Why the Transgender Law Center Is Going After Mike Pence

Kris Hayashi

This week, Transgender Law Center joined MALDEF to file a lawsuit The Wall Street Journal described as “bringing together two of the country’s hottest political issues” — transgender rights and immigration.  

It’s true that much of the heated rhetoric, discriminatory legislation, and violence that has marked this year has centered on questions of gender and citizenship. “No men in women’s restrooms” and “build that wall” are currently battling it out for bigoted catchphrase of the year.

But for people like our plaintiff, these aren’t two hot-button political issues. They’re his life. Along with his roles as a husband and a father, they make up his identity, the daily facts and fears of his existence — stamped large on an Indiana State ID that uses his female birth name and thus outs him as transgender person every time he presents it.

The Indiana law that prevents our client, like all noncitizens in the state, from changing his name was passed in 2010, a year of sweeping legislative attacks on immigrants. It was the same year Arizona passed its infamous Senate Bill 1070, which has since largely been struck down by the Supreme Court. Even though our client received asylum and before that benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, he is blocked from changing his name to match his identity because of a law that stereotyped immigrants as fraudsters and criminals — much as, in passing House Bill 2 this year, North Carolina legislators stereotyped transgender people as imposters and predators.

The consequences for our client have been devastating. He fears going out anywhere he might be asked for an ID, and with it asked to explain why a man like him has a woman’s name. “Normal things like going to the doctor are really stressful and scary for me,” he’s said. He’s gone into the ER for pain, and instead of providing compassionate care, a group of nurses gathered around to gawk at him and then laughed out in the hallway. Once, when he was pulled over, a cop demanded that he stop playing games and show his real ID or he would be arrested. The officer only calmed down when our client’s wife came and explained the situation, at which point the officer told her to take “it” away with her.

Our client’s experience is familiar to many. Yet since we filed the lawsuit, some in the transgender community have questioned why, when transgender citizens are so often denied our rights, we are fighting for the rights of those who are not citizens. The reason is simple. The discrimination and violence that transgender individuals face is not limited to citizens. Bias and discrimination affect all transgender people, including green card holders, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants.

The U.S. Constitution makes clear that every person in the country has rights, regardless of their citizenship status. The Indiana law violates our client’s and others’ rights to equal protection, due process, and freedom of speech. More to the point, though, the kind of thinking behind these questions relies on the same dangerous reasoning that colors all attacks on transgender people’s rights in this country, citizens or not. To say that we should prioritize the rights of transgender people who are citizens before the rights of those who are not is akin to saying we should prioritize the rights of women and girls who are not transgender over those who are.

Humanity, dignity, and equal treatment under the law is not a zero-sum game, where to grant it to some requires denying it to others. You might say the opposite is true: Denying humanity to some is to deny it to all.

Pivotal moments in our movement have long been led by people who understand this — by the trans women of color who resisted police brutality at Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall, by the transgender immigrants fighting for not one more deportation.

The Indiana law, though perhaps designed to “just” target immigrants, in effect harms transgender immigrants most of all. It denies yet another trans person the dignity and respect of being able to go about his day safely and without being questioned.

Gender doesn’t end where xenophobia and racism begin.

You can show your support for our client and other immigrants impacted by this law by signing our petition to Indiana Gov. Pence here.

[RELATED: You Got Served, The Mike Pence Edition]

KRIS HAYASHI is the executive director of the Transgender Law Center. Follow the center on Twitter @TransLawCenter.

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