Oct. 23, 2018
Dear Members of the Amherst Community,
As you may know, over the weekend The New York Times reported on a leaked Health and Human Services document showing that the Trump administration intends to withdraw protections extended under the previous administration to transgender people. This they would do by defining “sex” as biologically fixed at birth and immutable and by having the Justice Department issue new guidance under Title IX, removing protections for those whose identity does not conform to the sex assigned at birth. If successful, this change would make those whose self-identification does not align with the supposedly fixed binary of male at birth or female at birth vulnerable to discrimination under Title IX guidance. To all the students, staff, and faculty who would be directly affected by this rollback, I want to offer unequivocal assurance that Amherst is committed to your rights, your dignity, and your wellbeing on this campus and that will not change. There is more that needs to be done to ensure your sense of wellbeing and belonging and we will continue that work. The Queer Resource Center (QRC) will hold a gathering tomorrow, Wednesday, 10/24, at 5:30 p.m. in Keefe Campus Center for those who would benefit from an opportunity to offer one another support. Dina Levi, Director of Inclusive Leadership, will also hold space tomorrow in the Powerhouse at noon. I ask that everyone in the community, regardless of your perspectives on sex and gender, think of ways to show your support of students, staff, and faculty in our trans, non-binary, and larger LGBTQ communities.
The news in the leaked memo is, unfortunately, not surprising. It is the latest in a long list of measures the administration has taken to roll back protections for the LGBTQ community. And, it is part of a long list of attacks on the rights and protections of a number of other groups and individuals who are part of the Amherst community. I have made a partial list of the changes affecting the LGBTQ community available at the end of this letter so that you are aware of the pressures and apprehension that are being felt across campus.
Let me add just a few thoughts about the leaked memo. The effort to reduce identity to supposedly simple biological markers at birth makes a claim to being based on science, one of very few avowals of “science” by this administration. In fact, medical science has long recognized that neither genes nor genitals at birth determine sex or identity in any simple way. “The idea that a person’s sex is determined by their anatomy at birth is not true, and we’ve known that it’s not true for decades,” Dr. Joshua D. Safer is quoted as saying in today’s New York Times. Safer is an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. He is one of the many medical researchers who are speaking out against the flawed appeal to science in the administration’s proposed change. Transgender identity is real. Other non-binary gender identities are as well. And the effort to invalidate or erase them with spurious claims to science, even in a leaked memo, causes harm.
It is telling that some of the very people who have belittled college students for their supposed inability to tolerate discomfort are withdrawing protections for a population of people who make them uncomfortable, simply by being in the world and, in their being, defying simplistic accounts that would eradicate actual human diversity. Many people whose gender identity is consistent with their sex assignment at birth know from their own experience that the relationship between the body and mind, between biological markers and deeply-felt identity is complex. That other people’s essential sense of self does not align with what’s on their birth certificates should not be cause for discrimination.
Challenges to people’s freedom from discrimination present us with an opportunity to ask again what kind of community we want to be. Amherst is an intellectual community that values curiosity, openness, and a rigorous, iterative pursuit of truth and understanding of reality. Suppression of reality and foreclosure on the process of discovery is a means of limiting everyone’s freedom to think, to change, and to understand. The measures limiting rights and protections that are being proposed and taken by the Trump administration affect not only those who are targeted, but all of us who care about freedom from discrimination, the pursuit of understanding, and avowals of human realities.
Please reach out to one another for conversation about this and other challenges that may be affecting the well-being of fellow students, faculty, and staff on our campus. And make time to reflect on things to see whether you are being limited by prejudices or assumptions that warrant examination, no matter what perspective you ultimately develop. Remember that you do not have to share other people’s perspectives in order to afford them the dignity and protection we all deserve.
Partial list of changes affecting the LGBTQ community over the last two years:
February 2017: U.S. Departments of Justice and Education revoke Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students under Title IX.
July 2017: Through Twitter, President Trump reinstates a ban on transgender people serving in the military (subsequently halted in federal court).
October 2017: Department of Justice rescinds Obama-era guidance protecting transgender people under Title VII.
October 2018: Leaked Health and Human Services document proposes defining “sex” as biologically fixed at birth and immutable.