Chase Strangio is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, working on their LGBT & AIDS project. Prior to working at the ACLU, Strangio had served as an Equal Justice Works Fellow and staff attorney at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York. In 2012, Strangio founded the Lorena Borjas Community Fund, and organization that provides court support and bail assistance to LGBT immigrant defendants in New York.
STRANGIO: In 2013, the movement for trans justice and equality made tremendous advances. This year, after nearly a decade of advocacy led by the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Social Security Administration (SSA) finally updated its policy for changing one’s gender designation in Social Security records. Under the new policy, transgender people are able to change the gender designation on their Social Security records without proof of surgery. This policy replaces SSA's outdated and inconsistently-applied policy requiring documentation of surgery. Accurate identification is essential for protecting the safety, privacy and autonomy of transgender individuals. The SSA now joins almost all other federal agencies in abandoning surgical standards to effectuate gender marker changes. In an effort led by the ACLU, the Idaho Transportation Department also dropped its surgical requirement for gender marker changes on Idaho driver’s licenses, which marked a key advance for Transgender Idahoans.
With so few enumerated federal protections for transgender individuals, the passage of a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the United States Senate was a hugely symbolic victory for the transgender community and hopefully we will see a trans-inclusive ENDA passed through Congress and signed by President Obama in the next year.
In August of 2013, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) regulations, which include vitally important protections for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in prison, jail and juvenile detention facilities, went into effect at the state and local level. These regulations prohibit genital-based placements and searches for the sole purpose of determining one’s genital status.
This year in two important schools cases, transgender young people won the right to access sex segregated facilities consistent with their gender identities. In June, the Colorado Civil Rights Division found that the Fountain-Fort Carson School District discriminated against 6-year old transgender student Coy Mathis by denying her access to the girls’ bathroom. The next month, in July, the United States Departments of Education and Justice announced a settlement with the Arcadia School District in California, which included a determination that a transgender male student be permitted to use the boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with his gender identity.
This year we also saw the first transgender woman of color play a transgender character on television in Laverne Cox’s depiction of Sophia Burset on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Cox, a leader in the transgender community, has been an icon for trans people who so rarely see themselves in popular media and almost never in a positive light. Cox along with trans activist, Janet Mock, have centered conversations about transgender justice, especially justice for transgender woman of color, in important public conversations.
In 2014, the ACLU will once again be pushing aggressively at the federal level for both the passage of ENDA in Congress, as well as continuing to urge President Obama to issue an executive order barring businesses that contract with the federal government, and thus receive taxpayer dollars, from engaging in LGBT discrimination. Given the devastating toll that employment discrimination has on transgender individuals, both of these goals are of unique importance to the transgender community. The significance of the nondiscrimination executive order for federal contractors is tremendous, and represents the single most important step that President Obama could take on his own during the remainder of his second term to eradicate LGBT discrimination in America’s workplaces. It has been estimated that this executive order would cover a fifth of the entire U.S. labor force, and, with federal contractors employing people in all 50 states, would ensure that there were at least some workplaces in every state with legally binding protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In addition to employment discrimination, the ACLU will once again be spearheading advocacy efforts in Congress in support of passage of the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA). SNDA would require schools to take LGBT harassment and bullying seriously when parents or students tell them about it, and provides LGBT students and their families with appropriate legal remedies against discriminatory treatment (e.g. refusing to respect and recognize the gender identity of transgender students). A 2011 nationwide survey of more than 8,500 students between the ages of 13-20 by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that eight out of ten LGBT students reported experiencing harassment at their school within the past year based on their sexual orientation. Transgender students experienced even more hostile school climates than their non-transgender peers, with 80% of transgender students reporting feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression. Given numbers like this, ensuring that students are able to attend school and learn in an environment that is free of discrimination and harassment remains of paramount importance to transgender youth.
In addition to pushing for the passage of explicit bans on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in Congress, the ACLU will continue urging federal agencies to clarify that existing bans on sex discrimination (such as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972) protect those who are transgender. This is consistent with numerous federal court decisions, as well as a landmark ruling from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012. It is of critical importance for federal agencies to make clear that discriminating against someone because they are transgender or do not conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity through their gender expression is just another form of sex discrimination.