Black LGBTQ people face an increased risk of violence and harassment. A new app hopes to help change that.
David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said Black queer and trans people have to worry about things “most people take for granted and don’t have to think about, like whether or not a barber or beautician is going to say something that might be homophobic, or you’re going to be denied access to a cake because a baker is going to hide their hate behind religion,” he said.
Knowing this, Johns said he has dreamed for years about creating a way for Black LGBTQ and same-gender-loving people to more easily find safe spaces.
That dream became Lavender Book, a web-based app launched Monday and created in collaboration with Out in Tech, a nonprofit for LGBTQ people who work in the technology sector.
Lavender Book’s key feature is a crowdsourced search engine that shows users safe and friendly establishments in different locations. Users can narrow down their search by the service they’re looking for and a list of attributes, such as gender-neutral restrooms, Black- or trans-owned, or LGBTQ-trained staff.
The app is based on the historic Green Book, which was a guide for Black road-trippers published during the Jim Crow era that mapped safe spaces for Black people.
“We know how much uncompensated labor goes into finding safe spaces,” Johns said. “Black LGBTQIA+ folk, and then [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] folks with intersectional identities thereafter, spent a lot of time making phone calls and leveraging community networks to identify places where the likelihood of us being victims of verbal harassment, bias, discrimination or violence associated with actual or assumed sexual identity and gender orientation or expression will happen.”
Some of that, Johns said, is informed by the disproportionate rates of violence against Black LGBTQ people. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing violence against LGBTQ people, found in 2013 that people of color comprised the majority — 58 percent — of LGBTQ and HIV-affected people who reported hate violence to its member programs.
The report also found that Black LGBTQ and HIV-affected people were 1.4 times more likely to experience physical violence and two times more likely to experience threats and intimidation during incidents of hate violence.
Johns said the violence Black LGBTQ people face is nothing new. In the month of April alone, the National Black Justice Coalition reported on the deaths of at least seven trans women — all of them women of color, five of them Black. So far in May, three more trans women have been killed, all of them also women of color.
Since the start of 2021, at least 24 trans and gender nonconforming people have been killed, according to the Human Rights Campaign, putting the year on track to outpace the number of deaths in 2020, which HRC called “the most violent year on record” since the group began tracking anti-trans violence in 2013.
“For so many of us, the spaces we’re forced to move through and the world around us is not welcoming,” Johns said.
One of the beta-testers for the app and a member of NBJC’s Youth and Young Adult Action Council, Sage Grace Dolan-Sandrino, 20, said that as a Black and Latina queer and trans woman, “it is imperative to my survival that I know in what spaces I am safe.”
“Growing up in Washington, D.C., I became familiar with my safe spaces — where to eat, where to shop, and where NOT to,” she said. “Since moving to upstate New York for college, it has become incredibly aware to me that so many of the spaces are not safe. With the introduction of an app and program like this, I may have been able to avoid getting my car fixed by a Trump-supporting, white nationalist, gun-toting mechanic.”
She said that while using the app, she could “easily imagine the profound impact this could have on the safety of being queer in public.”
Peter Redmond, Out in Tech’s New York City chapter head and events producer, said the app is “for us, by us,” because it was built by a diverse team of engineers, product designers and UX designers.
He said he hopes the app grows to include not just businesses like restaurants, but also essential services like health care.
“I have found myself traveling to cities where I’m not exactly sure will I be welcomed in certain establishments, so I’ve definitely had to lean on services like this in the past,” he said. “So to have the Lavender Book now join all of these other services out there, I think it’s only going to just create a better experience for anybody that’s looking for services where they know they won’t be discriminated against.”
On April 25, 1965, three teenagers refused to leave Dewey’s Restaurant in Philadelphia after employees repeatedly denied service to “homosexuals and persons wearing nonconformist clothing,” according to Drum magazine, which was created by the Janus Society, an early gay rights group.
The teens were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, and Janus Society members protested outside of the restaurant for the next five days, according to Marc Stein, a history professor at San Francisco State University.
“Every single element of what we know of as Pride and gay rights and, especially, the pre-Stonewall homophile movement, was borrowed from the Black Freedom Movement.”
ERIC CERVINI, LGBTQ HISTORIAN
“Unlike so many other episodes, it kind of combined issues of homosexuality and trans issues,” Stein, author of “Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement,” told NBC News.
On May 2, three more people staged a second sit-in at Dewey’s. Though the restaurant called the police, the protesters weren’t arrested, and after a few hours they left voluntarily, according to a Janus Society newsletter. The Society wrote that the protests and sit-ins were successful in preventing future denials of service and arrests.
The sit-in at Dewey’s is among a long list of examples that show a “direct line” to the Black civil rights movement, according to Stein. Specifically, sit-ins organized by gay activists in the ‘60s appear to be directly inspired by protests held in 1960 by Black college students at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, against racial segregation.
Early LGBTQ activists (though they didn’t use that acronym at the time) adopted many of the civil rights movement’s strategies, Stein said, and they relied on much of the foundation laid by Black civil rights activists.
But the two movements weren’t necessarily separate — they often overlapped — and so influence happened in a few ways, Stein said.
“Influence can be the influence of ideas, and specifically, ideologies, influence of strategies,” he said. “Influence can also come in the form of people who move between movements, or who are engaged in multiple movements, and we do have examples of that in the early LGBT movement.”
The influence — or ‘plagiarism’ — of ideas
Queer activists were building a movement long before the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City, which is widely referred to as a turning point in the LGBTQ rights movement. Though Stonewall was a pivotal moment, activists like Frank Kameny were organizing for gay rights well before.
Kameny co-founded the Mattachine Society in Washington, D.C., one of the first homophile groups (“homophile” being the adjective of choice at the time), and he drew strategies directly from the Black civil rights movement, according to Eric Cervini, a historian and author of “The Deviant’s War,” which focuses on Kameny and the early gay rights movement.
“Every single element of what we know of as Pride and gay rights and, especially, the pre-Stonewall homophile movement, was borrowed from the Black Freedom Movement,” Cervini said. “Frank Kameny’s primary role, what made him so brilliant but also complex of a historical figure, was that he served primarily as a Xerox machine copying different elements of the Black Freedom Movement and applying that to a previously nonmilitant, nonprotesting movement.”
For example, Cervini said Kameny and a delegation of eight Mattachine Society of Washington members attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The march was organized by Bayard Rustin, who had been arrested in 1953 for having sex with another man. In 1963, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., a segregationist, called Rustin a “sexual pervert” on the Senate floor in an effort to discredit the march, according to Out History.
Kameny and the delegates saw that, even though Rustin had been exposed, 200,000 Americans still attended the march, and it became a historic moment, according to Cervini.
“So these white gay activists, who previously had been refusing to take to the streets, looked around and said, ‘Maybe it’s time, maybe not right now, but maybe in the near future,’” Cervini said. (In fact, in 1979, activists would organize a National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, which drew an estimated 200,000 protesters, according to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce).
Within a year of the 1963 march, gay rights activist Randy Wicker began picketing the U.S. Army Induction Center in New York City, and a few months after that, Kameny began picketing the White House and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Cervini also noted that Kameny modeled his phrase “Gay Is Good,” which was used on protest signs and buttons, on the Black Power movement’s “Black Is Beautiful.”
