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Transgender activist and researcher Mischa Haider says that the Trump administration’s proposed dismantling of trans rights are part of a larger strategy to dismantle gender equality

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

A leaked memo from the Trump administration has sparked outrage amongst trans people and allies. The Department of Health and Human Services memo shows the intent to eliminate civil rights for transgender people by defining gender as only male or female, determined at or before birth, and fixed, according to The New York Times. The Times says the action would impact some 1.4 million people. But our next guest argues that the repercussions of this kind of transphobic policy will ultimately impact a much larger population; one that includes all women.

Now joining me is Mischa Haider. Mischa is a transgender researcher, mother, writer, and activist. She’s an applied physicist at Harvard University and the author of the editorial Authoritarians Like Trump Target Trans People for a Reason just published in The Guardian. Thanks for joining me today.

MISCHA HAIDER: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So before we get into the effects on people who aren’t trans, let’s just quickly talk about the effects on people who are. The memo reads, quote: “Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” It goes on to say that only genetic testing could be used to rebut a person’s sex. What kinds of dangers would this pose for transgender Americans? And does the Trump administration really have the authority to make these changes?

MISCHA HAIDER: So that’s a very good point, Dharna. And what I will first begin by saying is that these- this definition is anti-science, first of all. The scientific research that has been there for a very long time, first of all, demonstrates that sex itself is not binary, as this Trump directive is attempting to, say, distort. Sex itself exists on a spectrum. So just on the very kind of, very fundamental level, there are serious scientific problems with this approach.

I would also say that recent research into gender identity shows that the links between gender and sex are more complex than we thought. There are not two separate spheres or realms. We are beginning to understand more about the brain structure of trans people. And this is a very controversial topic even in the trans community, because the idea is that affirmation is what should be validated, and it shouldn’t be a question of trying to scientifically determine who people are. But there is a large amount of scientific and growing medical and psychological research that flies in the face of this awful memo that that [has gone].

So in terms of the effect on trans people, trans children are going to be the most adversely affected. You know, children have to be in school environments. And the trauma for a child who is being told that they are not who they are authentically are affirming they are is huge. All kinds of research is being done as well that shows that children who are affirmed in their gender identity, their rates of anxiety and depression actually parallel those of cisgender peers. Adolescence is more complex. But we haven’t really reached a point where proper directions are in place. But I will say this will be very destructive to transgender children. It will be the beginning of the end of progress that we have seen on civil rights protections for trans people.

But it effectively is telling transgender people you do not exist. And the statistics say that they are 1.4 million. My guess is that as the years go on and people come out more, as we’ve seen with LGB people, I think that those numbers are higher. I think there are more trans people than we, than we are aware of at the moment. So this is going to really impact millions of Americans adversely, especially very vulnerable children; people who are survivors of sexual assault who are transgender; violence- I mean, this is really going to be devastating.

There’s a symbolic harm which this causes which is basically telling transgender people you are not who you say you are. But then there is also the very real consequential harm of these policies that this multi-department memo is going to have.

DHARNA NOOR: Right. And you also argue that that erasure of transgender people is being used to fight against women’s equality. How does that work, exactly? How are these two things related?

MISCHA HAIDER: Well, I think that’s a very good question. So first of all, a lot of transgender people, like myself, are women. You know, transgender women are women. And so in that sense it’s an attack on women.

But I would even go further to say as, as you know, I actually think that the real aim, as I’ve said, I think there is obviously- I think we’re kind of the next in line. I think the lesbian and gay communities were at the first, the first wave of attack by patriarchal forces, and that’s what I’ll call them. Now, this is a collection of lots of different elements, whether they’re religious, whether they’re reactionary. But any attempt which blurs the distinct boundaries between male and female, which gay and lesbian people also do, because essentially you are- when gay people are out there they’re replacing, in a sense, that patriarchal enforced man-woman complex. So I would say transgender people have come at a point where we do so even more, because we are- the notion that someone who is assigned sex at birth is actually not of that sex, first of all, means that the delineation between the male and female is not that clear. But then transgender people- there are nonbinary transgender people, there are transgender people who do not want to undergo surgery.

And so it really creates a gray area in terms of who is a man, who is a woman, who is a boy, who is a girl. And then there are people who are neither or both. And I think in that sense, women- it is very difficult to oppress a class in society when you cannot clearly delineate between the oppressing class and the oppressed class.

DHARNA NOOR: And you mention that you’ve seen evidence of this kind of agenda both in the U.S. and also globally. Could you talk about some instances of this kind of transphobic, and also misogynistic agenda that you’re seeing?

MISCHA HAIDER: Absolutely. So I think that we can begin with Russia. You know, that’s a very key example that in the post-Soviet era there was, there was a lot of- you know, there was economic liberalization. And from there there was also some social liberalization. And then in recent years, as Putin and his regime wanted to entrench control, I think there were- we were really operating on a patriarchal framework in Russia. And women have been, as you may be aware, there was really a heinous bill on domestic violence in Russia. So that was one of the weapons against women recently. But queer people, and specifically transgender women, have been targeted by mobs in Russian cities, have been beaten. LGBTQ people have been intimidated. As you also may know, in Chechnya there was basically a genocide against queer people.

