4 Reasons President Obama's New Trans Rights Policy Is a Big Deal

By protecting transgender federal employees, the president makes a powerful statement of equality

President Barack Obama  First Lady Michelle Obama  LGBT Pride Month
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks during a reception celebrating LGBT Pride Month as First Lady Michelle Obama watches.
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At the White House Pride reception on June 30th, President Barack Obama expressed his intent to issue an executive order that would extend employment protections to federal employees on the basis of gender identity – making it illegal for federal agencies to discriminate against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. This follows a 2009 executive order that extended these same protections to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation.

This is big news for trans individuals, both current and aspiring federal employees. Here are four reasons why:

1. The new policy clarifies current case law, and continues to set precedent.

In 2012, in a case called Macy v. Holder, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that discrimination on the basis of one's gender identity is a violation of the sex discrimination prohibition of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Though one would think this would answer the question of whether or not it was legal to fire someone for being trans, nearly two years later, a number of federal agencies continued to dodge that question.

In fact, it was only this week that the Labor Department clarified its own stance on the matter. Writing in a blog post on Tuesday, July 1st, Labor Secretary Tom Perez said, "[W]e are updating enforcement protocols and anti-discrimination guidance to clarify that we provide the full protection of the federal non-discrimination laws that we enforce to transgender individuals."

President Obama's executive order should settle this debate once and for all.

Read our in-depth feature on Coy Mathis, the transgender rights movement's youngest icon

2. It opens a wide range of job opportunities to a group plagued by high unemployment.

With nearly 2.8 million non-military employees, the federal government remains the nation's single largest employer. For comparison, Walmart – the nation's largest private employer – has roughly 1.3 million employees located in the U.S. Given that transgender individuals traditionally face an unemployment rate more than twice that of their cisgender (non-transgender) counterparts, any steps made to extend and protect trans employees will help narrow this gap.

Additionally, trans and gender non-conforming individuals are four times as likely to end up in poverty, nearly twice as likely to be currently homeless, and nearly twice as likely to have engaged in survival sex work as a result of not being able to land stable employment. These factors put the trans individuals who experience them at higher risk of contracting HIV or becoming the victim of physical violence and sexual assault.

3. It provides continued legitimacy to a group often brushed off as fringe or abnormal.

When Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox landed on the cover of Time magazine earlier this year – in an issue which declared that the present is a "tipping point" for transgender individuals – it marked the first time in history that issues facing trans people have been given such legitimacy in both mainstream media and federal policy.

Obama's executive order, along with the increasing number of visible trans people in the media (including author Janet Mock and musician Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!), will only further legitimize trans people. Given that only an estimated nine percent of Americans know a trans individual, this increased visibility through mainstream media is key to helping to humanize trans existence.

4. It's the latest sign that the Obama administration truly has the transgender community's best interests in mind.

Given that as Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney once allegedly shelved an anti-bullying guide simply for using the words "bisexual" and "transgender," it's pretty impressive that the U.S. has a president who is not only willing to say the word "transgender," but who will actively engage with, legitimize and offer protections to transgender individuals. In each of the past several years, President Obama has invited trans activists and public figures to the White House as part of the annual Pride reception.

In 2011, the Social Security Administration stopped issuing "no match" letters to employers. These letters – which were sent out whenever an employee's gender as filed with the SSA didn't match the gender as filed with a company after bringing on a new employee – unwittingly outed trans employees and flagged them as possible fraud or identity theft cases. Many employers, not wanting to deal with the hassle, simply cut ties with these trans new hires.

In 2010, the State Department removed surgical requirements for individuals to update their passport information's gender marker; in 2012 and 2013, the Social Security Administration and Veterans Administration followed suit, respectively. Removing these requirements has helped numerous trans individuals streamline their legal identification documents.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education issued a ruling that states that Title IX of the Civil Rights Act protects trans students.

Without a doubt, Obama has shown himself to be an ally to the trans community. With more than two years left in his term, it will be interesting to see what other advances we'll see by 2016.