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Republicans Are Using Transphobia to Sabotage the Equality Act

Julia Beck and Rep. Jayapal

It’s official: TERF ideology has made its way to the Congressional record.

A House Judiciary Committee hearing for the Equality Act became an emotionally charged, hours-long event, as Republicans used transphobic and supposedly “feminist” rhetoric to discredit a bill intended to finally codify much needed measures to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.

Twenty-six states have no specific protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, which means LGBTQ+ people could be fired, treated unfairly in schools, or barred from public services because of their identities, with little to no legal recourse. The Equality Act, or H.R. 5, would provide protections nationwide on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation against discrimination in employment, schools, credit, housing, and public accommodations, and federally funded programs. The bill would also codify certain anti-discrimination protections for women and would extend discrimination protections for people of color. Despite the common sense and long overdue nature of something like this being passed in the United States, it was clear from Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY)’s opening statements exactly what was to come.

“Before we begin,” Nadler said, “I want to take a moment to directly address many of those watching today’s hearing, who are about to hear their humanity and their right to exist questioned. To the transgender and gender nonconforming youth, teens, and adults who are about to hear their right to participate in sports and to be themselves in school, work, and in their daily lives challenged; to the same-sex couples who are about to hear suggestions that they just take their business elsewhere, that they adopt children elsewhere, that they exist elsewhere: We see you, we support you, and we believe in you. If you are feeling unsafe, afraid, or at risk, please reach out for help. You are worth fighting for, and we are here to fight alongside you, which is why we will be passing this bill."

Before long, Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-Georgia) followed the expected script. His words echoed those of a certain sect of self-identified feminists who antagonize trans women and gender-nonconforming people and seek to exclude them from women-only spaces such as bathrooms and athletics.

In fact, prominent members of that community, including Julia Beck, testified before Congress on Wednesday. She sat next to Carter Brown, the founder and executive director of Black Transmen Inc, who recalled being outed at work, endlessly ostracized by his coworkers, and then unceremoniously fired, probably because of his identity.

Moments later, Beck testified that HR 5 is a “human rights violation.” Citing the advances of the feminist movement, Beck added “every person in this country will lose a right to single-sex shelters, sports, and loans. The law will forbid even distinguishing between women and men.”

Beck, a lesbian who spouted similarly trans-antagonistic rhetoric on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, added that she does “support the general goal of the Equality Act.” But she continued to stress that protecting people on the basis of gender identity, beyond sexual orientation, would come at the detriment of women, and objected “to the inclusion of gender identity” in the policy. “People who call themselves transgender, nonbinary, and everything in between, still deserve the same basic human rights that we all do, but treating someone as if they are a member of the opposite sex is not a civil right.”

Those very views got Beck booted from Baltimore’s LGBTQ Commission, which then prompted her meteoric rise as a darling of the right wing; she and her ideological colleagues essentially handed Republicans a feminist-seeming rationale to reject state and federal policy that would ensure public accommodations for trans and gender nonconforming people. Some have even been working with Republicans on shaping anti-LGBTQ+ policies.

But these policies are wrapped in language that allows Republicans to behave as though they’re acting on behalf of women’s rights. Their transphobic rhetoric is disguised in a way to allow Republicans to sound less bigoted than some members generally would have sounded a few years ago. For example, Collins said “there is no doubt in my mind that those with gender dysphoria suffer deeply,” before then claiming that the hard-won victories of women would be lost if America just allowed transgender people to be fully recognized as themselves. (By the way, the Human Rights Campaign, the American Association of University Women, and Planned Parenthood have each scored Collins with a "0" on their congressional scorecards for LGBTQ+ rights and women's rights). 

But overall, the point is to ratchet up the transphobia behind policies like bathroom bills with dubiously feminist language (i.e., defending women’s spaces, preventing violence against women, protecting the sanctity of women’s sports) as a cover for tanking this bill.

Beck and other so-called radical feminists were invited to speak with members of the conservative Heritage Foundation earlier this year, finding common ground in a persistent attack on transgender women, and their rights to exist in public spaces, particularly spaces designated for women. It was only a matter of time before this ideology made its way to Congress.

Before that, members of Beck's group, the Women’s Liberation Front have worked with Focus on the Family. Neither the Heritage Foundation nor Focus on the Family have supported mainstream feminist causes; for instance, they have each lobbied against abortion access, and have decried the very nature of feminism in marriage. Of course, both organizations have been extremely present in the anti-LGBTQ+ movement over the years. Even Beck herself said in February, according to the Baltimore Sun, “I do feel kind of nervous about working with the right wing because they have opposed women’s bodily autonomy, and lesbians’ sovereignty.”

The attitudes that trans women are really just men and, therefore, out to erase space for cisgender women dominated Republican rhetoric during the hearing. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) asserted President Trump could just start calling himself “the first female president.”

“I strongly support the rights of transgender individuals,” he said according to The Hill. “I will not denigrate or deny their struggles. But I am concerned about the potential bad actors who would exploit the provisions for their own gain.” Despite claiming that he “wants to support this legislation,” he also asked whether “all sex-based distinctions be erased” under the Equality Act.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-California) asked Beck, “What should we tell a woman-owned business that loses out to a government contract because a man decided to identify as a woman in order to win that contract?”

At the end of the three-hour hearing, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) made a point to share her child’s story about coming out as gender nonconforming.

“As I listened to some of you today, I was struck by this push to presume that these provisions would somehow be manipulated or used by people in ways that would hurt existing sex protections.It occurred to me we’re talking about fear versus love,” Jayapal said, beginning to fight back tears. “We’re talking about fear versus freedom.” And I didn’t intend to say this today, but my beautiful, now 22-year-old child told me last year that they were gender non-conforming. And over the last year, I have come to understand from a deeply personal mother’s perspective … what their newfound freedom … to wear a dress, to rid themselves of some conformist stereotype of who they are, to be able to express who they are at their real core.”

While the committee hearing ended up becoming a circus, the bill still has support from about 240 members of Congress, including three Republicans, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said passing it is a legislative priority. Though it might not make it out of committee in the Senate, the broader damage has been done. Trans people have been villainized, and it will all have been done at the expense of legislation to ensure rights for trans women and cis women alike.

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