Sixty-five years before I became the first openly gay executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in 2001, we filed our first lesbian, gay and bisexual rights case. Both the opportunities for progress and the attacks we are defending against have changed over the years, and the ACLU’s work has changed with them.
We can now say with confidence that the ACLU’s work for LGBTQ equality will continue for years to come. Today we are announcing the naming of the Jon L. Stryker and Slobodan Randjelović LGBTQ & HIV Project, located inside of the ACLU Ruth Bader Ginsburg Liberty Center. Jon and Slo’s generosity will allow the ACLU’s work to make justice and equality a lived reality for LGBTQ people and all people living with HIV to continue for generations to come.
I have known Jon and Slo for nearly two decades. I saw their commitment to the LGBTQ movement before, during, and after the fight for marriage equality. Jon formed the Arcus Foundation to become a leading funder of not just the ACLU’s work, but the nationwide movement of dozens of national and hundreds of local organizations that made the work possible. This didn’t just include the flashy work that generated headlines. This included the grassroots and infrastructure work that any successful campaign needs. As the ACLU pivoted from marriage to working toward non-discrimination protections, fighting against religious exemptions, and investing more and more deeply in trans justice, Jon and Slo have been there. And they have encouraged other funders who were instrumental in the marriage work to continue investing in the LGBTQ movement.
This was made so clear to me when Jon and Slo joined me at the U.S. Supreme Court when our client Aimee Stephens — who lived in Jon’s home state of Michigan — challenged her firing because she was a trans woman. Jon and Slo also attended the Supreme Court arguments in the Proposition 8 case. They care about this work deeply, personally.
Every civil rights movement needs organizations that are of, by, and for the community. In the LGBTQ space, that’s organizations like Lambda Legal, the Transgender Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Transgender Law Center. For an organization that works the waterfront of civil rights and civil liberties issues, we are proud to partner with these organizations, as well as Black Lives Matter, United we Dream, Planned Parenthood, and many other leaders.
What makes the ACLU different is our 101-year history (in addition to the case in 1936, we filed our first trans rights case in 1967), the experience and knowledge we gain from working on a range of issues and nationwide presence. We go before the Supreme Court more than any other civil rights organization. In fact, we’ve been counsel in 7 of 9 LGBTQ rights cases before the court — more than any other organization. With offices in every state, D.C., and Puerto Rico, we’ve been able to see the new attacks on the horizon because of our nationwide network.
The current attacks on transgender students in sports is a prime example. We started prepping for this fight a year before the onslaught of anti-trans legislation we saw in 2020 and are experiencing again at this very moment. We saw how those opposed to LGBTQ rights were switching from restrooms to sports. And we started to spread the message that trans people belong in sports. With half the states in our country attacking trans youth — in addition to the attacks in sports, dozens of states want to criminalize health care for trans youth — this fight could not be more urgent. Idaho’s law attacking trans student in sports has thankfully been blocked because of our clients, Lindsay Hecox and an anonymous cisgender student, who sued Idaho. We will continue to see politicians that attack trans youth in court, including as Gavin Grimm’s victory has once again been appealed to the Supreme Court.
Jon has said before that the fight for LGBTQ human rights is “life and death.” This is particularly true for Black trans women in our country who face violence from law enforcement and who get turned away from stores and jobs because of inaccurate IDs. We’re fighting to decriminalize sex work and improve access to accurate IDs to reduce how many trans and non-binary people experience this discrimination, harassment, and violence. While a Biden administration will make much of this work easier, so much of it will still rely upon local policy makers and a deeper respect for trans people in every context.
And that’s why this fight continues to require all of us.
The grassroots army that was calling for change during marriage is still needed today. No one donor — no matter how generous — can do this on their own. Jon and Slo have always been clear about that. What the LGBTQ movement needs is all of these voices supporting the trans rights movement and fighting against attempts to undermine our civil rights laws.
“We the People” should include the entire LGBTQ community. It doesn’t yet. And our work won’t be over until that changes.
Anthony Romero is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.