A few years later, in 1966, Wicker and three activists with the Mattachine Society’s New York City chapter organized a “sip-in” at Julius’ Bar to challenge a New York State Liquor Authority rule that said bars couldn’t serve “disorderly” customers. In practice, bars would refuse to serve LGBTQ people out of fear that they’d lose their liquor license. The sip-in, like the sit-in at Dewey’s, used the same tactics as the college students at Woolworth’s lunch counter, according to Stein.
Stein said Black civil rights movement strategies also affected how early LGBTQ activists conducted peaceful demonstrations. A coalition of gay and lesbian organizations held a yearly peaceful protest at Independence Hall called the Annual Reminder from 1965 to 1969, which Stein said were influenced by the early civil rights demonstrations in which demonstrators were instructed to dress respectably, with women in dresses and men in suits.
Cervini said civil rights demonstrators dressed up as a “reclamation of morality that was so effective when you look at the images of Montgomery or Birmingham or Greensboro.” He said Time magazine even drew attention to the fact that young civil rights activists looked like they were going to church, and, as a result, “How can you possibly claim that those Southern whites are the ones protecting morality?” he said. “So the early gay activists tried to emulate that same tactic, by using respectability as a political tool.”
On the other hand, gay and trans activists were also affected by the Black Power movement and urban uprisings, according to Stein. He said LGBTQ rebellions like the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco and the Stonewall uprising a few years later were likely influenced by events like the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, where six days of riots erupted between police and the predominantly Black community.
“I would argue that the Black Power movement was just as influential as the civil rights movement,” Stein said. “Black Power ideologies and strategies came to influence the movement very much so in the second half of the ‘60s and then into the ‘70s, so there were both of those influences — peaceful, respectable demonstrations on the one hand, and a more aggressive militant action sometimes including riots on the other.”
Cervini said FBI reports explicitly connect the Black Freedom Movement and the early homophile movement.
“We can connect those two movements — Bayard Rustin, Frank Kameny and Randy Wicker — through FBI surveillance, and from informants within these organizations,” Cervini said. “They were the ones informing the FBI that the gays, the homosexuals were learning from and discussing copying the Black Freedom Movement.”
“This idea of a coalition between these two organizations — that the Black Freedom Movement might be inspiring this other group of American citizens who are also marginalized, and the fact that they may both be taking to the streets, perhaps in coordination — that is what scared them the most,” Cervini said of the FBI and Southern racist segregationists.
However, the homophile movement, at least in New York and Washington, never made that coalition a reality, Cervini added.
He said he uses the word “plagiarism” to describe how Kameny used civil rights tactics without working with or crediting the activists whose tactics he used.
“You are using and borrowing tactics from another movement, but not giving proper credit and not making space for people at the intersection of those two movements,” Cervini said. “I think it raises the question of the moral acceptability of that.”
Influence by intersection
In some cities, there was more of a coalition and less borrowing. The idea of one movement having an “influence” over the other could give the false notion that the fight for Black civil rights was comprised entirely of Black activists and the fight for LGBTQ rights was solely made up of whites, cautioned Steven Fullwood, co-founder of the Nomadic Archivists Project, which documents and preserves Black history.
“There’s Black people in parts of both of those movements,” Fullwood said, noting that there were Black people involved in both the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights group.
Fullwood also mentioned Marsha P. Johnson, who is credited as being a central figure in the Stonewall uprising, and Cervini cited Ernestine Eckstein (also known as Ernestine Eppenger), who was active in the Black Freedom Movement and the Daughters of Bilitis in the ‘60s.
Stein also gave the example of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a Japanese-American, anti-war activist who participated in the Annual Reminders at Independence Hall and had previously gone South and participated in civil rights marches. Kuromiya co-founded the Gay Liberation Front’s Philadelphia chapter and became a spokesperson for a homosexual workshop at the Black Panther’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in September 1970, according to Stein.
He gave a presentation “to the huge audience of the convention to applause,” Stein said of Kuromiya, citing this as one of many examples showing that the movements weren’t fragmented or divided at the time in some cities.
“They were uniting against police violence, state repression, capitalist exploitation and, after all, the Stonewall rebellion was at least in part about a business exploiting its gay, trans customers,” Stein said. “So it kind of illustrates the way those issues came together at those particular episodes.”
“Any movement that does not take into account the intersectional approach is never going to achieve true liberation.”
STEVEN FULLWOOD, NOMADIC ARCHIVISTS PROJECT
Some of the major LGBTQ demonstrations, including the 1965 sit-in at Dewey’s Restaurant, took place in racially diverse communities, according to Susan Stryker, a scholar of queer and trans history.
She said the sit-in is an example of tactics developed in the Black civil rights struggle “becoming useful in situations that are not organized specifically around race, but are organized around questions of sexuality and gender expression and gender presentation.”
“So, is that a borrowing of civil rights tactics?” Stryker asked. “Or is it people who are perhaps familiar with this in different contexts of their own lives saying … ‘We need to do the same thing on this issue’?”
Stryker said there was also a huge overlap between people who were organizing for racial and economic justice and queer and trans rights in the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot, which she described as “one of the first instances that we know about of militant trans resistance to police-based oppression.”
The legal blueprint
Many major legal gains for LGBTQ people are also in part due to arguments developed by civil rights lawyers.
“The legal strategy challenging racial segregation, which was pioneered by the NAACP in the 1940s, was really the wellspring from which the LGBTQ equality movement grew,” said Alphonso David, a civil rights lawyer and the first Black president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ rights group.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Thurgood Marshall, who led the NAACP, spent a decade challenging segregation on public transportation, in restaurants and in public schools, David said. Marshall argued a number of cases related to segregation, and then in the mid-’50s he argued Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court, which ruled that U.S. state laws segregating schools were unconstitutional.
“It took more than a decade of litigation and argument testing combined with really a lot of sweat equity and strategic partnerships with grassroots organizers to successfully challenge racial segregation in the U.S. Supreme Court,” David said.
Marshall’s legal strategy, which involved using the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, served as a model that the LGBTQ movement used to challenge the criminalization of homosexuality and the denial of marriage rights.
“We are indebted to the civil rights leaders of the past, because they were really instrumental in outlining the essential objective, which was the guarantee of equal protection and how that should apply to all of us,” David said.
Gay rights lawyers also built on major Black civil rights decisions to achieve same-sex marriage, according to David. In 1967, the Supreme Court held in Loving v. Virginia that laws banning interracial marriage violate the due process and equal protection clauses. “In that case, the Supreme Court held that, yes, there is a fundamental right to marry,” he said.
This same argument was successfully used nearly half a century later in Obergefell v. Hodges, David said, where it was argued that “denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates both the due process and the equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution — and we won.”
“So that is one perfect example where you see the arguments that were advanced during the civil rights struggle to at least recognize equality for racial minorities being used and applied in the context of LGBTQ people,” he added.
‘The same goal’
There has been significant overlap between the civil rights and LGBTQ equality movements, Fullwood said, and that’s a key takeaway.
“What we have to appreciate is that the arguments that were used in the civil rights movement in the 1960s involved LGBTQ people,” Fullwood added, citing a speech given by Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton in 1970.
Outlining the group’s position on the two emerging movements, Newton wrote: “Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion.”
Today’s activists, Fullwood said, have to think about the LGBTQ equality movement as involving Black people and the racial justice movement as involving LGBTQ people.
“Any movement that does not take into account the intersectional approach is never going to achieve true liberation,” he said. “The Black and the LGBTQ movements have the same goal.”
