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We Won’t Be Erased

We Won’t Be Erased

<p>We Won’t Be Erased</p>

As a witness to history, I believe we will overcome the attacks on transgender identity because we’ve come out in the tens of thousands and tasted freedom and equality.

During this year’s Transgender Day of Visibility, it is important to acknowledge what is happening in various states around our country. Legislative attacks against transgender people — and especially against our youth — is at an all-time high. These threats are real, harmful, and need to be countered at every turn. But it is also important to reflect upon the actual visibility and progress that transgender people and their allies have achieved over the past several decades.

As a witness to history, I believe we will overcome these attacks because we are in the right and, most importantly, because we’ve come out in the tens of thousands and tasted freedom and equality. You simply can’t put that genie back in the bottle. One of my favorite quotes seems particularly relevant right now.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always. — Mahatma Gandhi

Trans people are experiencing a range of emotions in response to these attacks on our lives. It's a scary time for some, and I understand and empathize. However, I am not scared. I’ve been in this battle for recognition and basic decency for more than 30 years and have seen where we’ve been.

Although I have not had as hard a time as many who have come out, I have lost three jobs as a result of my gender identity, been rejected by life partners, and very nearly lost parental rights to my children. That is what people expected to happen. Such repercussions were the norm, not the exception. The law didn’t protect us. No courts ruled in our favor. And no elected official — Democrat or Republican — stood up for us. All of this has changed.

While I’m not scared now, fear has been part of my experience as a trans woman. I was out as transgender when Brandon Teena was brutally murdered and when Tyra Hunter was left to bleed to death while paramedics stood over her and laughed. I’ve been afraid to use a public restroom — and been told innumerable times that I was in the wrong one. I have been denied medical care and feared not having to access it.

I can remember being laughed at by a policeman after he pulled me over for a burnt-out taillight. “Do I call you sir or ma’am?” he chortled. It could have been so much worse. I was lucky. I have been misgendered, called names, and told I will burn in hell more times than I care to remember. I’ve even had screeds and condemnations sent to my private home address.

In 1995, I went to DC to lobby for transgender inclusion in that year’s version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. I ran into one of my senators, Connie Mack of Florida, in the tunnels under the Capitol and told him why I was in town. When he heard me say “transgender,” he had to ask what that meant. When I explained, he physically recoiled and his aide stepped in between us, as if to protect the Senator from a threat.

I remember when we didn’t have the Internet and had few ways of connecting with one another and met in secret klatches. We were pariahs, even in the queer movement. We were dragged out as the punchline in jokes and scapegoated as the reason the gay community couldn’t get any respect or achieve its own goals of progress. We have been portrayed as child predators lurking outside public restrooms and used as a wedge to defeat protections for the LGBTQ+ community.

And yet I cannot begin to list all the strides we have made over the years, for ourselves and for trans youth. An example, from not too long ago when Barack Obama was President, was when I stood in the East Room of the White House and watched and heard him talk about expanding rights for transgender people. Our current President, Joe Biden, has called the struggle for transgender rights as “the civil rights issue of our time.” I have spoken to many elected officials and power brokers who now see us as an integral and inseparable part of the LGBTQ+ community, deserving of equal recognition, respect, and protection.

So, believe me when I tell you that we’ve come a long way.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is not the progress we’ve made that keeps me from feeling fear today. Rather, it is my understanding of WHY and HOW we have made that progress. We’ve made all this progress because of the bravery of thousands of transgender people who refused to live in the shadows any longer. From the queens of Stonewall to courtrooms in Nebraska, and classrooms all across America, trans people have stood up to be counted.

I was a witness when we became a movement, when brave trans men and trans women began to live their lives openly and proudly; when Riki Wilchens founded Transexual Menace and, later, GenderPAC; when Tony Barreto-Neto (along with my friend Michelle and I) founded Transgender Officers Protect and Serve; when Vanessa Edwards Foster founded the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition; when Mara Keisling founded the National Center for Transgender Equality.

I was around when thousands of people like me began to teach, most often by the example of our lives, but also often in classrooms or courtrooms across the country. This includes people like Diego Miguel Sanchez, of my generation, who became the first openly transgender senior staffer on Capitol Hill and Lynn Conway, a renowned scientist and transgender activist who came out as trans when I was in grade school and has done so much to tell our stories.

I was around when trail-blazing lawyers won the first cases on behalf of courageous transgender clients — people like Phyllis Frye, Spencer Bergstedt, Jennifer Levi, Shannon Minter, Kylar Broadus, and so, so many others.

Although I lost three jobs due to my gender identity, I also was among a group of lawyers and advocates who fought for workplace protections for transgender individuals. And I helped Family Equality to submit anAmicus Brief to the Supreme Court when it heard the case of a transgender worker from Michigan who had been terminated due to her gender identity. I joined hundreds of others on the steps of the court the day of oral arguments and spoke to the crowd about the need for job protections. Aimee Stephens won her case and, as a consequence, job protections for gay and transgender people now exist in every state, as part of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

And so, for me, I am not afraid because nothing that these hateful state legislatures do can ever erase who we are as individuals and as a collective. No one can turn back the clock on who we are in this movement. We will never go back to living in the shadows, to accepting anything other than our full place in the American story of growing equality and acceptance. We know who we are. Our loved ones know who we are. The legal community knows who we are. The medical community knows who we are.

I am not afraid. But I am angry. I am angry that a group of people is trying to use their political advantage to harm us, and especially our trans youth. We all know something about turning anger into constructive action. I will do what I can to keep fighting (I was a boxer in the Navy and I don’t know how to quit). Do what you can, too, even if all that means is to VOTE for the candidates who repudiate these legislators and the harm they are doing, and to make sure that everyone who cares about you VOTES. If ever anyone wanted proof that elections have consequences, we have it now.

We will certainly encounter setbacks, but we will get through it, and we will keep moving forward. No matter what, #WeWontBeErased.

Denise Brogan-Kator is the chief policy officer emeritus and Of Counsel for Family Equality.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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Denise Brogan-Kator