Making the Case for Transgender Rights

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December 28, 2015
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M. Dru Levasseur

This year more than ever, transgender people were the focus of media attention. Transition stories and true and fictional narratives about trans lives exploded into the American consciousness like never before. This is a hopeful development.

But with visibility comes backlash and targeting. Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights Project is continuing to fight for the lives and legal rights of all transgender people living in America – from schools to public facilities to hospitals, from young people to seniors, from an incarcerated transgender woman of color in Texas to seniors seeking healthcare in the Northeast.

We must, once again, begin by acknowledging and mourning the terrifying epidemic of violence and murder against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color. The most recent NCAVP report indicated an 11% rise in homicides of LGBT people and of those victims; an astonishing half are transgender women of color.  On March 31, 2015, my colleague Demoya Gordon and I attended the first-ever White House Trans Women of Color Women’s History Month Briefing, where we heard from a powerful lineup of trans leaders of color about the struggles that trans women of color face. So much work lies ahead to change the systems of oppression that result in the high violence, murder and suicide rates, as well as the overall health and economic disparities that transgender people face.

In the wake of our marriage victory, anti-LGBT groups have turned up the volume. This year, we saw an alarming trend from our opponents in which they sought to demonize vulnerable transgender people – especially young people – by arguing that cisgender women and girls need “protection” from transgender people in public restrooms and other single-sex facilities like locker rooms.

In reality, these bills do nothing but increase the hostility and danger transgender people face when using public facilities. Studies consistently and repeatedly show that transgender people, especially women of color, experience alarming rates of harassment and violence in public spaces, including restrooms. Our well-funded opponents are even blanketing school districts with LGBT-inclusive policies to try to scare them into discriminating against transgender students.

Kyle, our client in Minnesota, says it best: “Using fear to justify transphobia betrays students who just want to feel comfortable and accepted. This attitude is damaging to mental health and self-esteem.” We won Kyle the right to use the bathroom corresponding to his gender – and another district-wide victory on this issue in Lehigh, Pennsylvania.

This year, we saw a sea change in transgender-related health care cases, with Lambda Legal winning important victories. In the Northeast, we overturned an insurer’s denial of transition-related care for a government employee, and are working on a similar challenge currently in New York.  We also teamed up with the New York Attorney General’s Office to ensure equal access to medical care for transgender people across New York State, relying upon our model Transgender-Affirming Hospital Policies. We submitted comments to ensure that the new proposed HHS regulations on nondiscrimination in the Affordable Care Act will ensure that all transgender people of all ages have equal access to the health care they need, whether related to their transition or not.

In Texas, our client Passion Star was transferred to a unit known for having some of the highest sexual assault rates in the nation. There she was placed in the general population, despite having been raped, physically assaulted, and threatened with murder in six previous Texas facilities. Soon after she arrived, inmates told her she had to have a man or be raped and tried to lay claim to her as though she were property. As the daily threats continued and escalated, Clements Unit officials warned her not to file any more requests for protection. However, her situation became so desperate that on February 19 she again begged Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) staff to place her in Safekeeping. Lambda Legal filed an emergency motion on her behalf when TDCJ staff refused and instead placed her in a cell with a gang member who threatened to kill her if she continued to complain or “snitch.”

In Colorado, we filed a groundbreaking suit on behalf of Dana Zzyym, an intersex veteran who was denied a passport by the U.S. Department of State because they do not identify as either male or female. If Lambda Legal succeeds, the case will bring the U.S. in line with a growing number of countries that issue a third gender marker option for passports. Ironically, the U.S. already recognizes such passports for people entering the U.S. from those countries, but currently refuses to issue such passports for its own citizens, such as Dana, who are neither male nor female. Dana’s story and our legal challenge made international news and has helped raise awareness of some of the challenges faced by intersex, as well as non-binary people. 

In 2015 we will continue fighting the backlash and hateful rhetoric, and work to ensure a just future for all transgender Americans. But we can’t do it without you. Please join Lambda Legal today and help us fight for transgender rights! Your membership gift will be matched dollar for dollar by the $1.25 million matching challenge from the estate of John Barham and Dick Auer.