Donald Trump's recent lifting of recommendations for schools' treatment of transgender students is easy to overlook, as it affects a tiny minority of Americans. But it represents one of the president's first attacks on the rights of citizens - a harbinger for worse to come.
The president has withdrawn federal guidance issued by his predecessor in May 2016 under the Title IX educational amendment, which bans sexual discrimination in schools. The guidelines recommended schools treat students' gender identity as their sex, allowing transgender students to use their preferred bathroom or changing room.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer excused the decision by pointing out that last summer a judge blocked a lower court's ruling to allow Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, to use the boys’ restroom at his Virginia school. The case has now been escalated to the Supreme Court. Spicer claimed the guidelines weren't implemented using the proper channels or put to public debate, adding that Trump's administration is keen for more issues to be handled at the state level.
Those may not be the real reasons behind the decision, however. Nor is it a reflection of Trump's personal views: when asked whether he would allow transwoman Caitlin Jenner to use the women's toilets in Trump Tower, he said he would happily oblige. Instead, the move is best understood within the context of Trump's chaotic leadership style: act quickly to wrong-foot opponents and overwhelm the press with controversies to cover, sowing anxiety and discord and allowing him to divide and conquer.
Moreover, Trump's team undoubtedly saw an opportunity to restore 'traditional' sex and gender conventions, tossing a bone to the old dogs of Tea Party conservatism. Withdrawing the guidance also served as a rebuke to the social progressiveness and political correctness of the Obama administration. And it threw red meat to the 'alt-right', the uber-conservative, white nationalist group that counts Steve Bannon - Trump's strategy advisor and former editor of Breitbart - among its advocates.
Transgender individuals only comprise a small proportion of the American population (about 0.6% at the most recent tally), but transgender issues have become somewhat of a cause du jour. A simple conversation about where people can urinate has evolved into a division of social sensibilities, where proponents frame themselves as modern and open-minded and label opponents as old-fashioned and intolerant. Meanwhile, critics accuse them of virtue-signalling, unfairly elevating an issue for schools to a civil rights violation, and (absurdly) opening the door for perverts and sexual predators. Nonetheless, the issue is a meaningful one.
Trump has singled out Mexicans, Muslims and illegal immigrants as threats to national security, but he has largely respected the rights of citizens. His assault on transgender people marks a new stage in his regime. His investigation into voter fraud - based on virtually no reported incidents of the crime - is likely to lead to stricter voter ID laws, disproportionately affecting minorities who are more likely to be Democrats. He's already cut off US foreign aid to organisations that provide or even discuss abortion as a family-planning option, suggesting a crackdown on American women's reproductive rights is on the agenda. He has mocked the First Amendment and threatened to introduce looser libel laws to muzzle the press. And regressive tax policies, tariffs, fewer environmental regulations, and healthcare subsidies potentially tied to age rather than income, threaten to leave the poorest Americans worse off than before.
The administration's statism is also bad news for civil rights. Federal laws played a crucial role in desegregating the South, advancing women's rights and clearing African-Americans' path to the ballot. Returning power to the states will pave the way for the patchwork introduction of racist, sexist and anti-LGBT policies, leading to stark differences in civil rights around the nation. Further dismantling lies ahead: Bannon recently pledged mass deregulation in pursuit of "the deconstruction of the administrative state."
Trump's assault on transgender rights is his administration's latest attempt to unravel rights and revoke privileges. Americans who ignore it do so at their peril.