their ideas, are still at it. These people were on a mission, and that mission didn’t end for them just because they lost a presidential election. When Donald Trump was elected, his administration needed to fill thousands of positions in the federal government. He hadn’t expected to win. And he didn’t have a deep political network to help him fill those thousands of empty seats. One of the most influential right-wing think tanks saw a huge opportunity in all of this, the Heritage Foundation.
The Heritage Foundation marries conservative religious ideals with fiscally conservative policies. It’s right-wing ideology with a suit and a briefcase. And Trump’s surprise win gave them the opportunity to do what they had wanted to do for decades: reshape the United States government in their own image. Basically, now was Heritage’s chance, so they got to work right away. One of the founders of Heritage joined the Trump transition team in one of the most powerful positions. He oversaw the appointment of Health, Education and Housing policy officials for the Administration. They even boasted about it. Here’s Tommy Binion, Heritage’s VP of Government Relations, on Fox News:
Fox News: Tommy, I know it’s a badge of honor. But some people may say, approximately 70 former Heritage employees either work for the Trump transition team or now part of the Administration. Is that too much influence by one particular organization?
Tommy Binion: No, I don’t think so. That’s absolutely a strategy of the Heritage Foundation, to, to better the country. The individuals, the researchers, the smart people here at the Heritage Foundation have a passion for this country, they’re patriots, and they went to work in the administration to make the country a better place.
Imara Jones: Each time the Trump administration had an opening, the Heritage Foundation made a list, page after page of people to fill each position. Heritage had massive authority. They even made the president a list of Supreme Court nominees to choose from.
Donald Trump: I promised that if elected, I would nominate a justice who would be faithful and loyal to the Constitution. And that’s exactly what we did. And by the way, I want to thank, really, Heritage. I mean, those people have been fantastic. They’ve been real. They’ve been real friends.
Imara Jones: After just that first year of Trump’s presidency, Heritage announced that the administration had embraced more than 60% of their policy recommendations. It was the fulfillment of that vision, the one a half-century in the making. Having risen to prominence during the Reagan Administration, they now had the power to transform the government. So over the next four years, Heritage infused their values into the bureaucracy. Values like anti-trans hate, and one of the ways they went about that was through health care. To understand exactly how we have to go back a year, to the summer of 2020. That’s when the administration dropped a new policy, making it legal for healthcare workers to refuse trans people medical care.
Local News Anchor: The Trump administration plans to overturn a regulation that protects transgender patients from healthcare discrimination.
Imara Jones: This was June of 2020. Peak pandemic, daily Black Lives Matter protests. So not a lot of people were paying attention to this. But Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker was. She’s a Black, trans woman, and a veteran activist. Tell us a little bit about how you felt last year, when you heard that the Trump Administration was going to institute a rule, which would allow trans people to be denied equal access to health care.
Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker: It was like someone dropped the house on me, because I was already having problems in health care. I had lung cancer twice.
Imara Jones: Tanya understands the stakes of a policy like this, she’s lived them.
Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker: You could be having a heart attack as a trans person, and you could go to the emergency room, and the emergency room doctor could say, “It’s because of my religion. I can’t treat you. There’s no other doctors here. But I’m gonna have to leave the room now.” And then they leave you to die in the emergency room because of their religion.
Imara Jones: I wish Tanya was exaggerating here. But she’s not. Our civil rights are tenuous. Without formal protections, trans people have hardly any recourse if doctors decide to discriminate against us. That’s why a policy like this one from Health and Human Services is deadly. And Tanya says, taking away her rights hurts doubly because of her years of service in the military for a country now trying to deny her basic humanity.
Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker: I was willing to lay my life on the line for the United States of America. And it’s like a slap in the face. It’s like, you shouldn’t exist. You don’t belong here.
Imara Jones: So in June of last year, Tanya starts talking to Jason Starr. He’s the director of litigation for the Human Rights Campaign. Jason’s a Black, cis gay man, and says trans women inspired him to become the activist that he is today. So as soon as the rule came down, he was ready to get moving on a lawsuit.
Jason Starr: Tonya was the first person I called and I said, “Would you be willing to talk to me? Would you be willing to tell me your story?” And she’s like, “Are you kidding me? Of course. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity.”
