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Without fanfare, Obama Administration advances transgender rights

Saturday, June 21, 2014
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Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks to founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality Mara Keisling, during a Gays and Lesbian in Foreign Affairs Agencies Pride event at the State Department in Washington, on June 19, 2014.Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks to founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality Mara Keisling, during a Gays and Lesbian in Foreign Affairs Agencies Pride event at the State Department in Washington, on June 19, 2014.

Some advances have gone unnoticed because they also benefited the much larger gay, lesbian and bisexual communities. That was the case Monday when the White House announced that Obama plans to sign an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In other instances, transgender rights groups and the administration have agreed on a low-key approach, both to skirt resistance and to send the message that changes are not a big deal, said Barbra Siperstein, who in 2009 became the first transgender person elected to the Democratic National Committee.

“It’s quiet by design, because the louder you are in Washington, the more the drama,” said Siperstein, who helped organize the first meeting between White House aides and transgender rights advocates without the participation of gay rights leaders.

The 2011 meeting came 34 years after Jimmy Carter’s administration made history by meeting with gay rights groups. Obama’s Cabinet and federal agencies have followed up with actions significantly expanding transgender rights without congressional approval.

For instance, Health and Human Services said in 2012 that it would apply the non-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act to investigate federally funded health plans and care providers that refused to serve transgender individuals.

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Earlier this year, the U.S. Education Department informed public schools that under its reading of Title IX, the 1972 law that bans gender discrimination in education, transgender students are entitled to federal civil rights protections. The information was included in a memo on schools’ obligations to respond to student-on-student sexual violence.

Obama has made clear the guidance has potentially broad implications.

“Title IX is a very powerful tool,” he said last week. “The fact that we are applying it to transgender students means that they are going to be in a position to assert their rights if and when they see that they are being discriminated on their college campuses.”

Meanwhile, religious conservative groups’ opposition to transgender advocacy has trickled in.

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