Speaking Out for Transgender Rights: Now is Not Time to Give Up The Fight

On Wednesday, February 22, 2017, I testified before the Alabama Senate Committee on Health and Human Services in opposition to Senate Bill 145, the so-called “Child Placing Agency Inclusion Act.”  The objective of the bill is to allow child welfare providers to discriminate based on personal belief, even to the detriment of children in their care, without any repercussions from the state. There are currently four such license-to-discriminate bills wending their way through state legislatures around the country (in Alabama, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas).

Although it was predictable, it was difficult to watch the Committee approve the bill and move it forward.  Then, I turned on the news to discover that the Trump Administration—under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions (coincidentally of Alabama) and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—had rescinded the federal government’s guidance to schools about how Title IX’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex is interpreted as it relates to transgender students.

This was a double whammy for me.  Both the Alabama bill and the Trump administrative action are attacks, without cause or merit, on the most vulnerable amongst us—our children.  And, beyond that, the rescission of the transgender guidance felt personal to me.

I am a parent and a grandparent, and I’m transgender.  That combination makes me feel profoundly impacted by the Administration’s action.  I was saddened and disappointed, of course, but I’m also angry.  Just a short while ago I felt a surge of hope—and dare I say relief—when I listened to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch talk about protecting transgender people, especially children.  I can still hear her words ringing in my ears “we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.” Those words are what were callously and heartlessly rescinded by the Trump administration.  

On one point let us be clear: the Trump administration does not have the power to revoke Title IX, the law that affords protection from sex discrimination that the Obama administration guidance was based on.  But what the Administration can do, indeed what it did, is send a message to schools that transgender students are not valued. In doing so, it gave a nod to the paean of conservative politics—“states’ rights.” That is to say, the Trump administration believes that transgender children should be treated according to the whims of the people in power in local and state politics. 

To my mind, this necessarily raises the question of what opinion do they hold about Title IX (or even the 1964 Civil Rights Act) more broadly?  Do they believe that the federal government should have no role in ensuring that invidious discrimination does not occur in our schools, workplaces, housing, public accommodations, or polling places?  Are such laws mere examples of “government overreach”?

Regardless of the answer to those questions, my immediate concern is for the children.  Most children have an internal desire to “fit in”, to be part of a group, to not stand out; transgender children feel this way, too.  For transgender people generally, “fitting in” is more difficult; we constantly battle society’s perceptions of what we should look like and how we should behave.  It is not difficult to imagine a school district—such as Gavin Grimm’s in Virginia—deciding that it is now allowed (or even encouraged?) to single out a transgender student by making him or her use a separate restroom, or a faculty restroom when every other student uses the common restrooms.

These are our children, for crying out loud! The interpretation and enforcement of law as outlined by the Obama administration’s guidance hurt no one. It hurt NO ONE.  What it did was offer help and protection to those vulnerable transgender children who are trying to fit in, trying to get an education, trying to simply live a normal life.  Now, they can be singled out.  What ultimate harm will this cause them?  Shame, isolation, stigma, and worse.

It is in times like this that I feel despair. I have been working for LGBTQ civil rights and lived equality for decades.  Times like this cause me such deep sadness that I want to quit the fight.  But as I said, I’m a parent and a grandparent. Perhaps because two of my daughters (and both of my grandchildren) belong to the Jewish faith, I am often reminded of Rabbi Tarfon’s quote: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” I cannot abandon the fight for my grandchildren’s right to grow up in an environment where we are all valued and respected, irrespective of who we are. 

So I will continue to testify against hateful legislation, even if shrouded in the cloak of religious liberty.  I will continue to stand proudly as a transgender American in the hopes that my life may be a beacon of hope to young people who continue to be stigmatized and marginalized, even by the highest reaches of our government.  Now is not the time to abandon the fight; now is the time to remember why we fight.  For our family. For our children.