Imara Jones: Around that time, he was on the streets protesting the murder of George Floyd, and he was ready to fight.
Jason Starr: I think I had that energy of, “We have to fight. Like, we’re in crisis, community is in crisis. And they need us to show up.” That, all that energy of trauma and pain that we experienced, like in real time in the summer, the ignoble choices that I was having to make between putting my personal health at risk by going out to protest versus staying at home and watching my people murdered on the street. So that was what was going on with me.
Imara Jones: Jason wanted to take that momentum for change that he was feeling protesting into his day job. So when the rollback of trans protections happened, he was ready to spring into action.
Jason Starr: This rule being dropped seemed, it landed so egregiously on everyone, the day that it was announced, was the the anniversary of the Pulse shooting. And so, you know, again, it just seemed like, why, why do this now? Why do this in the middle of a pandemic? Why do this, when so many people are in need? How heartless and cold can you be?
Imara Jones: And on top of all of that, it was Pride Month, as Jason was planning to sue the government with Tanya, he thought about other people who he knew that would be vulnerable to this Trump administration rule. The person that sprang to mind was Cecilia Gentili. He knew her from prior activism, too.
Cecilia Gentili: I grew up being extremely queer. I grew up in a dictatorship. I grew up in a place where being yourself was not rewarded. And it was actually persecuted.
Imara Jones: Cecilia grew up during the military dictatorship in Argentina. So when she saw what was happening with the Trump Administration, rolling back health care protections, and targeting an entire group of people, it brought back fears that she thought that she’d left behind.
Cecilia Gentilli: The Trump Administration was so traumatizing for me. Because it was a sense of reliving a familiar feeling. It was a sense of reliving my childhood years where you did not have a choice that it was determined, life was determined by the government. And it felt so close to living in a dictatorship. That was really scary. It was really, really scary.
Imara Jones: For years, Cecilia lived with addiction, stemming from her trauma and marginalization as an undocumented sex worker.
Cecilia Gentilli: Drugs kind of helped me, you know, deal with my reality.
Imara Jones: But now she’s found a way to channel her trauma into something more positive.
Cecilia Gentilli: Every time I fight for something that I believe in, I’m high. I am speed balling, like if I just shot something into my veins. Activism became my drop. Every day is like I chase. I chase the same high that I used to chase with heroin. I chase it through activism.
Imara Jones: So when Jason called her to ask her to join the lawsuit to block the new health policy, she says, there was no hesitation.
Cecilia Gentilli: It was like, I have–it’s no way that I would not do this. I have to do this for myself. And, I have to do this for my community. We have to fight. It’s this fight, it never ends. But hey, it’s an opportunity to get high to me, who doesn’t want to be high?
Imara Jones: Hey, more fights ahead mean more highs for you so you’re like, let’s let’s do it!
Cecilia Gentilli: Let’s do it. Keep me high, keep me high, conservatives!
Imara Jones: So Cecilia, Tanya and Jason start working on a lawsuit and they move fast. They pull the case together in less than two weeks after the government announced the rule. The three of them agreed that Tanya and Cecilia’s own personal gut-wrenching stories were an essential part of the legal strategy to convince the judge to do the right thing. Despite the need to relive these experiences, over and over, Tanya and Cecilia knew exactly what they had to do. Cecilia told about how not long after she moved to the US, she was having really bad stomach pain and needed to see a doctor right away. The problem is that she didn’t have many options. She was uninsured and undocumented at the time. But then she found a doctor that she could actually afford to go see.
Cecilia Gentili: So when the doctor came and somehow came across my genitalia, he stepped back…and told me that I had to go. And I said, “I paid my $60.” He said, they will give it back to you. And I said, “But I’m still sick.” He’s like, “You have to go somewhere else. I am not going to see you.” I wish I could explain my feelings at the moment. I don’t think I can put in words, it’s just like this person, who is supposed to heal me is not doing it. What am I, what am I gonna do?
Imara Jones: She worried that if she filed a complaint, that the authorities would find out that she was without documents, and that she’d be deported. After that, Cecilia never felt safe going to the doctor.
