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Op-ed: Pushing Transgender Rights Bills in a Difficult State

Op-ed: Pushing Transgender Rights Bills in a Difficult State


What can the rise of transgender political power in Philadelphia can tell us about the fight in our state and elsewhere? How can trans folks keep the progress going?

A couple of months ago, I had to move from my home state of Pennsylvania to California for various reasons, including the fact that Pennsylvania's Medicaid does not cover gender transition-related surgeries. However, as I make a new life here, the Keystone State has been on my mind the last few weeks.

Why? Because state Rep. Mark Cohen, a Philadelphia Democrat, has introduced two major transgender rights bills. HB 303 is based on California's Success For All Students Act, which allows for students to dress, use facilities, and participate in programs conducive with their gender identity, while HB 304 would require all private, public, and Medicaid health plans to include transition-related health coverage.

I worked with Cohen's office for a year to draft and introduce these bills, but they still face long odds in a rather conservative legislature, even as Pennsylvania has a supportive governor in Tom Wolf. To fully understand the significance of these bills, one must look at Philadelphia and how the transgender community has built political power in that city.

Philadelphia has been the city that says yes to the LGBT community when the Pennsylvania legislature has said no. Aside from a few administrative (i.e. changing gender on driver's licenses) and judicial (i.e. marriage equality) victories, nothing has been done in terms of LGBT rights on the state level. On the other hand, Philadelphia had achieved trans-inclusive antidiscrimination, a slew of life partnership provisions, and a few administrative victories such as a homeless shelter policy by 2011. Even so, I found myself witnessing many Philadelphia candidates and elected officials hit all the right notes on LGBT issues, but when it came time to addressing the unique issues with the T -- especially health care -- finding it was a bridge too far for them.

That began to change in 2012 and 2013. First, a City Council resolution calling on our quasi-state-related public transit agency, SEPTA, to cease the use of gender stickers on weekly and monthly passes -- a long-standing issue in the transgender community -- passed unanimously. Two weeks later SEPTA pledged to end its gender sticker policy in 2013, which it made good on. I was proud to work with the council member on this resolution, and I also must recognize the group Riders Against Gender Exclusion for agitating for years on this.

Then, there was Bill 130224, an LGBT rights omnibus that granted city workers access to transition-related health care, implemented a transgender health tax credit, mandated gender-neutral bathrooms in city buildings, and amended the already trans-inclusive antidiscrimination law to include dress codes at work and bathroom use everywhere. The prime sponsor, Jim Kenney, solicited the input of several transgender people in the drafting of the bill, including transgender city employee Kathy Padilla and me. The bill passed overwhelmingly in 2013 and was signed by the mayor.

With Pennsylvania's government seeming to have turned a corner on trans issues by early 2014, I gave serious thought to the idea of pitching bills related to the unique administrative hostility that the transgender community faces. I had to locate a prime sponsor, and Rep. Mark Cohen took it on. What followed was a lengthy and difficult drafting process where we ended up wading in the dark on these issues, as the multifaceted institutional discrimination trans people face calls for complex civil rights legislation. However, we were able to get these bills out there, and I thank Rep. Cohen's office for agreeing to take this on and solicit the input of the community.

As difficult as the drafting process was, the harder part will now be passing HB 303 and HB 304. Both these bills, as of this writing, have fewer than a dozen cosponsors (out of 203 house members); the cosponsors are all liberal Democrats, most of them from Philadelphia. As much as I thank them for this cosponsorship, there will be no victory unless there is bipartisan support all over the state. Although this will be a tough road, and I am not holding my breath about passing them this session, I hope that the transgender community mobilizes behind these two bills.

This is why I am calling on transgender people and their allies all over Pennsylvania, especially those in the western and central parts of the state, to contact their legislators and urge them to cosponsor HB 303 and HB 304.

Furthermore, transgender people, if they are able, and if they have a narrative around denied health care and/or mistreatment in school, should make an effort to visit their representative's office to tell their story. Perhaps that could encourage their lawmakers to to cosponsor and work toward passing these bills. We should be persistent, debunk their arguments about bathroom panic or surgery costing too much, and push them to be on the right side of history.

Other actions that can be taken include organizing and attending lobby days in the state capitol and writing letters to your local newspaper in support of these bills as well as figuring out what your municipality, county, or school board can do to further transgender rights in the absence of statewide laws.

Yes, we face a difficult battle, and yes, we may have trouble getting the necessary support. But if transgender folks all over the state went further than social media and did some real-world activism, we might be able to galvanize the community, and even if the bill dies at the end of the session, we could come back stronger than ever. We can make this happen sooner or later.

So, to transgender Pennsylvanians, I say: Transgender health care and students' rights in our state are yours if you want them. I am here in California, so I can no longer be involved. But there are trans people all over the commonwealth, especially youth, especially those of color, especially those with disabilities, especially those in poverty, and especially those who live away from the rainbow city of Philadelphia, who need those who are able to take action now. I am leaving it up to you.

Jordan-gwendolyn-davis-x400_0JORDAN GWENDOLYN DAVIS is a California-based social justice advocate and transgender woman who has done a lot of trans advocacy in her home state of Pennsylvania, including building political power for the trans community in Philadelphia. She can be reached at

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