Fullwood said he’s pleased with the kinds of activists who are engaging multi-issue platforms that “call for different, insightful ways to resist oppression,” but that he’s occasionally run into the phrase, “This isn’t your grandmother’s movement.”
“If that’s the sentiment, I say this: You better hope it’s your grandmother’s movement, because she and thousands like her made it possible for you to have the language, perspective and insights that you enjoy today,” he said. “This is not new. Read. Research. Build. You exist in a river of resistance. Know and embrace that history. It’s waiting.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., compared gender-affirming surgery to “genital mutilation” during confirmation hearings Thursday for Dr. Rachel Levine, President Joe Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of health.
If approved, Levine will become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Paul, a former ophthalmologist, was questioning Levine about transition-related care for transgender youth when he said that “genital mutilation is considered particularly egregious because … it is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children.”
Erroneously claiming that Levine supports “surgical destruction of a minor’s genitalia,” Paul asked Levine if she believed minors are capable of making “such a life-changing decision as changing one’s sex?”
Levine, a pediatrician, responded that transgender medicine is “a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and standards of care that have been developed,” and promised to discuss specifics if she is confirmed.
Paul continued his line of questioning, asking if she supports permitting the government to override a parent’s consent to give a child puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and “amputation surgery of breasts and genitalia.” Levine provided a similar response, leading Paul to accuse her of evading the question.
He further questioned criticism of prescribing hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 by the same people who support hormones for transgender teenagers.
Dr. Colt Wasserman, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, who provides gender-affirming care to trans minors, told NBC News that Paul’s questions and concerns are “not based in medical fact whatsoever.”
Wasserman said gender-affirming care is understood and supported by major medical associations and physicians “to be a life-affirming practice that, through an informed consent process, patients, parents and their providers come together to support gender-diverse youth in the medical environment in a wide range of ways, which typically doesn’t involve any kind of procedural intervention.”
“There’s a lot of concern about surgery or irreversible decisions,” when it comes to the health care that transgender youth receive, Wasserman added, but surgery is not a component of that care.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health states in its Standards of Care regarding transgender adolescents that surgery “should not be carried out until (i) patients reach the legal age of majority in a given country, and (ii) patients have lived continuously for at least 12 months in the gender role that is congruent with their gender identity.” The standards add, “The age threshold should be seen as a minimum criterion and not an indication in and of itself for active intervention.” The legal age of majority is at least 18 across the U.S.
Duke Health’s Center for Gender Care for Children and Adolescents, for example, will offer children under 16 therapies to delay puberty and provide hormone replacement therapy for those 16 and older.
“During this time, your child must meet with their local therapist weekly to manage the emotional changes that happen during hormone therapy,” according to the clinic’s website.
Access to gender-affirming care has also been found to have a positive impact on the mental health of trans young people. A studypublished in January 2020 found that transgender people who used puberty blockers had lower rates of suicidal thoughts as adults when compared to trans people who couldn’t access them.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Paul’s language was hurtful to Levine and all the trans people watching her hearing.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there about health care for transgender young people, in particular, but what’s really important to know is that all of the leading medical institutions have researched this and really recognize that it’s primary care,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “It’s different for every trans young person, just because any kind of medical care is different for any kind of individual patient, so it’s personalized, but this is legitimate health care.”
LGBTQ rights advocates swiftly condemned Paul’s comments and praised Levine’s testimony.
“While Rand Paul is a doctor, his own history makes it clear that he has no respect for science or medicine,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims, a Democrat and longtime Levine ally, told NBC News.
Sims, who is gay and recently announced his bid for lieutenant governor, called Levine “a world-class public-health expert.”
“While I remain excited about what Dr. Levine’s selection by President Biden means for her and the LGBTQ+ communities, I’m even more excited about what it means for the country.”
Later in Thursday’s hearings, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Senate health committee, called Paul’s remarks “ideological and harmful misrepresentations.”
But the American Principles Project, a conservative lobbying group that opposes gay marriage, transgender rights and abortion, defended Paul’s “immense courage” in challenging Levine.
“It is important that the American people are aware of just how extreme Joe Biden’s nominees are and what they are likely to support as members of his administration,” the group’s executive director, Terry Schilling, said in a statement. “Dr. Levine’s radical ideology ought to be a disqualifier for any position at HHS, never mind one as important as assistant secretary for health, and we urge the Senate to reject this confirmation when it comes up for a vote.”
She is also no stranger to transphobic attacks from conservatives. For example, in a Jan. 19 article about her nomination, the far-right media outlet Breitbart misgendered and deadnamed Levine repeatedly. (Deadnaming refers to using a transgender person’s former name.)
Shortly after the nomination, Pennsylvania state Rep. Jeff Pyle posted a picture on Facebook mocking Levine’s appearance. After widespread criticism, Pyle, a Republican, deactivated his Facebook page and claimed that he had “no idea” the post “would be … received as poorly as it was,” The Associated Press reported.
Levine is the first trans person to be nominated for a Senate-confirmed position, and “whenever you’re the first trans person, a target gets put on your back,” Heng-Lehtinen said.
“My heart really goes out to her for having to endure those attacks, and I’m grateful that she is so skilled at navigating it as she is, but she shouldn’t have to do that,” he said. “For Senator Paul to kind of blurt out these myths and misconceptions about trans people and try to use that against her, I think really shows how much transphobia is still out there. So as historic as it is for a trans person to be able to be up in front of the Senate, and that’s an important first step, it also reveals just how far we have to go.”
Paul’s questions come at the end of a long week for LGBTQ advocates. The House debated and passed the Equality Act on Thursday, and multiple states, including South Carolina and Utah, held hearings on bills that would ban transgender athletes from competing in school sports.
Nat Mulkey, a transgender medical student at Boston University who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said they had the privilege of being able to step away from the news “when it feels personally attacking and harmful,” but that not every trans person does. Mulkey said Paul’s language would negatively affect trans young people.
“It’s not a hyperbole, or an overstatement to say that it is deadly,” Mulkey said of the senator’s language. They said allowing young trans people an “authentic and private experience with their doctor to discuss these issues and not have the invalidation at such a national level is so important to fostering their health and their lives in general.”
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions must vote on whether to recommend Levine’s nomination to the full Senate. It is not yet known when that vote will happen.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., reintroduced the Equality Act in the House of Representatives on Thursday, with a vote on the sweeping LGBTQ rights bill expected next week.
The move brings the bill one step closer to potentially establishing the first federal discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Specifically, it would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces, public funding and jury service.
The Equality Act passed the Democrat-controlled House in May 2019, but it stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats have taken control of the Senate, advocates are hopeful that the bill will pass.
“In 2021, every American should be treated with respect and dignity,” Cicilline, who has introduced the bill every year since 2015, said in a statement. “Yet, in most states, LGBTQ people can be discriminated against because of who they are, or who they love. It is past time for that to change.”
Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin also announced that they would reintroduce the bill in the Senate next week when the Senate floor reopens for bill introductions.
“All of us go to work and school, go home and go shopping, and none of us should have to keep our families hidden or pretend to be someone we’re not to do those things,” Merkley, who wrote the Equality Act, said in a statement. “But in 29 states, Americans can still be evicted, be thrown out of a restaurant, or be denied a loan because of who they are or whom they love.”
Before Cicilline reintroduced the bill, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced in a letter to colleagues Tuesday that the House would vote on the Equality Act next week. In May 2019, it passed by a 236-173 vote, with eight Republicans voting for it. However, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., never took it up in the Senate.