Cecilia Gentili: I didn’t ever see medical providers anymore. We had in Miami, it was Jackie, it was like this Black, Cuban trans woman who would sell us hormones or sell us stomach medication or sell us antibiotics or sell us everything. That was–Jackie was the doctor and the pharmacy. And that was my understanding of medicine. You know, you can go to the doctor. And your only choices are Jackie, and luck.
Imara Jones: Fast forward to today. Cecilia runs a trans equity consulting business and travels a lot for work. Even now, she’s afraid about what could happen if she had a medical emergency on the road.
Cecilia Gentili: That dark cloud of the memories from Miami of like, “What about if I go to a doctor and I’m refused?” While in Texas, what is going to protect me, then?
Imara Jones: This kind of discrimination is something all too common for trans people. Believe me. According to a survey done by the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2010, about one in five trans people report being turned away at doctors offices. For Tanya, one of her worst experiences was just in 2017. It was when she was hospitalized for surgery to have her lung cancer removed.
Cecilia Gentili: I was treated terrible. Even the social worker said, “I’ll call you what I see you as,” refusing after I gave her Transgender 101 to call me by my gender pronouns and everything.
Imara Jones: Tanya says that even nurses would misgender her and talk about her like she wasn’t even in the room. And on top of that, the staff neglected Tanya.
Cecilia Gentili: They were really rough with me. They wouldn’t come in my room. They left me laying in diarrhea.
Imara Jones: This is something out of a nightmare. She had to take care of it herself, and could only use one of her arms after the surgery. She remembers crawling on the floor while dragging her oxygen tank and IV pole.
Cecilia Gentili: And I had to clean my own, I had to clean my own bed, my own floor my own room, because the only time they would come in was to give me medication.
Imara Jones: So it’s clear that Tanya and Cecilia know what not having equal access to health care means for trans people. But the people fighting against Tanya and Cecilia don’t care about who they’re hurting. They’re only concerned with ideology and defending its trans healthcare rule in 2020. The government made an ideological argument dressed up as a legal one. It said that Tanya and Cecilia had no rights, specifically no rights as trans women. The government contended that they are not covered by civil rights sex protections, because those only apply to biological sex and not trans people. This argument, everything which caused Tanya and Cecilia’s health care fight flows from one man, and when it comes to trans people, he’s the pivotal member of the Trump Administration.
Roger Severino: Healthcare, science and medicine are based on a biological reality of male and female.
Imara Jones: That was Roger Severino. He’s the powerful politically-appointed bureaucrat at the Department of Health and Human Services who created the anti-trans rule that’s being litigated.
Roger Severino: All that is at risk of being swept aside in the name of an unscientific ideology that’s trying to wipe those away and say they’re just social constructs. That’s ultimately what this comes down to. They will couch this in terms of anti-discrimination. But when the rubber meets the road, what is this actually going to do? It’s going to say doctors and scientists have to ignore biological realities. Whether or not a doctor thinks it’s bad medicine, or it’s against their religious beliefs or their moral convictions…
Imara Jones: And his obsession with “biological sex” started from his powerful position at the Heritage Foundation. Now before he became a publicly funded federal employee, Roger was at the Heritage Foundation, as head of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. The center was created with DeVos family money. And if you’re wondering if we’re meaning as in Betsy DeVos, the answer is, yes, you got it. That center exists to infuse right-wing Christian ideology and policy into the federal government.
At Heritage, not surprisingly, while helming the DeVos Center, he was the anti-trans czar. And for him, biological sex was rooted in the Bible. This biblical interpretation of man and woman is what he argues, gives people the religious freedom to deny trans rights. In his view, it’s your civil right to abandon constitutionally mandated equality, if it conflicts with your morals, or religion. That means if giving a trans person medical care violates your beliefs, you shouldn’t have to do it. It turns the idea of civil rights into a right to discriminate, when asked about whether his vision for civil rights would allow healthcare workers to deny care in an NPR interview, here’s what Roger said:
Roger Severino: It actually enhances diversity to have people from all walks of life with different views on controversial questions able to practice the practice of medicine and–
National Public Radio: But I think–Yeah, I think my question is about the consequences of that move, though, right, the consequences of that move is, is that someone could be denied a health care procedure that they might want?
