“Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” tweeted, you guessed it, the President of the United States last Thursday, following the second Supreme Court ruling against Trump’s policy in three days.
It’s increasingly difficult to be surprised by anything that Trump tweets—or, indeed, says in any situation. His Twitter has long been unhinged, unnecessarily personal, and endlessly contradictory: but there’s something about this tweet in particular that deserves unpacking. Trump manages to make the decidedly political intensely personal.
First of all: what were the rulings? The first concerned LGBT+ employment rights, with the final judgement saying that existing federal law, which protects against discrimination based on sex, should be understood to include both sexuality and gender identity. In other words, it has just been announced that someone cannot be fired or discriminated against in the workplace simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, per the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Judge Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated to the court by Trump, wrote the majority opinion: “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.”
The second ruling concerned Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a longstanding programme that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought into the US as children the right to remain, without fear of deportation. The Trump administration has long tried to remove the rights of the 650,000 so-called ‘Dreamers’ and end DACA; the Supreme Court judged this termination unlawful.
This was the precise news that seemed to irk Trump, prompting the above tweet, given that it concerned his administration specifically. However, the ruling is not necessarily good news: while the decision to end DACA in this way was deemed “arbitrary and capricious,” the ruling was about whether proper procedure was followed—not whether or not the White House had the power to end DACA. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “all parties agree that it may.”
Trump quickly changed his tune, telling a rally the following day, “People don’t understand, but we actually won on DACA yesterday.” He continued, “We actually won, because [the Court] basically said, ‘You won, but you have to come back and redo it.’ So we’re refiling it. Most people would say that we lost. We didn’t lose. We’re gonna refile it.”
Both rulings were somewhat surprising, particularly the civil rights case, which was won 6-3, with Gorsuch joined by Chief Justice Roberts, a notoriously conservative judge, and liberal stalwarts, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Since the appointment of accused-rapist Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, the Court has been increasingly conservative. Kavanaugh, a devoted conservative, replaced Anthony Kennedy, who was often the swing vote on 5-4 decisions during his tenure, including Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalised same-sex marriage across the US. Chief Justice Roberts, who presided over Trump’s trial in the Senate earlier this year—yes, that was this year!—dissented Obergefell v. Hodges, yet joined the majority opinion last week.
“This is a simple and profound victory for LGBT civil rights,” explained Suzanne B. Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia. “Many of us feared that the court was poised to gut sex discrimination protections and allow employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity, yet it declined the federal government’s invitation to take that damaging path.” Many had been expecting bad news from this ruling, so scenes of surprise and elation played out across the country when the verdict was announced.
Not so in the White House, where this ruling might put a halt to plans to eliminate Obama-era regulations that prohibit discrimination by healthcare providers and insurers against transgender patients. This cruel and unnecessary announcement, made in the midst of Pride month, was widely decried by civil rights and LGBT+ activists internationally.
So why does Trump take these rulings so personally? The Supreme Court is, ostensibly, separate from the machinations of bipartisan politics; dissenting opinions often contradict White House policy. I’m not even American, let alone the President of the United States, and even I know that the Court is its own branch of government, separate yet equal to the presidential executive branch. In fact, the court is there as part of the system of checks and balances established in the Constitution to ensure no office has too much ‘uncontrolled’ power.
Perhaps this is precisely what upsets Trump. Or maybe he just needs to make everything about him. Even in the strictly bipartisan political landscape of the US, Trump needs to centre himself: to oppose any conservative dogma or Republican ideal is to stand against him, personally.
Given these views, what might another four years of Trump mean for the Supreme Court? At least two seats will likely come up for renewal in the next presidential term, given several justices’ old age and ailing health. Trump advisors would likely pick increasingly conservative and hardline judges to protect his administration’s legacy; long-standing decisions, such as Roe v. Wade, which legalised abortion nationwide, could easily be overturned by such a court.
This potential is an important debate point for the 2020 election: Supreme Court appointments are lifelong and give presidents the power to effectively influence the judiciary for decades. What damage could Trump do—just to make the Supreme Court “like” him?
Last week, two black transgender women, Dominique ‘Rem’Mie’ Fells and Riah Milton, were murdered in the US, just as protests against racism continued to spread throughout the country. The killings of Fells and Milton, however, went largely ignored by mainstream media outlets and had failed to inspire collective outrage—indicating that rampant transphobia remains a roadblock on the path to racial justice and equality.
