What Happens When Trans People's Identities Are Denied?

Research points to potential consequences of the recent White House memo.

Posted Oct 25, 2018

Ted Eytan/flickr
Source: Ted Eytan/flickr

Transgender people around the country are speaking out, telling their stories, and letting the Trump Administration know that they #WontBeErased. This outcry follows a recent report that the White House plans to redefine gender in civil rights law as an immutable, biological, and binary category that is determined at birth. The #WontBeErased hashtag speaks to the dangers that such a redefinition poses—not only to those trans individuals who experience gender-based discrimination (though those dangers should not be underestimated) but also to the wellbeing of trans people more broadly.

Recognition of one’s sense of self is a fundamental human need, and when a person’s identity is denied, that person can experience deep psychological distress. Identity denial can take many forms: the question all too familiar to people of color who assert their place of origin, “Where are you really from?” The assertion that a bisexual person is simply “going through a phase.” The accidental reference to a transgender woman as “he” or a transgender man as “she.” And the explicit denial of people’s gender identities, as is the case in the reported White House memo.

Several studies have reported on the psychological harm that identity denial can cause. One study looked at Native Americans and found that those who outsiders perceived as belonging to a different racial group experienced higher rates of depression and suicidality than those who were recognized for who they really were. Another study focused on multiracial individuals and found that those who were forced to report a single racial identity on a demographic form experienced lower self-esteem than those who were allowed to select multiple racial identities. And a study of transgender people found that the more frequently their gender identity was denied, the more stress and depression they experienced. The proposed redefinition of gender would entrench trans identity denial in law—with potentially dire consequences.

Research has also found that anti-discrimination policies are linked not only to the wellbeing of people actually targeted by discrimination but also to the wellbeing of people who could be targeted by such discrimination. These policies have not only legal but also symbolic power. They reflect societal values, signaling whose experiences matter, whose relationships matter, and ultimately, whose lives matter. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that trans people who live in states that explicitly prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity are significantly less likely than those who live in states that don’t explicitly prohibit such discrimination to experience mood disorders or engage in self-harm. This new memo risks harm to trans people by sending the message that discrimination against them does not matter and that trans people are not worthy of protection.

When transgender people are supported in their true selves, they thrive. When their identities are denied, they suffer. Trans individuals already live in a world that is at best dismissive of and at worst hostile toward their identities. Overt denial of their lived realities and removal of the few legal protections they have paves the way for more pain and suffering. Affirmation and support of their identities paves the way for health and prosperity.