US officials at the United Nations are seeking to eliminate the word “gender” from UN human rights documents, most often replacing it with “woman”, apparently as part of the Trump administration’s campaign to define transgender people out of existence.

At recent meetings of the UN’s Third Committee, which is concerned with “social, humanitarian and cultural” rights, US officials have been pushing for the rewriting of general assembly policy statements to remove what the administration argues is vague and politically correct language, reflecting what it sees as an “ideology” of treating gender as an individual choice rather than an unchangeable biological fact.

For example, in a draft paper on trafficking in women and girls introduced by Germany and the Philippines earlier this month, the US wants to remove phrases such as “gender-based violence” and replace them with “violence against women.”

The US officials involved in the changes are understood to have been sent from Washington, and were not full-time diplomats in the US mission.

“We are seeing this more and more coming up on the Third Committee, and this is going to be a battle in the coming weeks,” said a UN diplomat. The diplomat noted that US policy on the word is not entirely consistent.

While on a number of recent occasions, US officials have called for the removal of the word “gender,” at least once the same word has been added into a text on US insistence. The diplomat, a European, speculated that the inconsistency might reflect a tussle between different members of the US mission.

To succeed in its campaign, the US will have to forge unusual alliances, with Russia and conservative Islamic states, against its western European partners.

“If you only say violence against women, it doesn’t really tell the whole story,” a senior diplomat at the UN said. “We shouldn’t be going along with encouraging their society to be regressive. And if that means a blazing row in the Third Committee, I would have a blazing row in committee because I think some things are worth cherishing and worth hanging on to.”

A spokesperson for the US state department said: “In no way is the United States attempting to exclude the protection of transgendered persons, or protection of any person, in any UN resolution.”

“When certain parts of resolutions explicitly refer to issues affecting ‘women and girls’, our negotiators have suggested in several instances to change ‘gender’ to ‘women’ and/or ‘women and girls’ to make the resolutions clearer, more specific, more accurate, and in our view, stronger in the Administration’s efforts to empower women and girls.”

Last month, the state department quietly changed the name of a webpage to address transgender issues on passports, from “gender designation change” to “change of sex marker”, in what appears to be a wider campaign against the word “gender.”

“It’s clear the administration is engaged in a broad strategy of erasing transgender people’s existence across the federal government,” Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said. “While it’s infuriating they would behave in such an extreme and volatile manner at the United Nations, we are confident their prejudice will lose out to science, reason, and the ongoing fight for human rights.”

The New York Times reported on Monday that the administration had drawn up a policy paper to define gender narrowly as restricted as male or female only, and immutable from birth, despite the American Medical Association (AMA) ruling last year that gender and sexual identities are not always binary.

The effort is aimed at reversing changes to federal programs made by the Obama administration. Those reforms made official gender designations an individual decision rather than basing them on the sex assigned at birth. A leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services said government agencies should adopt a definition of gender determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”

Roger Severino, the director of the office for civil rights in the department, was a fervent opponent of the Obama reforms. In July 2016, he said that the then defence secretary, Ash Carter, had dishonored 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.”

Julian Borger

Lee Matz

Help deliver the independent journalism that the world needs, make a contribution of support to The Guardian.