Fells was murdered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to local authorities, Fells’ body was found on the banks of the Schuylkill River on 8 June, with both legs dismembered. The motive and circumstances behind her killing are still being investigated and no suspects were apprehended thus far.
On the following day, 9 June, Milton’s body was found in Liberty Township, Ohio. Local investigators reported that Milton was fatally shot during an attempt to rob her and steal her car. Two suspects were arrested in connection with her murder, one of them a 14-year-old girl, and a third suspect remains at large.
News coverage of the murders was sparse and conspicuously absent from mainstream media outlets. And while some prominent political figures, such as Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, did condemn the killings and call to escalate the fight against transphobia, acknowledgement of and outrage over the murders largely came from within queer circles and activist groups.
“Her name is Dominique ‘Rem’mie’ Fells and there shall be no peace until justice is had!… #SayHerName #blacktranslivesmattertoo,” read an Instagram post by Sisters PGH, a Philadelphia transgender advocacy group.
The deafening silence in the face of the brutal killings of Fells and Milton can’t be rationalised by the turmoil unfurling across the country and the world right now, or the dizzying pace of news cycles. Rather, it should be acknowledged as a pattern of public indifference and permissiveness around what has become a global pandemic of violence against trans and gender non-conforming people of colour.
“While we’re talking about racism, while we’re talking about the changes that need to be [done] in this country, we need to talk about the hate towards trans people… particularly towards Black trans women,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez, a trans activist and advocate, in an interview for TIME.
According to Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBTQ rights advocacy organisation, at least 26 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in 2019, most of whom were black trans women. Since the beginning of 2020, at least 14 trans women have been killed, including Fells and Milton, HRC reports.
This pandemic of violence does not exist in a vacuum, and is a direct manifestation of a culture that actively erases, marginalises and abuses trans individuals in virtually every sphere of life—healthcare, housing, employment, and civil rights. The situation has markedly deteriorated since Trump took office, as his administration has launched an onslaught on trans rights.
Just last week, on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre and during a global pandemic which disproportionately affects LGBTQ people of colour, the Trump administration had announced the official erasure of protections for LGBTQ people in the healthcare system—a move that would open the door for insurance companies to refuse coverage to trans people. A plea by the Department of Justice to reverse a lower court ruling and permit employment discrimination against trans people is currently being deliberated on by the Supreme Court.
And then there is Besty DeVos, Trump’s Education Secretary, who took it upon herself to deprive trans students of every vestige of dignity and recognition by, for instance, forcing schools to discriminate against trans athletes as a requisite for federal funding.
Even within the queer community, trans people, and especially trans people of colour, continue to be discriminated against and abused, and although LGBTQ rights as we know them today exist largely thanks to the sacrifice and courage of trans women of colour, their monumental contribution to the movement is only now beginning to, gradually, be recognised.
Policy solutions that would protect trans people and secure their rights are critical—but would not be enough. It would take a complete transformation of the discourse around trans visibility, trans liberation, trans history, and trans rights, and a drastic shift in who gets to shape such narratives, in order to create real, long-lasting change in their status and circumstances.
A quick look at the social media and news landscapes reveals that the discourse the public is exposed to concerning trans rights is heavily dominated by cisgender heterosexuals, primarily white ones. This was most recently exhibited by Daniel Radcliffe’s letter condemning J.K. Rowling’s series of transphobic tweets, in which he, shrewdly, remarked that “transgender women are women.” The letter instantly went viral, had made numerous headlines and was extensively covered by a wide range of publications.
While Radcliffe’s allyship is certainly important, and although (some) media outlets’ attention to his letter was undoubtedly well-intentioned, they nonetheless highlight the ways in which we get it all wrong and, paradoxically, contribute to trans erasure while trying to eliminate it.
As opposed to placing the limelight on cis heterosexuals and waiting for them to grant their stamp of approval or make trans people more palatable to mainstream society, we should clear the way for trans people, particularly of colour, to dominate headlines and magazine covers, lead conversations, speak on news channels, host news programs and have a path to hold political offices both locally and nationally.
To uplift black trans women, as is the case with any marginalised group, means investing resources directly in their endeavours and giving them the platform to tell their own stories, voice their own experience and make their own demands.
“When it comes to serving and protecting trans people, the conventional way of doing things and thinking about these things will not work. It’s time to invest in actual trans leadership,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez to Insider.
The momentum being built against racism could never be fully ceased, and the movement for racial justice reform would never effectuate meaningful change as long as only some black lives matter.