Op-ed: We Must Stop the Legislative War on Transgender People
State lawmakers across the country continue to push bills designed to undermine the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, with more than 100 bills in 29 states. Many of these bills put transgender people at the center of the bullseye.
Of these 100+ bills introduced in statehouses across the country, 20 bills specifically target transgender people. Most recently, an initiative in California aims to put an unconstitutional bathroom bill on the state’s 2016 ballot. The spike in antitransgender legislation mirrors the spike in murders and suicides among transgender people in 2015, at least eight suicides and seven murders of transgender people that we know of.
This juxtaposition may be uncomfortable, but make no mistake, these bills help foster the hostile and stigmatizing environment in which these deaths are occurring. Imagine being a transgender young person, seeing headlines that make clear you are unwelcome and excluded by your very own public officials.
Beyond the messages they’re sending, all of these bills could create nightmarish situations for transgender people in everyday life — from going to school to finding a home to simply using the bathroom.
Take Florida’s House Bill 583 — a bill that would criminalize the very act of using the appropriate public bathroom in the entire state of Florida. It would also hold businesses, schools, and public accommodations liable. In other words, a shopkeeper could be sued for not forcing the burliest transgender man to use the women’s bathroom. Because everything’s bigger in Texas, lawmakers there have introduced not just one but four similar bills. Another seven bills solely targeting transgender people are pending in six states.
Much like the most vicious of our opposition attempted in the earlier days of the fight for gay and lesbian rights, antitrans extremists insinuate that transgender people are predators. The lawmakers usually don’t go so far, but they do falsely claim protections for transgender people will provide cover for predators — a claim that’s completely bogus. If a state adopts legal protections for transgender people, existing laws that criminalize predatory behavior in restrooms do not disappear or become diluted. Not only would it still be illegal to harass or harm others in a bathroom, 17 states and 200 cities have protections for transgender people in place. Guess how many have had an increase in public safety reports? Not a one.
Here’s the real issue when it comes to bathrooms — the all too frequent verbal and oftentimes physical harassment of transgender people in schools, in workplaces, and in public when trying to use the appropriate restroom. It’s an issue that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sought to address last week in a decision that said denying transgender people access to restrooms violates federal sex discrimination laws. State lawmakers should take note. And transgender people who have been denied access should file complaints. The message from the EEOC is clear: Everybody deserves privacy in the bathroom, and transgender people are no different.
These bills put schools and businesses in an impossible position. Without a doubt, these bills violate federal workplace and education protections if passed. Bathroom bills like these make our schools and businesses vulnerable to lawsuits for violating federal Title IX and Title VII protections, respectively. At the same time, should these bills become law, schools and businesses would be liable for violating state statutes by following federal law. Because of antitrans bias, students and employees are trapped in the middle of a no-win situation. Students and workers alike deserve better.
The real tragedy is that this mean-spirited bathroom debate takes time and attention away from the alarming reality that too many transgender people face in this country due to ignorance, rejection, and discrimination. Far too many transgender people lack homes, jobs and health care. Far too many are forced to live in survival mode. And far too many see the lives of their friends and loved ones cut short by violence. Like the families of Lamia Beard in Virginia, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus in California, and Penny Proud in Louisiana.
We’re making gains — like securing transgender-inclusive health care for millions of employees in the private sector — but we’re not making them quickly enough. There has never been a more important time to stand together as a community — as LGBT people and allies — to end attempts to write discrimination into law and to stop the stigmatization of transgender lives.
We must do better. We will beat these bills, but we can’t do it alone. Together, unified in our commitment to leave nobody behind, we will fight these blls in legislatures, courts, or the voting booth.
CHAD GRIFFIN is the president of the Human Rights Campaign. MARA KEISLING is the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.