HHS Memo Poses Threat to Transgender Students

A leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which proposes legally defining gender as sex assigned at birth, has the potential to significantly affect the college and its student body. If integrated into official policy, this move would eliminate federal recognition for 1.4 million transgender Americans, most notably in civil rights protections under Title IX, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination without recourse at the federal level. The memo was first published by The New York Times on Oct. 21.

Various groups at Amherst, including the Queer Resource Center (QRC) and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), offered their solidarity and support for people affected by the proposal. In an email to the college community, President Biddy Martin condemned the HHS memo while reaffirming the college’s dedication to serving and defending transgender community members. She also noted that scientific evidence disputes the memo’s claim that sex and gender identity are fixed at birth.

“To all the students, staff and faculty who would be directly affected by this rollback, I want to offer unequivocal assurance that Amherst is committed to your rights, your dignity and your wellbeing on this campus and that will not change,” she wrote. “There is more that needs to be done to ensure your sense of well-being and belonging and we will continue that work.”

Martin also stressed the importance of peer support, dialogue and respect during this time. “I ask that everyone in the community, regardless of your perspectives on sex and gender, think of ways to show your support of students, staff and faculty in our trans, non-binary and larger LGBTQ communities,” she said. “Remember that you do not have to share other people’s perspectives in order to afford them the dignity and protection we all deserve.”

The QRC and ODI held discussions and gatherings for those in need of support on Oct. 24. Although it was scheduled before the release of the memo, the QRC is also preparing to launch its “Trans Empowerment Series,” which will focus on support for education on issues of gender identity more broadly.

Professor of History Jen Manion, whose research focuses on LGBTQ histories, echoed much of Martin’s message, emphasizing the danger of the policy, even without official adoption.

“It’s the most recent of numerous attacks on the community,” Manion said in an email interview. “It’s the boldest and the one with the potential to be the most destructive because it’s aspiring to remove transgender people from existence. And while no piece of legislation can actually achieve that, the mean-spiritedness and the inhumanity of it is absolutely devastating.”

“The basis of the memo is factually inaccurate according to science. The intent of the memo is to bully, harass and demean transgender people,” Manion added. “The transgender movement has made significant gains in the past 20 years. As we’ve seen with so many social movements throughout history, it’s a backlash against those gains.”

One trans student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they felt “extremely tired” and “disappointed” by the “terrible level of transphobia and hatred” in society.

“It’s just so draining to be constantly reminded that people hate me for who I am,” they said. Jxhn Martin, director of the QRC, argued that the policy is fundamentally disrespectful and has no logical basis save for a political one.

“What makes them feel like they have the power to deny the way they name their own experience?” they said in an email interview. “It’s absolutely exhausting to constantly feel that your humanity is diminished, minimized, and ignored. They’re not seeing them as human, because they don’t empathize. These folks know that lives are being politicized for cheap political gains.”

Both Manion and Jxhn Martin were unsure of whether the memo will be formally adopted as policy, but neither disregarded the possibility. Still, both acknowledged that damage was already done with the mere consideration of such an idea.

The two also praised the explicit support of the college and said that President Martin’s message helped alleviate the resulting tension on campus.

“We have to make sure that people are committed to educating themselves about the actualities and experiences of trans students, and taking further steps to ensure that trans students, like every other student at Amherst College, has the resources and support they need to thrive on campus,” said Manion.