Q&A With Jenny Pizer

Talking Points

THE CLAIM: “I wouldn’t go into a Catholic church to marry my lesbian partner. It just doesn’t make much sense... and neither does going to a Catholic hospital to have a hysterectomy as a trans man. They are going to throw the lawsuit right out, citing religious freedom.”

THE FACTS:

  • A hospital should not be allowed to decide who their patients are, particularly when they receive government funds.
  • If a hospital provides a service, it cannot deny that service to a patient based on who the patient is.
  • Health care providers must comply with federal and state antidiscrimination laws.
  • Many states have laws that clearly prohibit discrimination because of sex and gender identity.
  • At the federal level, section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

Find Your State

Know the laws in your state that protect LGBT people and people living with HIV.
Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Law & Policy Director, Jennifer C. Pizer
Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Law & Policy Director, Jennifer C. Pizer
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What immediate challenges does the LGBT community face at the federal level?  It’s crucial that we protect what we have accomplished so far. During the Obama Administration, we focused on solving problems and getting things done. Obama issued orders that protect LGBT people from discrimination from federal contractors and a wide range of health care and service providers as well as insurance companies that receive federal funds. These orders also protect transgender people from discrimination by federal employers. These steps genuinely improved life for so many in our community. The Obama Administration took many of them based on federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution. Clearly, those did not evaporate with the election.

Lambda Legal achieved a huge amount. Because of our expertise, we were invited to participate behind the scenes with the Obama Administration. People didn’t necessarily hear about that because of the often pretty technical nature of the work. But now we’re going to be in resistance mode, so you’ll be hearing about it a lot!

Moving forward, we anticipate a dramatically different situation. Having Mike Pence and his religious extremist allies in power is serious cause for concern.

We don’t know who will be confirmed by the time readers see this, but to date the nominees for top Trump Administration roles are a huge issue. Some are more grossly inappropriate than others and we are expecting some real fights. Among the federal agencies, the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services (HHS), Education and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are particularly important to our work protecting the LGBT community. And all four nominees are problematic. Tapping multi-billionaire Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary is really scary because she’s poured her fortune into defunding public schools, trying to block marriage equality and pushing conversion therapy. Ben Carson, selected to lead HUD, has equated being gay or bisexual with bestiality and child molestation. Jeff Sessions, nominated for Attorney General, has views that are so extremely racist and homophobic that the Senate once refused to confirm him to the federal bench. Tom Price, up for HHS, opposes not just the Affordable Care Act but also Medicare and Medicaid.

This is not even to mention blocked nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and the 100 picks to come for federal judgeships—all purposefully held vacant during the Obama Administration by an obstructionist Senate.

How is Lambda Legal preparing for the fights ahead? We are litigators, and we are preparing for the litigation that might be warranted—just as we’ve been doing for decades. That includes shifting resources to support our new role as the fierce opposition. Lambda Legal is opening an office in Washington, for instance, reaching out for more pro bono support—so that we can take on still more cases—and investing in our state-level work even more aggressively than before. We’re also doing more direct service: In January, we co-ran legal clinics in Dallas, Houston and Atlanta to help transgender people and LGBT parents update crucial documents. 

Lambda Legal has a strong record of success. We challenge government; that’s not new for us. But perhaps our work will be even more important now. The Obama Administration sometimes litigated side-by-side with us, especially against state-based attacks such as North Carolina’s anti-LGBT House Bill 2 (HB2). Maybe the federal government will join cases against us more often now, for instance to prevent trans youth from having equal access to education. That would be an ugly throwback to earlier eras, but it may happen.

What threats loom in the states? We think the first half of 2017 will bring a tidal wave of attacks against the LGBT community, largely in the form of bills that attempt to roll back protections for our community under the guise of religious freedom. In 2016, there were a shocking 200 attack bills nationwide, roughly double the 2015 count. 2017 will likely be worse still.

In Texas, Georgia and Missouri, for instance, where numerous anti-LGBT religious exemption bills were blocked in the past, the proponents of those bills may bring them back. In South Dakota and Washington, where bills targeting transgender people in restrooms were stopped last year, lawmakers have already pre-filed similar bills for 2017.

Mississippi’s HB 1523, which passed last year, strips protection from LGBT people against mistreatment not just by private businesses and individuals but also medical and social services agencies, health professionals of all kinds, schools, adoption and foster care agencies, homeless shelters and more. In a bald-faced rebuke of Obergefell, public employees can refuse to marry same-sex couples and pretty much anyone can bar transgender people from using the restrooms they choose.

Both Mississippi, where we are suing to strike down HB 1523, and Michigan seem to be inspiring copycat laws in other states. In 2015, Michigan passed three laws that allow state-funded agencies to reject LGBT people who want to foster or adopt. Tennessee passed a law last year allowing mental health providers to turn patients away if they have a religious belief or “personal” objection to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Now legislators there want to expand that law to allow adoption and foster agencies to rule out applicants on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as well.

There will also be more bills allowing businesses to refuse to serve customers who are LGBT, or requiring employees to dress according to gender expectations. Some of these will involve religion and some won’t.

We’re really concerned as well about state-level bills that are not directly about LGBT rights but which seek to block local civil rights laws, minimum wage rules or other local protections for workers, tenants and customers.

Are there any new twists at the state level? We all know how crucial privacy and safety are when it comes to protecting people, especially youth, who are LGBT or living with HIV. But now we’ve seen at least one bill that would force teachers and school counselors, if they find out a kid is LGBT, to tell that kid’s parents—even if the child begs for confidentiality and support. It’s a backlash against school officials around the country who are accommodating trans students, and it is a new and very troubling wrinkle.

We don’t have a crystal ball. We know there will be surprises; the essence of the state process is surprise and speed. But Lambda Legal has been served well by a strategy of working through our regional offices, developing close state and local relationships—and matching that with solid resources and experience at the national level. That will continue.

Will some good come of the fire being lit under the LGBT rights movement? There has always been a fire, so to speak. But yes, the intensity of the emerging threats is an opportunity to take Lambda Legal’s educational work and policy advocacy to the next level— like we did fighting religious exemption bills in Indiana and Arizona and when we won marriage. Support for our work is growing, and that support is really essential right now.

After all we’ve been through, there’s no chance we’re going to let up. We are definitely not going back.

To join Lambda Legal campaigns in this new political climate, visit lambdalegal.org/resistance