Senators who are potential Democratic presidential candidates were quick to weigh in on a New York Times report that the Trump administration is contemplating changing federal policy to narrowly define gender – a move that could gut a number of federal protections for transgender people.
The New York Times reported Sunday that, according to a memo obtained by the newspaper, the Department of Health and Human Services was working to limit the term “gender” to either male or female, unchangeable and determined by a person’s genitals at birth.
ABC News has not seen the memo.
President Donald Trump appeared to confirm that the administration is mulling the move on Monday afternoon. According to a 2016 survey by the Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law, 1.4 million people identify as transgender in the United States, comprising an estimated .6 percent of adults.
“We're looking at it," President Donald Trump said Monday as he left the White House for a campaign event in Texas. "We have a lot of different concepts right now and we have a lot of different things happening with respect to transgender right now. You know that as well as I do and we are looking at it very seriously."
Several possible 2020 candidates quickly condemned the policy shift before Trump confirmed it.
“The Trump administration is trying to make discrimination more available all across the country,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in an videotaped statement during an event in her home state. “This is just fundamentally wrong. It is not who we are as a country. It does not reflect our best values and I will fight them on this. I will fight for anti-discrimination provisions,” she said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., who ran for president in 2016 and has been an active campaigner for midterm candidates this cycle, expressed a similar sentiment.
“At a time when we should be doing everything we can to protect our transgender brothers and sisters, Trump and his administration are trying to exclude transgender people from civil rights protections,” he said in a statement. “Trump and his Republican friends must be held responsible for their discrimination and the pain they have caused. We are going to vote them out.”
Warren and Sanders both sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which could exercise its role overseeing measures related to health, education and public welfare, all of which could be affected by a federal attempt to more narrowly define gender than the past administration.
Others, such as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the HELP committee, released a tweet expressing solidarity with the transgender community.
This is awful. If this happens, I will stand with people in WA and across the country in supporting the transgender community by fighting this as hard as I can –PM #WontBeErased https://t.co/hi4tqNYM3h— Senator Patty Murray (@PattyMurray) October 22, 2018
The White House did not brief the HELP committee before the New York Times report came out, a Murray aide said.
Another member of the HELP Committee recommended an existing legislative recourse to address the administration's planned policy shift.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, said Congress should pass her bill, the Equality Act, co-sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. The Equality Act would provide consistent federal protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, two criteria which currently are not protected under existing federal non-discrimination law.
"This is another reason why Congress needs to take action and pass the Equality Act. We cannot allow the Trump Administration to erase transgender people from federal civil rights protections," Baldwin said.
The reports also spurred strong responses from the larger LGBT community, and about 100 people or so participated in a protest sponsored by the National Center for Transgender Rights in Washington D.C. Monday afternoon.
Before Trump himself weighed in, the White House referred comments to HHS, whose spokesperson Caitlin Oakley noted that a 2016 federal court ruling found that the Obama administration had gone beyond federal statute in its own recognition of gender which went beyond a binary designation.
“That court found that the Obama administration regulation was overbroad and inconsistent with the text of the 1972 Title IX law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex. The court order remains in full force and effect today and HHS is bound by it as we continue to review the issue,” Oakley’s statement read in part.
Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also tweeted their initial disapproval of the new policy without delving into specifics about how they might take congressional action to challenge the policies.
The Trump administration once again displays their boundless cruelty by proposing yet another terrible, discriminatory policy.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) October 21, 2018
I want all transgender Americans to know that we will not let anyone erase you. We see you, and we will fight this. https://t.co/tZdBW15vlx