In October of last year, Biden told Mark Segal, publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and a longtime LGBTQ rights activist, that passing the bill is “essential to ensuring that no future president can ever again roll back civil rights and protections for LGBTQ+ individuals.”
He added that he would also direct his Cabinet to enforce the Equality Act across federal agencies. “Too many states do not have laws that explicitly protect LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination,” Biden said in the interview. “It’s wrong to deny people access to services or housing because of who they are or who they love.”
‘A clear, consistent nationwide statement’
The Equality Act was first introduced by Rep. Bella Abzug, D-N.Y., in 1974, but the bill was eventually killed.
Cicilline introduced the current version in 2015, just after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage constitutional nationwide. Unlike previous versions of the act, the current version includes protections from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
LGBTQ people across the U.S. currently have some level of protection from discrimination through state and local laws and Biden’s expansion of workplace discrimination protections through the Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, ruling last year. However, advocates say the Equality Act is needed to fill in the gaps and ensure that all Americans, regardless of where they reside, are protected.
“While President Biden’s Executive Order implementing the Supreme Court’s Bostock ruling was a crucial step in addressing discrimination against LGBTQ people, it’s still vital that Congress pass the Equality Act to codify the Bostock decision to ensure protection in key areas of life including where existing civil rights laws do not have protections on the basis of sex,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ rights group, said in a statement.
Kevin Jennings, CEO of the LGBTQ civil rights group Lambda Legal, said the legislation will give clarity to employers and landlords, among others, about discrimination.
“In some instances, individuals lose rights and protections the moment they cross the border into a neighboring state, underscoring that the current patchwork of protections for LGBTQ people is inadequate,” Jennings said in a statement. “In addition, as evidenced by the thousands of phone calls to our Help Desk we receive each year, many employers, landlords and lenders still haven’t gotten the message that discrimination is just wrong, which is why we need the absolute clarity of the Equality Act, and we need it now.”
Mara Keisling, executive director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the bill is especially important for transgender people who face a disproportionate amount of violence.
“No act of Congress can end bias overnight or stop all attacks against transgender people,” Keisling said in a statement. “But the Equality Act is a clear, consistent and nationwide statement that says our country believes that all people – including those who are transgender – should be treated fairly and with respect. For transgender people, every trip to the store, every dinner out, every job interview or attempt to rent an apartment carries the risk of disrespect, discrimination and potentially violence. The Equality Act will help allow transgender people to live their lives openly and without fear.”
An Arizona state representative is facing an ethics complaint after he compared transgender people to farm animals at a Wednesday committee hearing.
The hearing was for House Bill 2725, which would require state identification documents to contain only a male or female gender marker. The bill pre-emptively bans nonbinary people, who are neither exclusively male nor female, from using gender-neutral X markers on their IDs, even though Arizona law doesn’t currently permit that.
State Rep. John Fillmore, the bill’s sponsor, said during the hearing that he “proposed this bill just to give clarity in government documents and was hoping to avoid the whole gender identity issue on the gender dysphoria,” according to a video of the hearing.
“What’s going to happen when someday someone wakes up and they want to go to a far extreme and identify as a chicken or something, for crying out loud,” he added. “Where do we draw the line?”
Megan Mogan, who is the mom of a 15-year-old nonbinary child and testified against the bill Wednesday, said Fillmore’s comment was dehumanizing.
“I don’t think you have to be the parent of a nonbinary person, you can just be the parent of anyone, and if someone dehumanizes your child, it’s like one of the worst possible feelings you can have,” Mogan told NBC News on Friday.
She tweeted after the hearing, “Still shaking after an elected GOP state rep just compared my non-binary child to a barnyard animal.”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?creatorScreenName=NBCNews&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1359599151525203970&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nbcnews.com%2Ffeature%2Fnbc-out%2Farizona-legislator-compares-transgender-people-farm-animals-n1257763&siteScreenName=NBCNews&theme=light&widgetsVersion=889aa01%3A1612811843556&width=550px
Riley Behrens, a Harvard University graduate student who was previously a Democratic campaign staffer in Arizona, called Fillmore’s “chicken” comment “disgusting.”
“We were all just in shock,” Behrens, who said he was texting some of the Democratic House members during the hearing, said. “It’s heartbreaking to be in a room and hear people talk about our community that way. … It’s not what we expect from an elected official and shouldn’t be tolerated.”
Behrens said he left the Capitol around 1 p.m. on Wednesday and returned with a notarized ethics complaint against Fillmore at 4:45 p.m.
“I wanted to make a statement,” Behrens said. “You’re not going to say this without some sort of repercussion or public statement back at you.”
Andrew Wilder, director of communications for the Arizona House’s Republican Majority Caucus, shared a statement Friday with NBC News on Fillmore’s behalf.
“The complaint is entirely without merit, and it’s rather unfortunate that some opponents of the bill have unfairly and grossly mischaracterized my comments at Wednesday’s hearing,” the statement read. “I invite people to listen to my actual remarks, which do not remotely match the distorted version critics have alleged.”
On Saturday morning, however, Fillmore emailed NBC News directly, calling the situation “silly and dangerous” and saying words “have consequences.”
“I believe this whole darn conversation is just childish silly,” he wrote. “When a person wants to change the meanings of words because of their ‘feelings’ how can a society have a reasonable discussion about anything if for instance they feel the word ‘blue’ is in fact ‘red’ to them, and then add the word ‘green’ to the color ‘yellow,’ now try to go have an intelligent conversation with an oil artistic painter.”
Behrens also filed a second complaint against Republican state Rep. Kevin Payne in which Behrens alleges Payne “continuously disrupted public testimony.” During Mogan’s testimony about her child, Behrens alleges Payne said, “So it doesn’t know who it is?”
“Referencing any person as ‘it,’ particularly a child, is discriminatory and cannot be tolerated,” Behrens’ complaint, which was shared with NBC News, stated. “By his actions, Representative Payne has engaged in conduct that compromises the character of himself, the integrity of the Arizona State House of Representatives, and shows a lack of respect for members of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Wilder told NBC News in an email, “Representative Payne has stated that he does not recall saying anything like what is alleged in the complaint, nor are such words by him heard in the committee hearing video – an important fact the complainant conceded Thursday to the Arizona Mirror.”
Behrens said Payne’s comment can’t be heard in the hearing video because they were made while Mogan was testifying, but Behrens said he heard them firsthand, as he was sitting about 10 feet away from Payne at the hearing.
Bridget Sharpe, the Arizona state director for the Human Rights Campaign, said she doesn’t think Fillmore “understands the gravity of what he said” or the effects the bill would have on nonbinary people.
“I truly don’t think he understands what this means for nonbinary Arizonans, because he doesn’t believe that, you know, nonbinary is a choice,” Sharpe said. “That’s very difficult to take in. I think that was very offensive. I was upset, mostly for the mothers that were in the Zoom room, and [Mogan] took the time to be vulnerable and testify, only to be met with that comment.”
Sharpe said she and some other advocates reached out to Fillmore’s office to offer him education on the impacts of his statement and the bill but that she hasn’t received a response.
HB 2725 is unnecessary, Sharpe said, because Arizona state law currently only permits people to use a male or female gender marker on their IDs. The bill “takes it a step further and writes it into statute, which is much harder to change down the line,” Sharpe said. “We believe this is cruel, because nonbinary folks should be given a chance at some point to be able to have that X gender marker on state documents including things like their driver’s licenses.”