So that’s, I think, a prime example. I think all authoritarians- if you look even in Turkey, Erdogan has really rolled back some of the very limited progress that was happening on LGBT rights in Turkey. And now we’re seeing in Brazil a very, very staunch misogynist and homophobic Jair Bolsonaro, who is, you know, frighteningly close to victory. I think misogyny and patriarchy are really the key drivers there. I think that’s something that we are missing in this global conversation about strong men and authoritarianism rising. I think there’s a lot of- there’s a lot at stake. And I think economic reasons, xenophobia, those are all factors. But I think actually the progress that we’ve been seeing on gender equality culturally, on queer equality, on women’s liberation, it is provoking a backlash from these really powerful male hegemonic institutions, and are propelling these leaders to power.

DHARNA NOOR: And are discrimination against women and patriarchy still- it possible for those things to thrive in a society that does accept trans people? Some people might say, for instance, in Iran, Iran restricts what jobs women are allowed to have, restricts women’s access to divorce, et cetera. But gender confirmation surgery is recognized, and sometimes even subsidized by the state. So is it possible for these two things to exist simultaneously?

MISCHA HAIDER: That’s a very- I think that’s a very good point. And you know, I think that I would argue that Iran has a very limited and binary approach to trans issues, which is also transphobic. So in a sense they say, OK. You know, if you want to be one or the other, you can. But that’s not really- you know, if you look at where the trans movement, if you truly want to be supportive of trans rights, that basically means re-evaluating of legal classes of sex that we have, which are- you know, we used to have racial classes determined by law in many countries. And South Africa, until very recently, being a race was a legal class. And so I think that the ultimate goal of women’s equality and trans equality is to wonder do we really need a legal sex class? Why do we need to define people by sex?

And I think that hinders women’s progress a lot and trans dignity and safety and progress a lot. Now of course, can you- I mean, there’s no perfect recipe. It’s not that trans rights are the only factor in emancipating women. That’s not the case at all. It’s a whole conglomeration of things such as reproductive justice. Then there are economic factors. There’s trans rights. I’m just saying that trans rights are being attacked as part of the broader campaign against women’s liberation. And I think queer rights, trans rights, and women’s rights are very, very closely aligned and entangled. And once we really kind of move away and step back from trying to distinguish between those, we’ll see that underlying it all, the concern, the idea of family and the heteronormative family structure- marriage has been a big big point of contention- those things are really patriarchal norms.

And we can see statistically, as well, for example, when we when we look at what’s happening with women voters in the United States, we find interestingly that married women often vote against what would be considered pro-women candidates in higher numbers than single women. So I think the queer movement, the trans movement, all of these movements are very much shaking a lot of the very entrenched mores and norms we’ve had in place. And I just think it’s one important part of the puzzle. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that trans rights are the only thing that will liberate women. That’s absolutely not the case. I’m saying actually that attacking trans people is not so much to attack trans people. It’s to perpetuate misogyny. It’s to really delineate clearly between men and women, and say there are differences. These two classes are separate.

DHARNA NOOR: I find that logic really compelling, and I also- I guess I want to know what you think that liberation looks like; liberation for trans people, queer people, women. Is it possible for a society to make room for, of course, some kinds of rights for trans people, queer people, women, but still marginalized people who maybe already don’t have access to power? For instance, does having more trans CEOs, queer CEOs, women CEOs have any impact on things like stopping violence against trans women of color, or promoting equal pay, or things like that?

MISCHA HAIDER: You know, I look at this- and so I’ve heard a lot of arguments. I think that the progressive movement is fractured along this line, where people talk- the broader- without going into specifics, people talk about economic issues and social issues. And often people say, you know, we’re- you have a lot of people who are like, we’re socially liberal but economically conservative, or it’s really all down to economics. And I just don’t think those arguments are valid. You see countries that are very economically advanced, such as Japan, for example. And you see that social- key social indicators on women’s equality, and progress, and even xenophobia are not very strong.

Now what liberation looks like, you know, that’s such a- when you said that it made me really smile. The utopia is where it’s not relevant what skin color or what gender or assigned sex at birth of a child is. They are able to live their lives professionally, interpersonally, economically, and sexually as they wish. You know, that’s really where I think we need to get to.

The problem is that there’s so much inequality and inequity that I don’t think eradicating discriminatory laws on the books is going to change anything significant. I mean, we see like- even a country like South Africa, which has had now several decades post-apartheid, it takes a long time, and it takes determined action to balance things out in many ways, and so that’s what we need to get to. Do I think a world with more women in leadership positions, more queer people, more people of color will be more equitable and just? Yes, I do. And I think that the data on some of- even the stock market crash that happened, on you know, how effective boards that are more diverse are, just simple economic and statistical data I think does back that up. I think that governments and systems that are more equitable, that have greater gender balance and diversity, will lead to less inequality and less violence and less of this really disturbing trend that we’re seeing around the world.

DHARNA NOOR: Mischa, thank you so much for coming on today. As we continue to see how this memo is taken by trans people, by allies across the country, I’d love to stay in touch with you, and of course talk more about what liberation could look like for all of us. Thanks so much for being on today.

MISCHA HAIDER: Thank you, Dharna, for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.