In his Wednesday evening address to a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden made perhaps the most pro-transgender comment in the history of presidential addresses. “To all the transgender Americans watching at home — especially the young people who are so brave — I want you to know that your president has your back,” he said.
Trans people need more than just words right now.
He’s not the first president to mention the word “transgender” in an address to Congress — that honor goes to Barack Obama — and Biden’s words were meant to carry significant weight for an American trans community under legislative siege at the state level.
But trans people need more than just words right now. So far this year, eight anti-LGBTQ bills have been enacted into law, and over 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in at least 30 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign. These attacks on trans people are primarily focused on kids and adolescents.
Arkansas enacted a bill earlier this month that banned transition-related care — like puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy — for trans adolescents. Eight states, including Arkansas, have passed bans on trans girls playing girls interscholastic sports.
A bill currently being discussed in Texas would classify affirming trans children as child abuse, and parents of trans kids could risk losing custody of their kids or even face jail time under the bill.
It’s LGBTQ criminalization to a level not seen in this country for decades, and the bills threaten to further marginalize or outright drive trans people out of swaths of states across the conservative South.
Marginalized groups of people have, of course, been forced to move to avoid state-sponsored persecution before, but such a thing hasn’t happened in the U.S. in a very long time.
The White House has done some early and important work on trans rights during its first 100 days. Most recently, the Department of Justice got involved in the case of trans prisoner Ashley Diamond, who said she has experienced horrific sexual assault and mistreatment in a men’s prison facility in Georgia.
The bills threaten to further marginalize or outright drive trans people out of swaths of states across the conservative south.
Biden also signed an executive order expanding throughout federal government policy the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which held that discrimination based on gender identity constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The president has long been a supporter of trans rights. He called it the "civil rights issue of our time" in 2012. But the most immediate political threat to trans lives is conservative state legislation targeting trans kids.
Kai Shappley, a 10-year-old trans girl who caught the nation’s attention with her moving testimony against anti-trans legislation in Texas, thanked the president for his words Wednesday but went on to ask a very sobering question: What will the president do to keep Kai's mom out of jail for supporting her daughter?
There are direct actions the White House could take to fight back against the new state-level bills, which the president opposes. In a March 5 press conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president’s position is that these laws are illegal. Biden could deploy the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to legally fight back against any new anti-trans legislation.
That’s the long game. In the short term, the president could help provide resources for relocating any trans families to trans-friendlier states.
But most importantly would be passing the Equality Act, which would undermine all of the state laws in one fell swoop. Biden had made a campaign promise to sign the Equality Act within the first 100 days of his administration, a deadline that has now come and gone. The president renewed his call for the Senate to pass the landmark equality legislation in Wednesday night’s speech.
Though it passed the House 64 days ago, it has stalled in the Senate. A hearing on the bill was held by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, but it hasn’t gone any further since then. It’s unclear that Democrats have the required 60 votes to overcome an inevitable conservative filibuster, nor is it obvious that the White House even has 50 votes in the chamber for the bill.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the quintessential Senate swing vote in this Congress, said in 2017 that he did not support some of the trans provisions in the Equality Act, and nothing since then indicates his position has changed. It’s likely the Senate would need to kill the filibuster to pass the bill. But that remains unlikely as there aren’t enough votes to accomplish that at this time. Manchin recently told Vox he believes the filibuster is essential to the function of the Senate.
In a lot of ways, Biden’s hands are tied on the Equality Act — and, by extension, trans rights — but he could lean the White House’s political force into passing the act and saving Kai Shappley’s mom from jail time. If Biden really had trans people’s backs, he’d back it up with actions, not words.