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia currently offer nonbinary residents the option to use a gender-neutral “X” on IDs, in lieu of an “M” or “F,” according to Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank.
Sharpe said Democratic state Sen. Rosanna Gabaldón has introduced a bill for the last few sessions that would allow nonbinary Arizonans to use an X marker on their IDs, but “so many times, bills like that do not even get hearings, essentially because Republicans feel it’s controversial,” Sharpe said.
Gabaldón introduced the measure, Senate Bill 1162, again in January, but it has not yet been given a hearing.
Mogan said a gender-neutral ID option would relieve her kid and others of “this constant threat of being outed, of being misgendered” in public settings, including those where they might be bullied or discriminated against.
“When you’re free from that constant level of anxiety, you can do other things like be a kid, or be happy,” she said.
Sharpe said she’s not sure whether HB 2725 will pass. It will go to the House Rules Committee next, and then it would move to the floor for discussion, which Sharpe said could happen as early as next week.
Former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Gabbi Tuft said she left the house and walked with her “head up high” for the first time Thursday, after she came out as transgender.
She cried when she recalled the moment. “I felt so happy,” she told NBC News. “My hair wasn’t in my face, and I wasn’t clenching my fists and hiding my nails. It just felt so amazing.”
Tuft officially announced the news on social media Thursday. In an Instagram photo, she sat alongside an image of herself prior to her transition. “This is me,” she wrote in the caption. “Unashamed, unabashedly me. This is the side of me that has hidden in the shadows, afraid and fearful of what the world would think; afraid of what my family, friends, and followers would say or do.”
“I am no longer afraid and I am no longer fearful,” she wrote. “I can now say with confidence, that I love myself for WHO I am.”
Tuft wrestled professionally from 2007 to 2014, and appeared in WWE shows “Superstars,” “Raw,” “SmackDown” and “WrestleMania.”She retired from wrestling to spend more time with her wife, Priscilla, and their daughter, and began a career as a fitness coach and motivational speaker, according to a press releaseannouncing Tuft’s coming out.
But behind all of her career success, Tuft said, her mental health suffered. “The previous eight months have been some of the darkest of my entire life,” she wrote in her coming-out post.
“The pain was overwhelming,” she told NBC News, adding that she struggled with suicidal ideation. “I was that person that was always preaching, ‘Never care what people think, go be yourself,’” she said. “Then when it came to be my turn, it was so much more difficult than I ever imagined.”
Eventually, with her wife’s support, she began the process of coming out. She started a “countdown” on Instagram 10 days before her official announcement. Now, she’s inviting her social media followers to ask questions and has promised to be “transparent” about the entire process. With the help of her wife, she has also started a podcast about her transition called “Her.”
Tuft said her process shows that coming out is different for everyone.
“I don’t ever want anyone to think that the way I did it is the way that everyone should do it,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a blueprint for this.”
She said she wants to be open about her transition to help create awareness and understanding. For example, though many transgender people do not want others to use their previous name, also known as their “deadname,” after they come out, Tuft said she isn’t offended by it. The press release announcing her coming out includes both her former name, Gabe, and her WWE stage name, Tyler Reks.
“The rest of the world is transitioning, too, it’s not just me,” she said. “I can’t expect an overnight change from everyone.”
Tuft acknowledged that though her Instagram announcement showed a photo of herself prior to her transition, that’s not something all trans people are comfortable with.
“There’s a lot of people out there that may feel differently about their past,” she said. “They may not embrace the past, because it’s been so painful for them. But I wanted the world to know that I loved who I was — but I love even more who I am today.”
It’s not her job to change people’s minds, she said, but she hopes that by being transparent and sharing her story, people will relate to her and public acceptance for trans people will grow.
“All I want to do is create empathy and maybe through empathy, we can gain some understanding, and we can reduce the amount of fear and then slowly make a change,” Tuft said. “I think the more relatable that I am, the more that we can create that empathy and build a relationship with people that are watching so that they know they’re not alone.”
Since coming out, she said, she’s been surprised by the overwhelming amount of support: Neighbors have knocked on her door to drop off flowers, and she’s received thousands of messages and comments on social media. “It tells me that there is so much love in this world still,” she said.
She said she’s also surprised by the extent of the joy she feels. “I never expected to have an ear-to-ear smile for the last 24 hours, but I can’t get the smile off my face,” she said. “It’s from the heart, and it’s from the soul, and I never expected to feel this elated.”
Alabama’s policy requiring transgender people to have undergone gender-affirming surgery before they can get state IDs that accurately reflect their gender identities is unconstitutional, a federal court ruled this month.
Fewer than 10 states now require proof of surgery to update the gender marker on a driver’s license.
The Alabama case began in 2018, when three transgender people — Darcy Corbitt, Destiny Clark and an unnamed third person — sued the state after they were denied driver’s licenses that reflected their genders, opposed to their sexes assigned at birth, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The policy for driver’s licenses, which is what we challenged with this lawsuit, requires that people either submit an amended birth certificate or submit proof of having had what they call ‘complete surgery,'” which Alabama interprets to mean both “genital surgery and top surgery,” said the lawyer who litigated the case, Gabriel Arkles, senior counsel at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. An amended birth certificate also requires proof of surgery, although this case didn’t challenge that rule.
On Jan. 15, the U.S. District Court for Middle Alabama, part of the 11th Circuit, ruled that Policy Order 63, the state’s driver’s license policy for transgender people, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because it discriminates based on sex.
“By making the content of people’s driver licenses depend on the nature of their genitalia, the policy classifies by sex; under Equal Protection Clause doctrine, it is subject to an intermediate form of heightened scrutiny,” Senior Judge Myron Thompson, who was nominated to the court by President Jimmy Carter, wrote in the opinion.
Arkles said that any time officials make a policy that treats people differently based on sex, “they have to have a very good reason for what they’re doing, and here they really did not.”
The state argued that the surgery requirement “serves the important government interests in maintaining consistency between the sex designation on an Alabama birth certificate and an Alabama driver’s license,” according to court documents. In addition, the state said Policy Order 63 provides “information related to physical identification” to law enforcement officers.
But the court ruled that those justifications didn’t allow the policy to pass intermediate scrutiny and that the “injuries” it caused were “severe,” acknowledging a number of Arkles’ arguments. The surgery the policy requires “results in permanent infertility in ‘almost all cases,'” the court wrote. Some transgender people might not want or need surgery, and even if they do, it might be inaccessible or unaffordable, as it was for the unnamed plaintiff, the court continued.
“It’s not acceptable for the government to force people to undergo a procedure like that just to get a license that they can use safely and go about their daily life,” Arkles said.
Only 25 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming people reported having undergone some form of transition-related surgery, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.
Arkles and his team also argued that Alabama’s policy violates the privacy of transgender people and puts them in danger.
“Any time a trans person shows an ID with the wrong gender marker on it, that outs us, which also puts people at real, real risk of experiencing discrimination and violence,” he said.
The court ruled on only the first argument, that the policy violates the Equal Protection Clause, but it acknowledged the danger and distress the policy poses to the plaintiffs.
“The alternative to surgery is to bear a driver license with a sex designation that does not match the plaintiffs’ identity or appearance,” the court wrote. “That too comes with pain and risk. … For these plaintiffs, being reminded that they were once identified as a different sex is so painful that they redacted their prior names from exhibits they filed with the court.”
