A memo recently revealed the Trump administration might narrow the term "gender" to be defined according to biological sex — a move that would dramatically curtail recognition of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals under federal law. The report prompted swift backlash across the nation and at Penn, where students, faculty, and administrators have said they would fight the change.
The New York Times reported last week that the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an attempt to establish a legal definition of sex. Under the proposed guidelines, a person’s sex could only be male or female and would be dictated by genitalia at birth, meaning that sex would be immutable.
Penn administrators, faculty, and students have reaffirmed their support for the LGBTQ community, specifically transgender and gender-nonconforming students, in light of the news. University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy was adamant that the University does not support the proposal.
“Penn is greatly enriched by and benefits from the perspectives and contributions of its diverse faculty, staff and students,” MacCarthy wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “We are unequivocal and steadfast in our support of the LGBT community at Penn and the University will not tolerate discrimination, whether it be based on race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Erin Cross, the director of Penn's LGBT Center, also denounced the proposal, adding that the center will continue to support the transgender community.
“The LGBT Center staff and student community are deeply dismayed by the leaked memo from Health and Human Services that seeks to invalidate the identities of transgender, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, non-binary, and intersex individuals,” Cross wrote in an email to The DP. “If enacted, the memo has terrifying consequences for the legal recognition of trans individuals, and for their ongoing ability to access to services and resources."
The Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality & Women and the Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies program issued a joint statement condemning the proposed change. The piece was co-authored by History professor and Director of the Alice Paul Center Kathleen Brown, by Associate Director of the Alice Paul Center Anne Esacove, and by Associate Director of the GSWS program Gwendolyn Beetham.
"We cannot stay silent when decades of gender and sexuality scholarship, together with medical expertise and our own lived experiences, have taught us that a reinforced naturalized gender binary harms everyone," they wrote.
College junior Brennan Burns, the financial chair of Penn Non-Cis, said the proposal is not only discriminatory, but also complicates the lives of transgender and intersex people.
“It’s sort of troubling in a lot of ways,” Burns said. “That’s generally just incorrect biologically. I mean it’s sort of ridiculous to try and force everybody into a system and plenty of people, not even necessarily trans people, are born intersex so that just completely erases that entire population.”
If implemented, the proposal would effectively strip federal recognition of approximately 1.4 million Americans who identify as a gender other than their biologically assigned gender, the Times reported.
In light of the proposal, Burns added that Penn Non-Cis board members have discussed how they can support each other and better work with the University to provide resources for transgender students.
College senior Julia Pan, chair of the Lambda Alliance, said she was disappointed by the memo and its potential impact.
“I can see how from a terminology standpoint, this is something the Trump administration thinks they need to fix, but I think it’s just a complete lack of disrespect,” Pan said.
"It’s just so incredibly dehumanizing,” she added. “It’s saying that trans people are not people.”
Despite being alarmed by the proposal and its implications, Burns said she is hopeful the report will highlight the need for greater support of transgender students on campus.
“I sort of hope that this can be sort of a catalyst for Penn to change and make its policies better regarding self-identification of gender and providing access to gender neutral restrooms,” Burns said.