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Trump’s HHS and the Renewed Culture Wars

Photo Source Governor Tom Wolf | CC BY 2.0

The New York Times recently reported on a secret memo circulating within the Trump bureaucracy seeking to narrow the definition of gender to “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” The Times considers this “the most drastic move yet in a government wide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.”

The Times identifies the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) as the lead federal agency in this new front in the culture wars. Unfortunately, the HHS effort to change the definition of gender is but one of numerous campaigns it is engaged in to implement the most reactionary aspects of the culture wars.

The HHS’s effort to narrow the definition of gender will likely be adopted by three other agencies that enforce some part of Title IX — the Departments of Education, Justice and Labor.  Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  Adoption of the new definition will establish uniformity in the government and increase the likelihood that courts will accept it.

Gone unreported in the Times article was that the HHS’s likely action has a revealing history.  In October 2017, the agency released its “Strategic Plan FY 2018-2022” that erased all mention of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and their unique health needs. As the ACLU noted, “this significant omission calls into question HHS’ dedication to ‘to advancing the health and well-being of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender…communities.’”  In addition, the HHS plan mentions “faith” or “faith-based” organizations more than 40 times as opposed to the three references in the Obama administration’s HHS plan of 2014-2018.

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The Times reports that the memo has been circulating since the spring.  At a time when the Trump administration denies human agency in climate change, if not climate change outright, the memo asserts that its new policy is anchored “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” It asserts that one’s birth-gender is unchangeable.

The memo insists: “Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.”  It also states: “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.”  According to the Times report, the HHS does not define “reliable genetic evidence.”

The development and implementation of the memo, and overall HHS anti-gay policies, is being overseen by Roger Severino who heads the HHS’s Office of Civil Rights and the agency’s new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom.

Severino is a Catholic lawyer who strongly opposes a woman’s right to an abortion.  He previously served as head of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.  He argued that “gender identity and sexual orientation … are changeable, self-reported, and entirely self-defined characteristics’ that do not deserve the protected-class status given to sex, race, and several other categories under federal civil-rights statutes.”

The HHS’s effort to restrict gender identity is but one front in the Trump’s administration campaign to fulfill the most reactionary aspects of the culture wars.  Two other fronts involve gay “conversion therapy” and anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centers.”

Conversion therapy is treatment intended to change the sexual orientation – i.e., gender identity or gender expression — of a gender non-conforming person.  It is a belief that being gender non-conforming – i.e., LGBTQIA, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex or asexual – is abnormal. Its long been discredited by psychologists, medical authorities, academics and many religious spokespeople.

In January 2018, the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimated that about 698,000 LGBT adults in the U.S. have been subjected to conversion therapy at some point in their lives, including about 350,000 who received it as adolescents.  It also estimated that 20,000 gender non-conforming youth ages 13 to 17 will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before the age of 18 and that about 57,000 additional young people will receive the treatment from a religious or spiritual advisor.

HHS’s Severino ardently supports gay “conversion therapy” or what he identifies as “reparative therapy.”  He’s labeled gender non-conforming people as being “against your biology.”  He’s railed at nationwide efforts to block conversion therapy programs, insisting:

Unfortunately you’re seeing some states that are actually trying to criminalize any sex therapy that reinforces a person’s biology. They’re calling into question and passing bans on reparative therapy, is one name for it. And so it’s really an ideology that’s saying you can only go one way, against your biology, but if you try to do anything that enforces it, then we’re going to criminalize it.”

According to a report in Politicoanother HHS bureaucrat, Shannon Royce, was part of the group that’s “spent months quietly planning how to weaken federal protections for abortion and transgender care.”  She serves as director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It is the agency’s principle liaison with religious and grass-roots organizations.

The Center for Faith-Based and Community Partnerships was founded in 2001 when George W. Bush was president. According to the Baptist Press, some evangelicals — including the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) – were fearful that working with government could restrict their outreach efforts.  However, over the last decade-and-a-half, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals have forged successful partnerships with the federal government in such areas as disaster-relief and responding to humanitarian crises.

Royce was formally chief of staff and COO for the Family Research Council (2015-17) and the Southern Baptists’ ERLC’s Washington office (1999-2003). She has also served as counsel to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and was executive director of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. She supports conversion therapy, arguing that it “… has been hugely successful at steering young people toward their natural expression of sexuality.”

A third HHS culture warrior is Diane Foley, MD, an OBGYN, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary for population affairs where she oversees Title X federal family planning program.  Foley’s appointment was notable because she is a staunch “anti-choice” activist, the former CEO of Life Network, a company that operates two “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPC) in Colorado.  They are fake abortion clinics operating as pseudo birth-control facilities to convince pregnant women not to have abortions.

Foley’s appointment was announced in May about the same time that the Trump administration announced plans to introduce a new rule that would bar abortions at facilities receiving federal family planning funds.  According to CNN, it was “a move aimed squarely at Planned Parenthood, which accepts some federal money for non-abortion services”; Planned Parenthood receives about $60 million a year through Title X.

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The culture wars began inauspiciously in 1972 when Phyllis Schlafly, a Christian conservative lawyer, launched a campaign to block the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The movement gained momentum when it aligned with the anti-abortion effort that followed the Supreme Court’s ’73 Roe v. Wade decision.  The invigorated culture wars quickly extended to attacking gay rights, pornography and “activist” judges.

Now, four decades later, Trump’s presidency has given religious conservatives state power and the ability to impose their reactionary policy on all Americans. Sadly, the most recent HHS memo concerning changing the definition of gender won’t be the last actions Trump’s forces will likely take.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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