Mike Lewis, a spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office, said the office intends to appeal and has “no further comment.”
Arkles said the three plaintiffs have “been through so much” because of the ID policy: Corbitt hasn’t had a license or been able to drive for the last several months, Clark “sort of shaped her life around trying to minimize situations where she would have to show ID,” and the unnamed client, after she showed her ID to a bank teller, was told that she was going to hell.
Corbitt celebrated that “finally the state of Alabama will be required to respect me and provide an accurate driver’s license.”
“Since my out-of-state license expired, I have had to rely on friends and family to help me pick up groceries, get to church and get to my job. I missed a family member’s funeral because I just had no way to get there,” she said. “But the alternative — lying about who I am to get an Alabama license that endangered and humiliated me every time I used it — was not an option. I’m relieved that I will be able to drive again. While much work remains, this decision will make Alabama a safer place for me and other transgender people.”
The state plans to comply with a court order to give the plaintiffs IDs that accurately reflect their genders, but because it plans to appeal, Arkles said, “it may be quite some time before we know what the ultimate outcome is and what will be required of trans people in Alabama.”
A ‘patchwork’ of ID laws
Only eight states and two U.S. territories now require proof of surgery to change a driver’s license gender marker, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank, and the National Center for Trans Equality.
The remaining states have a variety of policies, according to the Movement Advancement Project, which reports that four states (now including Alabama) have “unclear” policies and that 20 states have “burdensome” policies and/or require medical provider certification of gender transition, which doesn’t include surgery.
Arli Christian, a campaign strategist for the ACLU, said 20 states allow people to decide what gender markers are appropriate for them and “what will keep them safe.”
“And that is hands down the best policy for ensuring that all people have the most accurate gender marker on their ID,” Christian said.
Nineteen states also allow residents to mark M, F or X, a nonbinary gender marker, on their driver’s licenses. Christian said the ACLU is pushing for President Joe Biden to create a policy that would allow transgender people to receive federal IDs, such as passports, that accurately reflect their genders without certification from medical providers. It also wants the policy to allow people to choose the gender-neutral X.
“We have a whole patchwork of gender marker change policies across the country,” Christian said. “Many of them need to be updated and modernized so that we can make sure that everybody has access to that accurate marker to be able to go through their lives without discrimination and harassment.”
Although Arkles is preparing for Alabama’s appeal, he said the ruling is a big step forward.
“While we’re going to keep fighting and we’re going to have to keep fighting this case, it is incredibly, incredibly exciting to have a decision from a judge recognizing that this is unconstitutional and to know that our clients are going to get some relief,” he said.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Emily Shilling came out as transgender on April 14, 2019, two days after a Trump administration policy barring trans people from serving openly in the military took effect.
The policy prevented trans people from enlisting, and it forced “non-exempt” service members like Shilling, who came out after the ban took effect, to continue serving as their assigned sex at birth.
“It was kind of like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,'” she said. “I could be whoever I wanted to be at home. I just couldn’t do anything at work.”
Shilling was depending on the outcome of the presidential election and President Joe Biden’s executive order reversing the Trump administration’s transgender military ban to continue her 15-year career. She said she has completed 60 combat missions and more than 1,700 hours as a pilot flying high-performance jets. Now, she oversees acquisitions for a fleet.
“I was committed to the Navy,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do if the election went differently, if Biden wasn’t putting out this executive order. I would probably have to be leaving the Navy, and they’ve invested 15 years in me. They’ve invested over $40 million in flight training and flight hours,” she said.
The Trump administration had maintained that its policy wasn’t a ban, because service members who wanted to transition and civilians who wanted to enlist were able to apply for waivers. But since the policy took effect, only one waiver has been granted, according to CNN. Shilling said that she had friends who applied for waivers but that they were jeopardizing their careers and their retirements. Many of them had served about 15 years, as she had, and to receive lifetime monthly retirement benefits, you have to serve for at least 20.
“You have to decide that you’re more important than your career, which is unfortunate, given our core values: honor, courage, commitment,” Shilling said.
“I now feel safe to continue my career, to give return on investment of the 15 years that I’ve already given the Navy and that they’ve given me,” Shilling said.
Serving openly will allow her to step into more senior leadership roles and be herself at work. She will be able to change her name, wear makeup if she would like and get the health care she needs. The messaging of Trump’s executive order, she said, “put us in a not worthy group,” so with the reversal, she hopes her command will support her and she’ll have more recourse if she faces harassment.
“I’ve fully transitioned outside of the Navy,” Shilling said. “Now it’s time to start the process where I don’t have to take one hat off and put a new one on to go into work.”
Advocates say people affected by the Trump administration’s policy generally fell into one of three groups. There were the “exempt” transgender service members who received diagnoses of gender dysphoria before April 12, 2019, and were therefore grandfathered in, meaning they could continue to serve openly and transition as their medical providers deemed necessary. Then there were the “non-exempt” trans service members who, like Shilling, came out or received diagnoses of gender dysphoria after the policy took effect and were therefore unable to change their names at work or get access to transition care other than therapy. Last, there were the transgender civilians who wanted to enlist in the military but couldn’t.
Now that the ban has been reversed, trans service members and civilians are figuring out what comes next. Biden directed the secretaries of defense and homeland security to update him in 60 days about their progress implementing the order, but it’s unclear just how soon a new policy will take effect.
‘Your very existence is the issue’
For exempt service members who were serving openly before the ban, the challenge was “operating under this cloud of them being a burden as the official position of the military,” said Lt. Col. Bree Fram, an astronautical engineer in the Air Force and vice president of the trans military group SPARTA.
“So despite what their units may think or despite what their commander may think, it’s a challenge just to continue to go to work and get the job done in this environment where you’re officially a challenge or a problem,” Fram said. “Your very existence is the issue.”
In June 2019, Trump cited the cost of medical care for transgender people as his reason for the ban, even though, Fram said, it makes up a tiny fraction of the Defense Department’s overall health care budget. From 2016 to 2019, the cost of treating trans troops was about $8 million, or about 0.02 percent of the Pentagon’s health care budget, according to data from the Defense Department.
The idea that trans people’s care costs more singled them out “as a special class” for no reason, Fram said. Cisgender service members could get access to hormone therapy for medical reasons if necessary, but transgender service members who came out after the ban couldn’t. “It was the singling out for special treatment that really had no rationale,” Fram said.
The singling out had an effect on military culture, too, said retired Staff Sgt. Adrianna Guevarra, who worked in IT for the Army.
Guevarra, who was serving openly before the ban, said that her command was very supportive but that she experienced more hostility from some of her peers after Trump announced the ban on Twitter. She said that in 2017, while they were training in Hawaii, some other service members said it would be a “security threat” for her to use the women’s bathroom. The situation “got really bad,” she said, so her superiors designated a single bathroom at battalion headquarters just for her.
“It was all the way downstairs, and it was, like, four floors,” Guevarra said. “So every time I had to use the bathroom or I had to change” for physical training, “I would go down to the bathroom and change, come back up, and that’s just not ideal, especially if you’re in a position where you’re needed as quick as possible.”
Overall, however, transgender service members — both those who have been serving openly and those who haven’t — reported overwhelmingly positive experiences, despite the Trump administration’s claims that the presence of trans service members negatively affected “cohesion” and “readiness.”
“As for affecting cohesion, my peers, seniors, everybody are also upset that I’m not allowed to transition,” Sgt. Liam Aguirre, a physical therapy technician based at Fort Carson, Colorado, said about his unit’s sentiment before the ban was lifted.
