When it comes to protecting LGBTQ rights, Roger Severino is the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.
Severino, as director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, is overseeing the effort to define transgender people “out of existence,” as The New York Times put it this weekend in a story breaking the news of a memo circulating among federal government agencies to legally define gender as something immutable and fixed at birth, as indicated by a person’s genitalia.
If adopted, it would, among other things, reverse the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law banning sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Under President Obama, the government had held that sex discrimination included discrimination based on gender identity. Donald Trump’s administration has already chipped away at that policy, but the memo now being considered goes much further.
Severino has a long history of working for far-right groups and opposing LGBTQ rights. He has opposed marriage equality, defended “ex-gay” therapy, and objected to allowing transgender people to serve in the military.
Before joining HHS, he worked at the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation. “At Heritage, Severino vigorously argued against legalizing same-sex marriage" and railed against accommodations for transgender individuals in school locker rooms or public bathrooms, notes a 2017 profile in The Atlantic.
He has also opposed the Obama administration’s interpretation of section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which also considered discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation to be a form of sex discrimination. He and Ryan Anderson, an anti-transgender activist and author, wrote a 2016 report for the Heritage Foundation challenging such an inclusive interpretation.
“Many people reasonably believe that maleness and femaleness are objective, biological realities,” they wrote. “Yet the regulations would label these kinds of reasonable beliefs as ‘discriminatory’ and seek to forbid them from being followed in the coverage or provision of health-care services.” (Many scientists and physicians, by the way, have held that maleness and femaleness are complicated characteristics affected by numerous factors other than genitalia.) Earlier this year, language giving examples of gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination was removed from HHS’s website.
At HHS’s Office for Civil Rights, Severino has been deeply involved with the creation of a Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom “to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom” for health care providers who object to participating in certain services, as a press release about the new division said. HHS is advocating for a broad definition of what it means to be a provider or to participate in such procedures, potentially making it harder for LGBTQ people to obtain care.
When Severino was with the Heritage Foundation, he was head of its DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society — established by a grant from the in-laws of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Before he joined the foundation in 2015, he spent seven years (under the Obama administration) as a trial lawyer in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Prior to that, he was a lawyer for the Becket Fund, which specializes in religious liberty cases, usually advocating from a conservative viewpoint.
While at the Becket Fund in 2007, he coauthored a friend-of-the-court brief supporting California’s ban on same-sex marriage. This was in the case that resulted in the state’s Supreme Court striking down the ban, which was then temporarily reinstated by Proposition 8. He and his coauthor argued that legalizing same-sex marriage would endanger religious institutions that oppose it.
Severino has taken many other anti-LGBTQ positions, according to a list compiled by GLAAD. He once defended “ex-gay” therapy as something that “reinforces a person’s biology” and denounced state laws that ban its use on minors. He has said that anti-LGBTQ ideology is based not on hatred but on love, coming from “a vision of human flourishing” from “people who believe in marriage and believe in a biblical view of human sexuality.”
He has denounced the Obama administration’s decision to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military — something that the Trump administration is trying to undo. Lifting the ban “dishonors [the] sacrifices” of “hundreds of thousands of veterans and current troops who were traumatized, wounded, or died fighting against Nazis, Communist aggressors, and terrorists, yet, believe that biological men should not be allowed into the same barracks and showers as women,” he wrote in a column in 2016.
Severino is also no supporter of women’s reproductive freedom; he supports allowing employers to opt out of the Affordable Care Acts contraceptive mandate if they have moral or religious objections. The Obama administration actually offered faith-based employers a way around this, with insurers picking up the cost instead of the employer, but that did not go far enough for some on the religious right.
For Severino and his wife, Carrie, conservative activism is a family affair. She is chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, which backs right-wing judicial nominees and was one of the major defenders of Brett Kavanaugh, recently confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She was once a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Her husband reportedly keeps a bobble-head figurine of Thomas in his office, and he told The Atlantic Thomas is “one of my heroes.”
When Roger Severino was named to head the HHS Office for Civil Rights last year, LGBTQ and other civil rights organizations reacted with alarm. “I could not think of a more dangerous person to head up the office,” JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said at the time. She added, “Severino takes pride in being a stark opponent of the LGBTQ community and has made it clear that his number one priority is to vilify and degrade us.”
Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, told The Atlantic, “The decision to appoint Roger Severino, whose only evident claim to knowledge … or information about the subject area of the office is to oppose rights for transgender persons does suggest the likelihood either of regulatory or practical direction change, either of which would be enormously distressing.”
Now these predictions are coming true.