In their rush to enshrine religion-based discrimination in federal policy, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) may have inadvertently discarded the right-wing playbook of divide and conquer.
In recent years, proponents of anti-trans bathroom laws have successfully portrayed transgender Americans, and specifically trans women, as threats to the safety of cis women and girls. Yet Roger Severino, the anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice activist in charge of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, is wielding healthcare regulation like a blunt object that can strike down both trans rights and women’s rights without even bothering to pit one group against the other—and inadvertently paved the way for a new, intersectional alliance between feminist and LGBTQ advocates.
While the nation is distracted by the latest White House scandal, Severino and his staff have rolled out a new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom and proposed a federal rule that would recruit, support and protect healthcare organizations and workers who refuse to provide care on moral or religious grounds. If it goes into effect—and all the available indicators suggest that it will—the new law will undoubtedly be bad for women and LGBTQ people, as it will limit access to both abortion and gender reassignment care.
But it may not be entirely bad for feminism.
On March 27, a coalition of LGBTQ and reproductive rights organizations stood on the front steps of HHS to deliver 200,000 public comments about the deleterious effects of the proposed religious refusal rule. Mara Keisling, Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, spoke about the U.S. Transgender Survey, which found that more than a third of trans respondents had been harassed, attacked or refused care by a healthcare provider. By providing legal cover for refusals of care, the proposed rule would embolden bigots and further discourage trans patients from seeking health care.
Keisling was followed by Jaclyn Dean of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, who spoke about the economic, cultural and language barriers that Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrant women face in accessing reproductive health care. The proposed rule could narrow their options even more, forcing AAPI immigrant women to seek out nonreligious providers for comprehensive birth control.
As I watched a livestream of the rally—which included the Center for Reproductive Rights, Moms Rising, National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Council of Jewish Women and many more—I was struck by the thought that the HHS’s refusal rule had accomplished something that many progressive activists haven’t been able to pull off: a coalition of trans and feminist groups working side-by-side with an intersectional analysis.
As a queer, cis feminist who strives to be an ally to my trans sisters and siblings, I’m constantly reminded that certain strands of feminism continue to exclude or marginalize trans women. My reactions run the gamut from discomfort with the anatomic assumptions woven into thousands of pussyhats to rage against the few misguided feminists who argued that women in my home state of Texas would be safer if trans people were forced to use the restroom that matched their birth certificate.
A lot of these divisions coalesce around bodies, and that’s why it’s so crucial that this intersectional alliance is coming together around healthcare issues. I’m married to a nonbinary trans person with chronic health issues. I know about all of the micro-aggressions that my wife faces at the doctor’s office—the way that health care providers who stumble over pronouns can get confused and embarrassed and then shut down right when she’s at her most vulnerable, standing there literally with her pants down—and I know that even those little moments of awkwardness can add up to dreading the doctor and avoiding necessary care.
What felt different about this rally was that trans activists and reproductive rights activists were connecting their experiences of being shamed and harassed in medical contexts. A trans man spoke about a doctor’s intrusive questions about his surgery scars; on the same stage, a cis woman spoke about being shamed for seeking emergency contraception. Both speakers understood that religious refusal laws will foster a culture in which stigma can flourish and health outcomes will suffer.
Perhaps we could call this feminism’s Severino moment—just to give old Roger the credit he undoubtedly does not want for connecting these dots. By multitasking to undermine reproductive rights and LGBTQ healthcare at the same time, Severino’s agenda ironically made visible the ways in which oppressions are intertwined and moved us beyond trans tokenism to a true side-by-side struggle.