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Activists Unite at “Hell No to the Memo” Rally in Solidarity of Trans Rights

The Department of Health and Human Services want to constrict the definition of gender, a leaked memo reveals.

Demonstrators prepare for the event to start (via author).

A large group of demonstrators gathered in front of the Washington Square Arch yesterday in response to a leaked Department of Health and Human Services memo that suggested central government agencies adopt a more strict definition of gender that is based solely on biology, which many activists said could threaten transgender rights.

The demonstration, called “Hell No to the Memo,” was hosted by Voices4 and Lambda Legal and featured several activist speakers including actors Sara Ramirez and Indya Moore, ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, Teen Vogue News and Politics Editor Lucy Diavolo, New York Transgender Advocacy Group co-founder Tanya Walker, and artist Chella Man.

Because of the spontaneity of the event, an ACLU employee showed up around 15 minutes early with a stack of ACLU posters and markers, encouraging people to grab one and write a message. “My first reaction was to just run to the office and get some supplies,” he told the small group that was already gathering.

As the crowd grew, he began circulating and distributing posters, allowing demonstrators to express their emotions using the blank space and markers. On one poster, a young girl wrote “I am here. I exist. I am trans youth.” People also showed up to the event with signs of their own that included phrases like “The future isn’t binary” and “F the memo.” Several activists spoke to the crowd about how important an event like this is in light of the memo leaking.

“What I’ve seen time and time again is that when big policy changes are in the works like this — whether it just a memo being announced or it’s a Trump tweet about actual policy changes — coming together actually in physical spaces if you’re able, and whatever spaces you can if you’re not, is a key way to not just show solidarity for each other, but to support each other emotionally and physically and materially,” Lucy Diavolo told Local. “I think there’s really no better answer to these existential crises that the government forces on us than to get together and shout about it.”

Passersby also took note of the significance of the event.

“Being able to get so many people together on such short notice make a large impact,” sophomore Anna Leckie said. “I feel like the event will definitely make the news and that helps spread their cause and understanding of the issue.”

The New York Times article that sparked the demonstration laid out the Trump administration’s goal to change the definition of gender to a more narrow interpretation that sets out gender as a biological, immutable condition, determined at birth by genitalia. The Obama administration eased the legal concept of gender for federal programs, recognizing it largely as an individual’s choice rather than by the sex assigned at birth.

The Trump administration now wants to roll back that recognition and those protections. Under the expected new definition, any disputes about one’s sex can only be clarified using genetic testing.

“Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” the department proposed in the memo. “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

Using the most recent estimations, the new definition would erase 1.4 million people who have identified themselves as a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. Demonstrators leveraged this fact with many signs and speakers communicating a key message of the event — “You cannot erase us.”

Throughout the speeches given by various activists, there was a continuous message of solidarity. “Don’t just be an ally, be in solidarity,” Walker, NYTAG co-founder, told the crowd. Several activists also made sure to remind the crowd that it was trans and gender non-conforming people of color who started the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the U.S., yet they still feel left behind by their own movement.

“If today was a wakeup call for you, where have you been?” actor Sara Ramirez asked the crowd.

Actor Sara Ramirez speaking at the demonstration (via author).

Across the country, members of the TGNC community still have a hard time doing basic things like getting official documents changed. “I first thought it would just make it even harder for me to get a document,” Hunter student Kristian Gambardello said while speaking about the memo. In many places across the U.S., it is a long, complex process for TGNC people to change official documents, but groups have been set up to help.

NYU’s OUTLaw’s Identity Documents Project (IDP) is just one of the groups set us to help combat this issue. “We help people get name changes, go through court, we can update passports, birth certificates,” IDP volunteer Katheryn Evans explained to me. “We are there to help and we do fundraising to help pay for all the legal fees people have to pay throughout the process.”

People in the crowd did not seem surprised by this latest attack against transgender and gender non-conforming people. “I was not surprised at what was being said in the Times piece, what the plan was,” Diavolo said. “It’s always a surprise when stuff like this finally comes out publicly, but this is exactly what we thought the Trump administration was working on the whole time. We shouldn’t be surprised that this is the policy they are pursuing because everything we have known so far has pointed in this direction.”

The huge public outcry and quick organizing of the event showed that there is a community that is ready to fight back against these newest attacks. The conversation also focused on political activism and its importance for helping the community. “Momentum gets lost very quickly. People woke up and read [the NYT piece] and thought ‘Woah! What do I do now?’ and an event like this gives people a chance to do something,” NYTAG Program Director Amanda Babine explained. “The turnout was huge, a lot bigger than some of the other rallies we have had in the past, and I think that just shows how important it is to do it right now to get people mobilized and to get them to feel a little less depressed about it, to see that they are not alone.”

In the wake of the memo leaking, ACLU Lawyer Chase Strangio also put together a list of 7 Action Items to Protect Trans and GNC People which people can do to make a difference. This list was distributed at the demonstration as well as posted online. Actions ranging from calling a friend and having a conversation to voting to donating money to a bailout fund are all included on the list.

Voting was a key topic of the night with constant reminders from every speaker about how voting can make a difference. The crowd was reminded of the one seat majority Republicans currently hold in New York’s State Senate and the Republicans who currently represent Brooklyn and Staten Island. Every speech included a line about showing up to vote in order to make real progress and help transgender and gender non-conforming people.

At the end of the event, the large crowd broke into smaller groups with people discussing the past two years under Trump’s presidency, what this new definition would mean, and what they are expecting the next move to be. Walker ended her night explaining a plan to drive up to Albany to lobby state legislatures to pass Gender Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), an act that would add gender identity and expression to New York’s human rights law. “I hope to see you guys there! It will be such a great day.”

A group of posters by transgender artist Chella Man (via author).

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