Stung by setbacks related to their access to public restrooms, transgender Americans are taking steps to play a more prominent and vocal role in a nationwide campaign to curtail discrimination against them.
Two such initiatives are being launched this week — evidence of how transgender rights has supplanted same-sex marriage as the most volatile, high-profile issue for the broader movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.
One initiative is a public education campaign called the Transgender Freedom Project that will share the personal stories of transgender people. The other, the Trans United Fund, is a political advocacy group that will engage in election campaigns at the federal and state level, pressing candidates to take stands on transgender rights.
“We welcome the support of our allies,” said Hayden Mora, a veteran transgender activist who’s director of Trans United. “But it’s crucial that trans people build our own political power and speak with our own voices.”
From a long-term perspective, there have been notable gains for transgender Americans in recent years — more support from major employers, better options for health care and sex-reassignment surgery, a growing number of municipalities which bar anti-transgender discrimination.
“All the people who lost the marriage equality fight, they’ve now decided that trans people are fair game,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “They’re going to claim trans people are sexual predators, but the public is quickly going to learn that’s just nonsense.”
The outcome in Houston prompted many post-mortems among LGBT activists — What went wrong? How should the bathroom-access argument be countered in the future?
“It’s been an alarming wake-up call since November,” said Dru Lavasseur, Transgender Rights Project director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal. “We need to prioritize bringing transgender people into the movement in leadership positions, with transgender voices leading the way.”
There has been widespread agreement that a key plank of future strategy should be enlisting more transgender people to share their personal experience — a tactic that was successful for gays and lesbians during the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.
“In most parts of this country, people don’t know a trans person,” said Kasey Suffredini, a transgender attorney who’s director of the new Transgender Freedom Project. “The work in front of us is to put a face on who the trans community is. That’s the way that we win.”
The project, undertaken by an advocacy group called Freedom for All Americans, has a first-year budget of about $1 million, with plans to expand thereafter.
Nationwide success “will not happen overnight,” said Suffredini, suggesting a 10-year timeframe was plausible.
“What happened in North Carolina, as terrible as it was, has really galvanized people,” he added.
Part of the problem in last year’s HERO fight was that we were caught off guard – after winning the petition lawsuit in district court, we didn’t expect to have this issue on the ballot in the fall. The bad guys were way ahead of us in organizing and spreading lies. This is an attempt to counter that as the fight has shifted mostly to state legislatures. This can’t be all that there is, but it’s a good start.
That’s in part why Lou Weaver is encouraging transgender Texans like himself to become more vocal and visible as the legislature approaches the 2017 session. “Something like 80 to 90 percent of Americans know an out gay or lesbian person now, and that’s led to a dramatically different discussion on issues like same-sex marriage,” Weaver told the Press. Surveys show only about 10 percent of Americans know an out transgender person, Weaver said.
Last week Weaver, transgender programs coordinator with Equality Texas, helped launch what the organization is calling its “Transvisible” project. The idea, Weaver says, is to reduce violence and prejudice against transgender people by introducing Houstonians to their transgender neighbors. “If you don’t know trans folks, it’s easy to be mystified and to believe the lies and stories that are spread about us,” Weaver said. “It’s much harder to do that when you realize we’re your neighbors, your co-workers, just everyday Houstonians.”
I agree completely. It’s a lot easier to fear or hate a faceless bogeyman than a neighbor or co-worker. Again, this is just a first step, but it’s a necessary one. I’m glad to see it.
I should note, this post started out as a discussion of this good report from the post-HERO referendum community forum on what happened and what happens next.
LGBT advocates plan to eventually launch a petition drive to get the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance back on the ballot.
First, however, they intend to draft a strategic plan, set up a citizens advisory committee, and conduct a robust public education campaign about the need for an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law.
Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said those were among the recommendations that emerged from a two-and-a-half-hour community debriefing on HERO that drew around 200 people on January 12. “We agree that whatever happens next has to be citizen-led, not council-led,” said Burke, who chaired the meeting. “But everybody is in agreement—both the organizing groups and the public at large—that we can’t even think about that until we figure out how to overcome the bathroom argument. We need a multi-pronged public education campaign that’s aimed at transgender prejudice reduction.”
Houston voters overwhelmingly repealed HERO on November 3, based largely on opponents’ false, fear-mongering ads suggesting the ordinance would lead to sexual predators entering women’s restrooms and preying on young girls.
“The truth is, nobody knows how to combat the bathroom message,” Burke said. “We don’t in Houston, and they don’t anywhere else in the country. All the great minds in the country are trying to figure out how to respond to it. We have to come up with our six-word response to No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”
That was from February. You can see why I’m glad that there’s some action on this, because at that time we really weren’t sure what to do. My response to this story was simple, only needing four words: They’re Lying To You. I know it’s more complicated than that, but it gets to the heart of the matter. Because these guys are shameless liars, if we do manage to come up with a perfect response to “no men in women’s bathrooms”, they’ll just invent some other lie to tell. I mean, they used to claim that it was the gays that were the depraved perverts and child molesters that threatened us all. The fact that people no longer believe that didn’t slow them down. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to debunk one piece of bullshit, because as soon as we do there’s plenty more where that came from, and now you’re fighting the last war. We have to attack their credibility so that people will be disinclined to believe them whatever they say. Easier said than done, I know, but that’s how I would approach the question.
That’s what I wrote in February, and I still believe it. But I’m more than happy to see another approach. As for what the future holds:
Burke said it’s unlikely any petition drive would be completed in time for HERO to appear on the November 2016 ballot. HERO supporters would need to gather 20,000 signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the city’s charter. But reviving HERO through a petition would take the political onus off of council members, who’ve said they’re in no rush to revisit the ordinance given that the public vote was so decisive.
Incoming mayor Sylvester Turner, who supported HERO, told OutSmart that his top priorities are addressing the city’s infrastructure needs and financial challenges—issues that have “universal agreement” among voters.
If he can first conquer potholes and pensions, Turner expects voters will give him permission to tackle other issues, including possibly HERO. “I think anything that’s a distraction from dealing with the infrastructure and the financial challenges really does a disservice to those particular areas,” Turner said. “So whether we’re talking about nondiscrimination, whether we’re talking about income inequality or educational initiatives, all of those things are important, but until we have met the challenges that are being presented by the infrastructure, and the financial challenges, I really don’t think at this point in time that Houstonians have an appetite for too much more than that.”
Turner is talking about building up some political capital before tackling a controversial topic like HERO, and I completely agree with his approach. That suggests to me that we’re unlikely to see any action on this until Mayor Turner’s presumed second term. Just a guess, but I do think letting some time pass is a smart idea. Not so great for the people who would benefit from HERO, unfortunately. I wish I had a better answer for that. ProjectQ Houston has more.