Roger Severino: Well, it depends what you’re talking about. I think denial is a very strong word. What these protections say is that the government itself cannot discriminate in federal funding against providers who simply want to serve the people they serve, according to their religious beliefs. If, if you do think about the opposite, if you were to ban people from practicing medicine, you’d have religious hospitals excluded from the public square, because they want to follow their faith in helping the poor, the sick and the elderly, and, and retain their religious identity without violating their conscience in doing so.
Imara Jones: What Roger is saying here sounds sophisticated, but it’s actually absurd. Under this view, it’s not just doctors and individual healthcare staff, who should be able to refuse trans patients; entire hospitals would be allowed to deny care. His basic idea is that the ability to discriminate is the only way that you can be a religious institution and serve the public. Let that sink in. Now, chances are you haven’t heard of Roger. And that’s part of his strategy. He works hard to remain out of the public eye and to obfuscate his views.
Roger Severino: We may be having some different directions to the edges. But when it comes to civil rights, we’ve been heading westward. We’re not going to go eastward all of a sudden, but it may be a little bit northwest, a little bit Southwest versus when it was before but on the core of civil rights because it’s rooted in human dignity, we’re still going full speed ahead.
Imara Jones: The way that Roger talks about all of this is actually genius. He frames what he’s doing in a way that makes him sound like he’s advancing civil rights. Instead of rolling them back. Sharita Gruberg is with the Center for American Progress. She sees Roger as the architect of the anti trans-attacks under the Trump administration.
Sharita Gruberg: You can see through his writing at the Heritage Foundation, he was leading, laying down the groundwork for opposing decades of legal precedent on what sex means and replacing that with his own views of a definition of sex that essentially erases transgender people.
Imara Jones: And he took those ideas into the Trump Administration. Once inside, Roger had regular meetings across the Federal government, and with that influence, pushed his anti-trans agenda into the workings of multiple departments.
Sharita Gruberg: It’s not only that we see similarities in language and policies, that really reflect his thinking and his worldview. But also, there was direct communication and direct collaboration to the ends of a consistent government position, undermining the rights and very existence of transgender people.
Imara Jones: And this undermining of the existence of trans people is why Tanya, Cecilia and Jason put those ideas on trial. In August 2020, just a few months after they filed their lawsuit, the three of them got some big news. It was the day before Roger Severino’s rule was supposed to take effect. They were on pins and needles, not knowing what would happen. But out of nowhere, the judge blocked it, at least temporarily, by issuing a preliminary injunction. Tanya, Cecilia and Jason had just managed to stop doctors and hospitals from turning trans people away. And it was a big deal. When Jason found out at home on a work day, he was overcome with emotion.
Jason Starr: I just started crying. Like not like, “Oh my god,” but like, weeping huge tears, not like sobs. Then I was like, “What? Like, there’s nobody here.” Like, it’s so strange. Like you want to like if you’re in an office, like you’re weeping, you’re crying, you’re hugging you’re laugh–you know, but it’s just like silence, just you and like your sobbing echoing off the wall.
Imara Jones: Despite this Jason knew that this was not over. By moving quickly and suing the government right away, he, Tanya and Cecilia were able to keep the rule at bay. But it’s still being fought in court. Roger Severino was so effective at using the bureaucracy to his ends that he tied the Biden Administration in knots trying to unwind it all. That’s why this is still before a federal judge.
Jason Starr: We needed a win. And I’m not so foolhardy to think that a preliminary injunction in a single case is like liberation or equality. It just didn’t seem like good things could happen, you know, at that point. Getting a win like that helps, seeing a repudiation of that kind of hate and bias is good for the soul.
Imara Jones: And so good, in fact, that he let Tanya know about it right away.
Cecilia Gentili: I was in the middle of a Zoom. And I think I’d stood up and jumped up in the middle of the Zoom. I said, “Yes!” And I, you know, I hope nobody heard me, I hope I had my mic off. But I was in the middle of a Zoom meeting and I was just, I was ecstatic.
Imara Jones: How does it feel to potentially be making history with this case and with your life? I’m just wondering how that feels, if you’ve ever taken time to think about what the impact of what you’re doing through this case might be historically. I know that it came out of fear and panic and anger and wanting to respond. But have you had a chance to think about just the other ways in which it may be in some ways revolutionary?
