Federal trans-formation

Frustrating on high-profile LGBT issues, Barack Obama has moved quickly, with little fanfare, on gender-identity issues.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 15, 2010


The LGBT community has had its complaints about Barack Obama and his administration, particularly concerning the pace of eliminating the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

But below the glare of those political hot-buttons, it seems the same administration has made remarkable progress on transgender issues. From the symbolism of the first transgender presidential appointee, to new regulation against discrimination in housing programs, federal agencies and offices — and Obama himself — have made this easily the most trans-friendly presidency to date.

"Obama has been trans-inclusive himself, and has set the right tone for inclusion," says Nancy Nangeroni, chair of the steering committee for Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC).

"It seems very clear that the president is committed to fixing the inequalities in the federal government," adds Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in Washington. "There are some pretty messed-up federal policies that are harmful to transgender people, and it's very apparent that the president wants those gone."

The growing sophistication of transgender-advocacy groups has helped bring this about — with Massachusetts playing a significant role. MTPC Executive Director Gunner Scott, a steering-committee member for the newly formed Trans Advocacy Network, has been enlisted to help several federal agencies develop policies. Barney Frank policy aide Diego Sanchez has become a key player on the issue in Washington, as well.

Nangeroni, Scott, and Sanchez all attended a special presidential-invitation-only LGBT White House reception in June, and transgender advocates are benefiting more and more from the increasing power of the gay community in national Democratic politics.

After fighting for gay-rights issues like same-sex marriage, transgender activists say they have been pleased to see their LGBT allies stand by them in their battles.

"One of the fears has been that if we don't get included, they won't come back for us," says Nangeroni. "Here in Massachusetts, the community has proven that they will."

Indeed, groups like GLAD, MassEquality, and the Gay & Lesbian Bar Association have fought vigorously — though so far, unsuccessfully — for passage of a transgender-equality bill on Beacon Hill.

That has also proven true in Washington, in ways that will permanently change life for transgender people in this country.

Fast pace
Considering the normal pace of the federal bureaucracy, an awful lot has happened in just 18 months.

Some of this change involves inclusiveness for federal employees themselves — an effort that comes as little surprise, since one of Obama's earliest appointments was Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, the highest-ranking openly gay official in the US government.

Among other things, Berry helped add gender identity to the equal-opportunity statement for jobs with the federal government — for the first time banning discrimination against transgender applicants.

Out in the departments, lack of protections against discrimination are being rooted out and corrected. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for example, discovered that many of its programs lacked specific guarantees for transgender participants. So, HUD proposed rules to specify, for example, that Federal Housing Authority–insured mortgage loans cannot be denied based on gender identity, and to change the definition of "family" in public-housing guidelines to include transgender people.

Other departments, including Health and Human Services (HHS) and Labor, have adopted or are working to adopt similar changes.

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