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Kirsten Gillibrand was a key advocate for trans rights. Will other 2020 Democrats step up?

With her out of the race, it’s up to others to make trans rights a priority.

A closeup of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks during a Washington Post Live 2020 Candidates series event on August 19, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

When Kirsten Gillibrand dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday, the Democratic field lost perhaps the most vocal champion for the rights of sexual misconduct survivors.

It also, and relatedly, lost one of its biggest advocates for trans rights.

After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the military, Gillibrand introduced a bill to counteract it, barring the Pentagon from discharging anyone based on gender identity.

“President Trump’s ban on transgender service members is discrimination, it undermines our military readiness, and it is an insult to the brave and patriotic transgender Americans who choose to serve in our military,” the senator said at the time, according to the Hill.

As a presidential candidate, she also introduced a broad LGBTQ rights agenda, including anti-discrimination protections for trans people and a requirement that insurance companies cover care for trans patients.

Gillibrand has also been an outspoken advocate for survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct, even when it hurt her politically — as when major Democratic donors took her to task for taking a hard stance on the multiple misconduct allegations against former Sen. Al Franken.

Her advocacy “speaks to trans people,” nearly half of whom are survivors of sexual assault, Gillian Branstetter, a spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, told Vox. “Seeing somebody who centers that as the priority it should be is super important.”

A number of Democratic candidates have voiced support for trans rights. But some have made missteps. As Katelyn Burns notes at Politico, Julián Castro twice fumbled when apparently trying to express support for abortion rights for trans men. And the debates have included relatively little discussion of LGBTQ rights. Gillibrand herself hasn’t been perfect, but she has, Burns writes, been “possibly the most vocal trans ally in the field.”

Without her on the stage, it will be up to other candidates to ensure that the rights of trans Americans get attention in a time when the Trump administration is working on many fronts to curtail them.

“If we’re going to be a priority for our enemies,” Branstetter said, “we have to be a priority for our friends.”

Gillibrand is a longtime supporter of trans rights

Gillibrand’s support for trans servicemembers goes back to at least 2017, when Trump first unveiled his ban. She introduced legislation, along with Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), to allow trans members of the military to continue to serve. Along with Reed and Collins, she introduced similar legislation again this year. (The chances of the bill passing are slim in the Republican-controlled Senate.)

Gillibrand was also an original cosponsor of the Equality Act, a bill introduced earlier this year that would protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination at work, in housing, and elsewhere.

As a presidential candidate, Gillibrand has made support for LGBTQ rights a focus of her campaign. Launched at the beginning of June in honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, her plan for LGBTQ rights included a promise as president to sign the Equality Act and to require the Department of Justice to institute similar protections. Gillibrand also promised to reinstate the Obama administration’s guidance recommending that public schools allow trans students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

The Gillibrand campaign also listened to the input of trans advocates on her plan, Burns reported at Politico. In response to feedback from the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, her team broadened the language regarding health care protections for trans patients to include coverage for surgery as well as hormone therapy.

Gillibrand has also been a longtime advocate for sexual assault survivors, a group that, as Branstetter points out, includes a disproportionate number of trans people. As Vox’s Li Zhou reported, Gillibrand has worked for years to establish an independent process for prosecuting sexual assault in the military and has worked to strengthen protections for survivors on college campuses as well.

But in her advocacy, she has also faced ongoing criticism for calling for Al Franken to resign after he was accused by eight women of sexual misconduct. And yet she has never backed down.

“I think it’s hurt when it comes to Democratic donors,” she told the New York Times podcast The Daily earlier this month. “But I could have told anybody at the time that there is literally no reward for standing up to powerful men who are good at their day job.”

Her support for survivors has been something that “a lot of trans people notice about her,” Branstetter said, given that sexual assault is an “epidemic within our community.”

Gillibrand’s record with respect to trans rights isn’t spotless; as Burns reported at Vox, she voted in favor of FOSTA-SESTA legislation that aimed to reduce sex trafficking but that many advocates say put sex workers at risk by cracking down on the websites some used to advertise. Since the law went into effect, Burns wrote, sex workers — including many trans sex workers of color — have experienced a spike in violence.

But overall, Gillibrand has been hailed by many as one of the most supportive candidates when it comes to trans rights.

Trans rights haven’t been a focus of the 2020 campaign. Advocates say they need to be.

Gillibrand isn’t alone among Democratic candidates in her support for the rights of trans Americans. Sens. Booker, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren, for example, were also cosponsors of the Equality Act.

But other candidates have sometimes stumbled when talking about issues affecting trans people. Castro spoke in one debate of abortion rights for “a trans female” (trans women cannot get pregnant). Later, Burns noted at Politico, he tried to clear things up with a tweet saying that “all women” should have the right to an abortion — a statement that excluded trans men, who can get pregnant (he eventually clarified that he supports abortion rights for trans men and nonbinary people as well).

Meanwhile, as Burns pointed out, none of the moderators in the June debates asked specific questions about LGBTQ rights and trans people were barely mentioned. Booker was the only other candidate to bring up issues specifically affecting trans people.

That’s a major oversight when the Trump administration is advancing multiple policies that could harm trans people, from the military ban to a rule allowing doctors to refuse to treat trans patients. “There are few departments in this Cabinet that have not taken action against the rights of transgender people,” Branstetter said.

And while trans Americans may not be a huge voting bloc by sheer numbers, Branstetter said, “you can’t be anti-trans without also being anti-fairness. You can’t be anti-trans without also being anti-equality. You can’t be anti-trans without also being anti-science and anti-truth.”

With Gillibrand out of the race, there will be one less advocate carrying on that message.

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