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'It's Just Extremely Harmful': LGBTQ Valley Allies Respond to Leaked Memo Narrowing Gender

Monica Velez
A bowl of rainbow bracelets at The Source LGBTQ Center in Visalia.

Over the weekend, LGBTQ advocates rallied in Fresno in response to a leaked memo from the Trump Administration that would narrow the definition of gender.


The New York Times brokethe story last week. According to the memo, gender would be determined by the genitals people are born with and limited to male and female.


The Obama-administration loosened the definition of gender in federal programs like education and health. It recognized gender as the individuals choice and not defined by the sex people are born with.


About 1.4 million Americans fit under this category, including one person Valley Public Radio spoke to at The Source, an LGBTQ resource center in Visalia.


He says: “Hi, I’m Spencer Salazar, trans male, I use ‘he,’ ‘him’ pronouns."


Some people might not be used to hearing people list the pronouns they prefer to be called by. But for many, like Salazar, it matters. And getting his name and gender changed on identification documents mattered too.  


“To be able to finally hold that paper that said, ‘Yes, I am who I say I am’ and then having to do the work to change my name with my social security card, change my ID to make it look like me was huge," Salazar says. "I looked nothing like my ID."


Credit Monica Velez
Brian Poth, Spencer Salazar, and Dana Galante from The Source LGBTQ Center in Visalia.

He says it's embarrassing when someone questions his ID and tells him it's not him. When he heard of the leaked memo The Times reported on, Salazar says he was "angry" and "upset."


“Really?" Salazar says. "Like do we need to go down this road again? Do we need to have to deal with this again?”


Dana Galante, the trans program coordinator at The Source, says the leaked memo would "strip all the progress that’s been made, all the fight that’s been had and it just reverses everything.”

She says there are so many things cisgender people -- that means people who feel their gender and sex align-- take for granted every day. Many of those things, like being called by the right pronoun, trans people have to fight for on the daily.

“At school not being able to go by your chosen name or your correct pronouns and maybe even your parents are against you when you go home," Galante says. "Just to be able to have your teachers call you your right name can literally mean life and death for a kid and I’m not exaggerating.”


Suicide rates among transgender people are significantly higher than other groups of people. According to a 2018 study from the American Association of Pediatrics, young transgender men -- that’s someone who was born female and is now male -- had the highest rates of attempted suicide from the groups they surveyed.


“It’s just extremely harmful," says Dr. Kathryn Hall, a pediatrician at Visalia Medical Clinic. "The risk of mental health issues of suicidality, of drug use, alcohol use, of sexually transmitted infection all that risk goes way up when young people are not accepted for who they are, for their unique identity.”

Hall says another group of people who would be affected if the definition of gender was limited, is intersex people, which is someone who was born with both female and male genitalia.


“As a pediatrician, I have cared for babies where at birth we didn’t know, 'Is this male? Is this female?' They needed an important work up and a chronological work up to find out what had caused it,” Hall says.  


Credit Monica Velez
Dr. Kathryn Hall with her child Ry Ginsberg who identifies as transmasculine.

Gender is not black and white, Hall says, and biology tells us that. She says determining people's gender by the genitals they are born with can hurt a lot of people.  


“It’s a huge existential threat to trans people, to intersex people and it doesn't help anyone else to try and make a black and white differentiation when it doesn’t exist in nature,” Hall says.


In an email to FM89, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called The Times story "misleading" and declined to elaborate on the memo. However, the department has taken a more conservative tone toward narrowing the definition of gender under the Trump Administration.

The threat of that tone is enough to incite fear. Galante, who has a transgender child, was hesitant to even talk to me.

“When this request for this interview came up I paused for a second and I have never ever, ever since the day that we publicly came out four years ago, I have never paused," Galante says. "I’ve never thought about it. I’ve never been afraid for my welfare. I’ve never been afraid for my kid's welfare. I paused and I was a little like, ‘I don’t know if I wanna throw myself out there,’ and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, what am I doing? What am I thinking?’ But it’s the climate, it’s scary.”

The executive director for The Source, Brian Poth, agrees. Since the 2016 election, he says he's felt more uneasy about publically being gay. He says when President Trump got elected he had a feeling something would happen that would hurt the LGBTQ community.


“I think disappointment is really like the biggest one because we’ve come so far and we’re just starting to be able to explain our experience to people and now we’re being told that might be taken away just by definition,” Poth says.


Even if the definition of gender is limited to only male or female, Poth says the government won’t be able to erase people’s experience.


“Whatever the definition is, that doesn't take away our right to define who we are ourselves," he says. "The idea that you can’t erase it just by redefining it doesn’t change people's experience. You can say, 'This is this and that is that,’ but if you experience yourself as male, female, transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, just because someone redefines you doesn’t change your identity."

But Poth says it is “dangerous” to define gender with such narrow terms because it could be used as a tool to remove other rights and privileges.

Monica Velez was a reporter at Valley Public Radio. She started out as a print reporter covering health issues in Merced County at the Merced Sun-Star.