Aguirre, like Shilling, is non-exempt. “It’s been more of a burden not allowing people to be who they are and not allowing people to actually just be the best that they can be,” Aguirre said.
Fram came out June 30, 2016, the same day the Obama administration announced that it would permit transgender people to serve openly in the military. Fram said that shortly after the announcement, she came out in a Facebook post and in an email to her colleagues.
“I was a little hesitant,” Fram said. She said that she was uncertain what the impact would be but that she hit send anyway and then headed to the Pentagon gym, where she went “faster than I ever” had before on the elliptical machine.
She said that when she returned to her desk, she was overwhelmed by the in-person and Facebook responses.
“It was nothing but love and support, but even more so, it was my colleagues who, one by one, walked over to my desk, shook my hand and said, ‘It’s an honor to serve with you,'” she said. “I was floored.”
‘The clouds parted’
Some trans civilians, like Kaycen Bradley, 22, who lives in San Bruno, California, have been waiting years to enlist. Before Trump reinstated the ban, the Obama administration policy required trans people who wanted to enlist to be stable in their gender for at least 18 months before enlistment.
Bradley had planned to enlist in the Marine Corps in August 2019, which would have been 18 months after his last medical procedure. But the ban took effect in April.
“At that point, I was just devastated, because … I only had a few more months to go,” Bradley said. “That’s all I had left, and … it definitely broke my spirits a little bit.”
Since then, he’s been working in a gym, training and keeping in touch with military recruiters. His desired branch has changed — once Biden’s reversal takes effect, he plans to enlist in the Army — but his desire to be part of the military hasn’t wavered.
“I want to try to be the first one that actually gets to go in,” Bradley said. “Just because I’ve been waiting for so long. So … this is going to be pretty big.”
Paulo Batista, 36, who lives in San Diego and works in technical maintenance, said the day Biden issued his executive order reversing the ban, “it was just like the clouds parted.” He wants to join the Navy or Air Force and become an information technician or an aviation technician in aeronautics.
“I love to tinker with everything, and it’s just a passion,” he said. “To do it in uniform, it would just be me living my dream on a daily basis, getting to do what I like, getting to learn and work with a group of people that, you know, when you join the military, they have your back.”
Shilling wants Congress and the Biden administration to enact legislation to ensure that transgender Americans’ ability to serve their country openly doesn’t change “with the next administration or the whim of politics.”
Until then, trans service members and hopeful enlistees say they will keep fighting for their right to serve. Army Maj. Kara Corcoran said she often hears people say trans people are joining the military “just so you can transition.”
“No. I joined to serve my country, and that’s what the rest of transgender service members did, as well,” she said. “They joined to serve their country, because we love this country, and we’re willing to fight for this country. And we’re willing to fight for our right to fight for this country.”
Devyn Box, 36, a social worker in Dallas, avoids going places in Texas where IDs have to be shown, because Box’s lists their sex assigned at birth rather than their nonbinary gender.
Nineteen states across the U.S. allow nonbinary residents to use an “X” mark for gender on state IDs, like driver’s licenses, though Texas is not one of them. Box, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said a federal policy that would allow them and other individuals who identify as neither exclusively male nor female to receive an accurate ID would make a huge difference in their daily quality of life.
“On my mortgage, I had to put the wrong gender, because they wouldn’t let me select my actual gender,” Box told NBC News. “I’ve had situations where people are going on what’s on my ID, and so then I have to basically out myself to them if I want for them to speak to me respectfully, which can be unsafe, and it’s also just uncomfortable and exhausting having to continuously educate and advocate for myself.”
In Joe Biden’s plan to “advance LGBTQ+ equality in America and around the world,” which is on his campaign website, the president-elect said he “believes every transgender or non-binary person should have the option of changing their gender marker to ‘M,’ ‘F,’ or ‘X’ on government identifications, passports, and other documentation.” As a result, he vowed to support state and federal efforts that permit trans people to have IDs that accurately reflect their gender identity.
Box said they hope the Biden administration will push for a federal rule in its first 100 days, because they don’t plan to move out of Texas anytime soon, and they don’t expect the state to pass its own legislation. Until then, Box said they will continue to feel unsafe and experience hostility from people while explaining their identity.
“I don’t want to make it a big deal, like I just want to exist and not have to give this any thought,” Box said. “I just feel like if I had an ID that matched who I am, that I could possibly cut down on the number of times that I have to experience that. But it’s just kind of unavoidable everywhere I go.”
Last March, during the Democratic presidential primary race, Biden released an ambitious plan to advance LGBTQ rights, but at the time it was unclear what he would realistically be able to accomplish if elected with a Republican-controlled Senate. But now that Democrats will narrowly control Congress and the White House for the first time since 2011, many of Biden’s LGBTQ proposals appear much more achievable.
LGBTQ people and advocates are gearing up to hold Biden to his promises in the first 100 days of his presidency. Some, like Box, want to see federal ID legislation, which the American Civil Liberties Union is pushing for Biden to institute via an executive order. Others want him to immediately undo the ban on transgender people serving in the military and a variety of other Trump administration policies that rolled back protections for LGBTQ people. Advocates would also like to see Biden pass federal discrimination protections, among other legislation.
“With Mitch McConnell in charge of the Senate, there was no chance we would ever get a vote on any of our stuff,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Trans Equality, said of pro-LGBTQ legislation.
With McConnell, R-Ky., in a minority leader role, the bill faces fewer barriers.
“The opportunity that we have to pass the Equality Act is better now than it’s ever been before,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. “This should be a part of our civil rights laws.”
Addressing a four-year ‘onslaught of attacks’
Advocates also expect Biden to deliver on his promises of immediately undoing Trump policies that targeted LGBTQ people with executive orders or new guidelines.
Neither of those policies are currently in effect. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is scheduled to issue the final version of the policy for homeless shelters in April. Last August, a federal judge blocked the Department of Health and Human Services from removing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in health care. The administration finalized another rule on Jan. 12 that would allow social service providers to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and it’s scheduled to take effect Feb. 11.
Nancy Nyman, who is a foster parent with her wife in Los Angeles, said she hopes Biden will act immediately to “recognize the importance of same-sex couples and families in the foster care system.”
“There is definitely always a need for more families in foster care, and to enable organizations to discriminate against same sex couples or LGBTQ couples in the foster care system just seems outrageous to us,” she said. “This kind of discrimination, it cuts deep, because it cuts parents who are very well equipped to help, and to help solve a really big problem in our country.”
Some of the “attacks” on LGBTQ people over the last four years have been more subtle, according to David. For instance, the Trump administration removed references to LGBTQ people from federal agency websites.
“All of these steps that have been taken by the Trump administration were really focused on effectively erasing LGBTQ people, trying to suggest that LGBTQ people don’t exist,” David said.
The administration has also rolled out policies that disproportionately affect LGBTQ people of color, like the travel restriction focused on Muslim-majority countries, among other immigration policies, according to Kamal Fizazi, 47, a lawyer who lives in New York City. Fizazi said immigration and criminal justice are two issues that matter most to them as a queer Muslim.
“There are some people who live in Muslim-majority countries that need to get out of those societies because they’re facing some persecution, and the U.S. used to be a safe harbor,” Fizazi said. “At the same time, the idea that the U.S. is a safe harbor is increasingly open to question. It feels increasingly unsafe here for some people.”
