Yesterday, in response to the state of North Carolina’s decision to sue the Department of Justice for its concerns about the state’s House Bill 2, or the so called “Bathroom Law”, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch made a statement that is causing deserved applause and calls of praise from across the United States and the world. In her response, Ms. Lynch summed up the overwhelming civil rights violations encased in HB2, stating, “[T]he legislature and the governor placed North Carolina in direct opposition to federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity. More to the point, they created state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security – a right taken for granted by most of us.”
I’m an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut and one of my syllabi revolves quite heavily around gender issues. It can be at times daunting trying to explain how gender works to my students, but one thing that always comes up is the fact that for many people on this planet, the sex they were born with is not necessarily the sex or gender that they identify with. To quote Dr. Stephen Rosenthal, “Sex is what you go to bed with and gender is what you go to bed as.” What Governor Pat McCrory doesn’t understand is that for many trans individuals who squarely identify as men or women (and granted, this doesn’t take into account the MANY individuals who don’t identify as either!), the process of choosing what bathroom to use can be either fraught with terror or extremely liberating. (And don’t even get me started on the argument that it will make bathrooms safer for women. You don’t get to argue against Planned Parenthood in one breath and then pass a bill like HB2 in another.)
Ms. Lynch went on to announce, “Today, we are filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina. We are seeking a court order declaring House Bill 2’s restroom restriction impermissibly discriminatory, as well as a statewide bar on its enforcement. While the lawsuit currently seeks declaratory relief, I want to note that we retain the option of curtailing federal funding to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina as this case proceeds.”
The protection of civil rights, in my most humble opinion, is one of the foundational cornerstones of our government. It goes back to the Emancipation Proclamation, to the Civil Rights Act, to the repeal of Jim Crow, to the repeal of DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Every single person on this planet deserves the chance to live just as they are, freely, and without bar to the most basic of human rights. Now, the focus has rightfully been placed on trans rights. The rights of trans people have been shoved to the side for far too long; even people who have fought for gay rights since before Stonewall have been known to make derogatory comments about trans individuals. Some of the groups that were formed around Stonewall, in an attempt to ‘mainstream’, were violently anti-trans because it showed a kind of deviancy. Basically, they worried the trans community, with its demonstrably anti-mainstream presentation, would serve as a step backward for their own civil rights, when really all the trans community wanted was to live their own lives.
Trans youth are consistently bullied. As Caitlyn Jenner said in her ESPY acceptance speech last year, “All across this country, right now, all across the world, at this very moment, there are young people coming to terms with being transgender. They’re learning that they’re different, and they are trying to figure out how to handle that, on top of every other problem that a teenager has. They’re getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered and they’re committing suicide.” Jenner brought up the specific examples of Mercedes Williamson, a trans teenager found stabbed to death, and Sam Taub, who committed suicide very shortly before Jenner’s revelatory interview with Diane Sawyer last year in which she discussed her decision to transition. “It’s not just about one person. It’s about thousands of people. It’s not just about me. It’s about all of us accepting one another,” she said. This, specifically, is why Ms. Lynch’s comments are so important. The idea that these individuals will be seeing visibility from the highest office in the land, and to see that visibility be handled with such grace, empathy, and obvious love – this is what we need in our country. Not just for trans people, but for everyone.
A quick note: Trans people are seeing a gigantic momentum shift in our culture with the obvious example of Caitlyn Jenner, as well as well-known trans advocates such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. But I want to quickly point out that these women, while amazing and well-spoken and clearly fighting hard for trans rights, are also women who fit into the femme binary. There are thousands upon thousands of trans people who don’t fit into any binary, who identify as ‘transqueer”, and who don’t, for lack of a better phrase, ‘look like women or men.’ They are no less deserving of our empathy and respect.
As a young person, I really didn’t know anyone who was trans. I had heard of them, of course, but in my head they were interchangeable with drag queens. Being a drag queen is performance art or a hobby; being transgender is about someone’s core identity. When I went off to high school and college, I still didn’t know anyone who was trans, but when I came to my high school reunion in 2008, I admittedly did a double take when I saw some guys wearing our class rings (note: I went to an all-girls high school). Indeed, over the years, I’ve come to ‘meet’ several trans men from my high school. Did I have questions? Sure. Did I say anything at the time? No, because I wanted to shut up, listen, and learn by doing my homework. Did I just accept them as part of our Miss Porter’s community? Of course I did, because I like to think of myself as an evolved person who is open to different experiences. Also, I’m very privileged to have gone to a high school that is so welcoming to every type of person. There are many people out there who don’t have that opportunity.
In the closing portion of her speech, Ms. Lynch called out to the trans Americans who have been impacted by this law, as well as any other transperson who might be struggling. “Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy – but we’ll get there together.”
These words are important because they showcase visibility. It creates a connection built on empathy, understanding, and respect. It might even prove to have even farther reaching effects; perhaps a young person, struggling with their identity, read what Ms. Lynch said, and decided not to take their life that day.
If there is someone reading this piece, someone struggling with who they are, I want you to know what Ms. Lynch said applies to me too: We see you. We know you. We will never stop fighting for you.
Picture Credit: By United States Department of Justice [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Loretta_Lynch%2C_official_portrait.jpg