Cecilia Gentili: You know, I didn’t think about that. Thank you for telling me, but I didn’t really I didn’t really think about I was making history, I was more focused on transgender people’s bodily autonomy, and the right to self-determine their own gender identity. And, you know, I’ve been fighting so long, I don’t really look at the, I didn’t really look on it on that, that mezzo level. This is what I’ve been doing for many, many years. It’s just a continuation of, you know, what I was already doing. And I didn’t see it as, on a national level, I feel great about it. I feel I need to do this. I need to stand up for the rights of the transgender children, for trans folks, I need to keep up the fight because of the harm that it’s doing to my community.
Imara Jones: For Cecilia, the win feels profound, too. What was that like for you? And what went through your mind as this person who was almost thrown out of the country but had in a way helped it live up to its highest ideals with what you did?
Cecilia Gentili: I cry, but I cry for anything anymore. I cry I cry. It’s very easy, crying is, comes very easy to me. So it’s not like don’t take this that I cry as, erm, as the thing that is something like out of this world. So I cry but it was, um. It was a sense of, um, a sense of like, I do have some power over my reality, I do have some power over how my life goes, I do get to shape some of my reality. It’s not like I’m here, and I just have to sit down and take it. I do have a sense of autonomy over my life. And that is fucking rewarding.
Imara Jones: And during our conversation, Cecilia mentioned just how grateful she was to be able to live in the United States, which struck me, given the fact that our government had been trying to strip away her civil rights. You kept giving the impression over and over and over that you were so glad that America had accepted and had embraced you. And had allowed you to become more of the person that you are. And I said, and I continue to feel this even more so now, that we are incredibly lucky that you chose us. The United States is lucky that you came here and that you stayed and that you kept going despite all the odds. The country is a much better place with you in it than without it.
Cecilia Gentili: You are being way too generous with me. But thank you, I’ll take it all.
Imara Jones: It gives a high!
Cecilia Gentili: It gets, it gives me high, it gives me the high for the day.
Imara Jones: There’s one more thing that just keeps coming up for me. Heritage is fast. It had the power to try to redefine what civil rights are in this country. And it’s spread its tentacles throughout the Federal government to do so as part of a 50-year campaign. But it’s not alone. As we have seen throughout this series, the whole anti-trans hate machine itself is massive. And size like that can only come from well, y’all know: from money. And there just seems to be this huge mismatch in resources between those pushing trans hate, and the organizations fighting back. No conversation better illustrated that for me than the one I had with Sharita Gruberg. Now, just as a reminder, Sharita is at the Center for American Progress. They recreated as a direct response to the Heritage Foundation, as a center-left check on this right-wing organization. But I wondered, were they actually a check? Were they actually able to be equal and scale and scope to places like the Heritage Foundation?
Sharita Grueberg: The interests that are funding this are not interested in what we do. They’re not interested in expanding democracy, in reining in the power of corporations, because it is the corporations. It is the wealthy that are funding the work that Heritage does.
Imara Jones: And so I asked her what exactly does the money mismatch between them look like?
Sharita Grueberg: Sure. Can I take a moment to look up Heritage’s budget right now?
Imara Jones: Of course you can.
Sharita Grueberg: That is not top of mind. All right, so we are at–it’s even worse than I remember! You want to know what it is? We have 53 million and they have 321 million. Sorry, this is so outrageous.
Imara Jones: And the forces with this kind of money driving the Anti-Trans Hate Machine aren’t only trying to erase trans people, their actual agenda is so much bigger, and so much more ambitious, and so much more frightening. And they are willing to pour billions into it. The end goal is to establish God’s kingdom on earth, even if it means unraveling American democracy along the way. Next time on the Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot against equality.
Unknown Speaker: We hope to steward wisely all the resources that God has entrusted to our care.
Unknown Speaker: The money is woven into this, to this world.
Unknown Speaker: These are people who are using the institutions and the tools of democracy in order to end it.
Imara Jones: Be sure to subscribe to our show, and spread the word about the work we’re doing.
Subscribe to receive alerts: translash.org/connect
Learn more about The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality.