In just the last two months we’ve gone from the hurried lawmaking that pushed through North Carolina’s HB2 that halted Charlotte’s city ordinance against discrimination of transgender people, to a moving speech by the Attorney General suing the Governor over the law. But just to recap, here is a quick overview of the moments between those points:
- Wednesday, March 23: HB2 is introduced in the chamber, debated for approximately 90 minutes, voted on and passed, and that evening, signed into law by Gov. McCrory. [Eleven Democratic representatives voted for its passage; all of the Democratic senators walked out of the chamber refusing to vote at all, so it passed the senate chamber 32-0.]
- Friday, March 25: The NBA releases a statement saying it may move future playoff games from the state if HB2 is not reversed or voided.
- Monday, March 28: The ACLU of North Carolina, Lambda Legal, and Equality NC file a lawsuit on behalf of three transgender and queer people who are employed by the state government, against HB2. The Governor goes on local news outlets to support the new law.
- Thursday, March 31: The list of businesses and organizations coming out against HB2 grows to more than 300.
- Wednesday, May 4: The Department of Justice sends a letter to Gov. McCrory telling him not to enforce HB2 or face further action from the federal government. The letter gives North Carolina until Monday, May 9, to show it will not enforce the law.
- Monday, May 9: The Governor’s office sues the DOJ, in North Carolina’s eastern district of Federal Court, insisting that its interpretation of “sex” (e.g., sex assigned at birth) is correct, and not the federal government’s interpretation (gender/sex identity and expression)
- Monday, May 9, about six hours later: Attorney General Loretta Lynch and head of the Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta announced that they had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Governor Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina.
Much of Ms. Lynch’s remarks spelled out not just the legal foundation of the government’s case, but also the Obama Administration’s stance on ensuring civil rights for all transgender Americans, a series of sentences that had never been so clearly expressed in the history of any country towards the transgender community:
Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. 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.
There is much to unpack in this part of her statement, not the least of which is whether the rule of law is adequate to support an emancipatory or even radical politic for transgender people. I wouldn’t ever expect a federal institution to call for radical change, because that would be like expecting a snake to eat itself. What this statement does do, however, is make direct reference to earlier civil rights struggles, a tumultuous legal and social history that depending on one’s textbook, might not be covered in primary or secondary school. It’s a government looking at itself and its role in supporting all Americans, and in a polarized, political environment like we have right now, in which the Republican Senate leader can somehow decide to not do his constitutional duty to confirm a Supreme Court justice, in which all it takes is one senator to decide Flint residents shouldn’t get the federal emergency funding they need to remedy their catastrophic municipal water problem, and in which more than twenty states have come out with legislation that basically calls transgender women sexual predators despite all evidence to the contrary, such a statement is incredibly important. If we can agree that a law like HB2 puts trans people who are on the edge at risk of suicide and harassment, then what do we make of a statement, bald and assertively pronounced, that the government is standing behind those vulnerable people?
I make of it that it is life-saving. I really do. I have known—I have been—people who needed a sign that they weren’t an incarnation of wrecked evil or humanity. That they, we, have a purpose. That being trans isn’t a horrible disease. That it can in fact, be wonderful, or mundane, or present us with fascinating opportunities, or help us become better people because we are more us.
It is a commonly held belief within the broad LGBT contingent that these anti-trans bills are an intentional backlash and attempt by the far right that is still licking its wounds over losing the same-sex marriage fight. It’s easy to call this fight intentional, as it is clearly financed by the same organizations that fueled the push against marriage equality. And while the reactionary push against trans civil rights is well funded (even if it turns out to ultimately be futile), several LGBT equality groups shut their doors after the SCOTUS ruling. This has left much of the support for trans rights to transgender groups and to non-LGBT allies who work on civil rights. But what work they’re doing—with today’s two events shoring up even more support for the trans community.
This morning, the Obama Administration made two announcements: first, the President sent a letter to every public school district in the country (wrap your mind around THAT mailing) that they must let transgender students use the rest room and locker room that comports with their gender identity, or face a revocation of federal education funding.
There are more than 14,000 school districts in the United States today.
The scale of that statement boggles my mind. But then later this morning, another declaration came out. The Administration directed health insurers across the country that they could no longer reject coverage for people simply because they are transgender.
Conservatives are ranting across hyperspace, in social media and on right-wing media outlets, but they do not have the force of law behind them. This ally work from the highest office in the land means something very important even if it is not revolutionary. It is still affirming, validating, critical, systemic, and a clear kick in the pants to the wave of legalized harassment that we’ve seen in the way of “religious freedom” and “bathroom bills.” It means something huge that the trans civil rights movement has had these broad statements made three times in three days, in a time when the top court in the federal system is missing a deliberator.
I cheer these moves from the President and his staff. And I turn to our allies within the LGBT coalition and say, what will you do now to help the trans community?