There are currently around 70 countries around the world that criminalize homosexuality and at least nine that have laws criminalizing certain types of gender expression, which are aimed at transgender and gender-nonconforming people, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of them are in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Fizazi also said they would like to see Biden enforce and expand Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program for undocumented young people who came to the United States as children, and expand access to affordable health care.
“Health care is an LGBTQ issue, given that we have higher rates of mental health illness and addiction,” Fizazi said.
Many of the Trump administration policies that LGBTQ advocates would like to see reversed by the incoming Biden administration could be undone without congressional action in the first 100 days, although rules issued by the Department of Health and Human Services will take longer to address as they have to follow a longer administrative process that includes a public comment period.
Sending a new message
While LGBTQ advocates want Biden to move swiftly to reverse a number of Trump-era policies, they would want his administration to implement proactive, pro-LGBTQ policy. In addition to federal ID legislation, a number of advocates would like to see the Biden team issue guidance to federal agencies regarding implementation of the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, which granted LGBTQ people protections from employment discrimination.
While the Bostock ruling specifically addressed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which deals with workplace discrimination, David advocated for the decision’s central finding — that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — to be applied to other federal discrimination protections.
“We have many federal statutes not only in the area of employment, where LGBTQ people could be protected but have not been because the administration has not implemented the Bostock decision,” David said.
Much of what the administration can do immediately, Keisling said, is send LGBTQ people a different message than the one they’ve received over the last four years. She said that after the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidance meant to protect trans students in schools, calls to the Trans Lifeline, a crisis hotline run by and for trans people, increased.
“What it does to trans kids to know that the president of the United States is coming after them over and over again, what it does to our service members, who one month they’re told, ‘We welcome you if you’re qualified, you can serve,’ and in the next month, the commander in chief is just whimsically tweeting that they can’t serve anymore — there’s big psychic damage to that,” Keisling said. “People are going to feel better not being attacked.”
Three North Carolina municipalities passed discrimination protections for LGBTQ people this past week, shortly after the expiration of a yearslong moratorium on such measures.
Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill passed ordinances protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people from discrimination in public accommodations and employment on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
The three bills that passed so far are similar, though the Carrboro and Hillsborough ordinances carry a $500 penalty for violation and, according to their text, “Each and every day during which such discrimination continues shall be deemed a separate offense.” Officials in Orange County and the city of Durham are expected to vote on nondiscrimination measures Tuesday, and the Greensboro City Council is expected to discuss a similar ordinance in the coming weeks.
Advocates say it’s been a long time coming.
“We’ve been talking with elected officials since well before HB2 and trying to get these kinds of progressive policies passed,” Allison Scott, director of policy and programs at the Campaign for Southern Equality, told NBC News. “So to see these actually coming up to a vote feels amazing.”
People who live in the municipalities that pass these ordinances will not only be protected on the local level from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — but also based on race, national origin, marital or familial status, pregnancy, veteran status, religious belief, age and disability. That’s because North Carolina is one of five states that only have statewide discrimination protections for people with disabilities, leaving LGBTQ people and other groups open to discrimination in areas where they aren’t currently protected by federal law.
Even in areas where LGBTQ individuals are protected by federal law, there may be loopholes that leave some people out. Scott cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, as an example: The landmark 2020 decision ruled that LGBTQ people are protected under federal civil rights law from employment discrimination, but this doesn’t include individuals who work at small businesses with fewer than 15 employees. Those individuals, however, will now be protected from discrimination under these new local ordinances.
“It just shows the importance of why these laws are needed and why cities and counties need to step up,” Scott said.
HB2’s lasting impact
In early 2016, the Charlotte City Council passed North Carolina’s first public accommodations law protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. The ordinance, however, drew criticism due to a clause that said transgender people would be allowed to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity rather than their sex assigned at birth.
Shortly after, the North Carolina General Assembly called a special session to debate the ordinance. Lee Storrow, executive director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network, said the ordeal was disheartening to many LGBTQ people in the state.
“That whole debate was just really hard to be a part of,” said Storrow, who has lived in Chapel Hill since 2007. “Because of the debate in 2016, people are so aware that they’re not protected, and it may not be that they have a specific moment where they’ve directly been discriminated against, but just the threat and knowing that they have no legal protections, that really has an impact on folks.”
In March 2016, just a few weeks after Charlotte passed its nondiscrimination ordinance, then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed into law HB2, or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act.
When the General Assembly did finally repeal HB2 the following year, municipalities still weren’t allowed to pass their own nondiscrimination measures. While advocates have waited for the moratorium to expire, LGBTQ North Carolinians have continued to face discrimination, they say.
“Just this month, someone in our network reached out about a person who was denied gender-affirming care who works for the state,” Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said.
The statewide LGBTQ advocacy group also received calls during the election about people being “policed around their identity, because their name does not match what the particular poll worker thought they should look like if they had a certain gender marker on their ID,” according to Johnson.
“It’s every single month we hear cases of discrimination,” Johnson added. “I know that these measures are necessary because we don’t have comprehensive nondiscrimination in the state, and we do not have it on the federal level, so we have to start where people live and work, and that’s cities and towns.”
The end of the moratorium means municipalities can start passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances, but there are limits. Scott said there’s a clause in HB142 that gives only the General Assemblythe power to legislate bathrooms and public changing facilities.
“That’s why we still need a full repeal of 142,” she said. “We know fully 67 percent of North Carolinians, a supermajority, believe that LGBTQ people should be protected from discrimination.”
‘A sense of relief’
After Carrboro passed its ordinance Tuesday, Mayor Lydia Lavelle said it reminded her of how she felt when same-sex marriage became legal.
“It’s kind of like, ‘About time,’” she said. “I’m feeling like it was long overdue.”
North Carolina will join 47 other states that either have statewide protections for LGBTQ people or allow cities and counties to create their own protections, according to Lavelle, who is a law professor at North Carolina Central University.
“We were an outlier before,” she said. “We’re joining the strong, strong majority of states that allow communities to do this.”
Tiz Giordano, who works in Carrboro, said they’re “elated” that the town passed discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
“I’ve been able to build queer community, have chosen family and live in safety as my true self due to living in Carrboro and working in an affirming workplace,” they said. “I just want other queer and trans people to be able to feel this way and feel protected, especially in medical settings.”
Though Carrboro is a relatively progressive community, Giordano said their spouse has faced medical discrimination in the past. Under the new ordinance, hospitals and physicians’ offices will be considered public accommodations and LGBTQ people will be protected.
“Knowing that people will be able to have a case in court if they are being discriminated against definitely gives me a sense of relief,” Giordano said.
Vanity Reid Deterville, program director of the LGBTQ Center of Durham, said nondiscrimination laws at any level of government are especially important after the Trump administration rolled back certain federal protections for LGBTQ people over the last four years.
“Protections of any sort when it comes to the LGBT community — and, more specifically, queer and trans Black women, people of color — is critical,” she said, pointing to their level of marginalization in society.
Johnson said she’s confident the newly passed ordinances will help better protect LGBTQ people in the state, but she said she’s also happy to see elected officials coming together to do something for their constituents.
“I think we’re in a moment where there’s been a real ‘us versus them’ mentality coming from the White House down,” she said. “It’s nice to see elected officials recognizing that yes, there is discrimination, people should have the right to pursue their livelihood, to have housing, to not be discriminated [against] in health care and to be treated as equal and valuable citizens of towns, and acting to actually start to make that a reality.”