Visible activism is the key to protecting transgender people from bigoted laws

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This month, lawmakers in Alabama passed two bills that prevent transgender people from switching medically and from using bathrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity. More than 200 similar bills have been introduced in state legislators in the first three months of 2022 alone; almost half of them target specifically transgender people. Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.

In the past, LGBTQ activists have successfully challenged such efforts by lobbying lawmakers and governors to repeal bills before making them into law, and then, when laws are passed, by bringing lawsuits. This has proven to be a winning strategy. The LGBTQ legal organization has successfully persuaded lawmakers and courts to rule positively on issues such as same-sex marriage, open military participation, and non-discrimination in employment, among many others.

But as the judiciary becomes more and more conservative, this strategy may prove less effective. In fact, combating anti-LGBTQ injustices solely within the legal system has not always been enough to kill discriminatory legislation or, critically, to reverse developments in public opinion. The LGBTQ community learned this as it sought to use new laws designed to protect disabled Americans in the 1970s and 1980s to combat discrimination.

Crucially, these laws were the culmination of visible public activism that helped change popular notions that bodies look and function in “fixed” ways, forcing lawmakers and judges to take action.

Throughout the 1950s, it was legal and common practice to separate the disabled from the disabled community. This created a cycle: disabled people were prevented from physically accessing public spaces, and their absence from these places helped push a narrative that disabled people were “biologically” inferior, automatically dependent, and unable to support or take care of themselves.

But in the 1960s, disability rights activists in San Francisco, Denver, Washington, Boston, and elsewhere came together and demanded change. They argued that their limited participation in society was not due to biological inferiority, but rather from deliberate separation – in the form of institutionalization, prejudice, inaccessible architecture and infrastructure, discriminatory government policies and unfair employment practices.

Based on the civil rights movement, groups such as the Rolling Quads and the Student Organization for Every Disability United for Progress (SOFEDUP) staged sit-ins in government offices and city buses, conducted secret campaigns to break ties and participated in other acts of civil disobedience while lobbying for changes in federal , state and municipal policies.

This direct action turned the tide of public opinion, dispelled the myth that people with disabilities were incapable of being active participants in society, and pressured legislators to act. At the federal level, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which initiated sweeping, visible changes for the disabled throughout the United States. Section 502 of the Act required federally funded museums, university campuses, and other organizations to build accessible ramps, parking lots, and restrooms. Similarly, section 504 required employers to provide “otherwise qualified” disabled workers with “reasonable adjustments” that would help them perform their jobs effectively. Both of these provisions helped increase the number of visually impaired people in workplaces, higher education and commercial areas across the country.

Many trans workers hoped that they too could benefit from the protection afforded by the Rehabilitation Act. Although there was considerable debate as to whether transgender people could or should claim a disability status, there was little doubt that trans identification and care were closely linked to medication. There was also little doubt that many trans workers were fired from their jobs because of the way their medical transition had affected their attire or physical appearance.

Between 1980 and 1990, at least five trans women used legislation protecting people with disabilities to combat the employment discrimination they faced. While these women were able to take a stand within the judicial system (sometimes with the support of national civil rights groups, such as the ACLU), their cases were not accompanied by organized mass protests, civil disobedience, or other orchestrated activist efforts. There was as yet no national trans organization to help influence the public, and without widespread public support for putting pressure on the justice system, legal bids to secure trans rights were often unsuccessful: only two out of five women succeeded in court.

In fact, Congress used the single victory at the federal level – where a trans woman known as Jane Doe won a $ 12,500 settlement against the U.S. Postal Service for wrongful termination in 1985 – to justify adding amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure that transgender people could not use the groundbreaking legislation to challenge unfair hiring practices.

In debates on the ADA – introduced in 1988, in the early years of HIV / AIDS – conservative lawmakers sought to exclude people they believed had “unseen or immoral” ailments from benefiting from the law. This included LGBTQ people, people with mental illness and people with HIV or AIDS. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) Characterized the ADA as “the relentless sodomy lobby’s last attempt to destroy” normal America. “Sen. William J. Armstrong (R-Colo.) Proposed amending the bill to exclude psychotics, drug addicts, people with gender identity disorders and all LGBTQ people, “whether or not they had AIDS.”

Despite these objections, the final version of the ADA ultimately protected people with HIV or AIDS. But it explicitly excluded transgender people and others diagnosed with “gender identity disorders.”

What made the difference?

While transgender people did not have a national lobbying force to protest exclusion, AIDS activists did. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as the ACT UP, was formed in 1987 and was among the many organizations that coordinated protests specifically targeted at politicians, government agencies, and religious institutions whose silence or misinformation perpetuated the AIDS crisis. Among these were orchestrated “die-ins” where protesters carried signs with the text “SILENT = DEAD” as they lay across the city streets or in government buildings as if they were dead. These violent public protests brought many people living with HIV out of the shadows and shed light on discrimination and injustice.

This direct action also caused politicians to change course and publicly shame them out. Perhaps most notable was that ACT UP protests pressured President Ronald Reagan, who after years of public silence finally formed a commission on AIDS in 1987. A year later, this commission called on Congress to pass federal anti-discrimination legislation specifically to protect people infected with HIV. from being fired, thrown out or denied access to public spaces because of their diagnosis.

This activism put Congress under sufficient political pressure that when it adopted the ADA in 1990, it ignored conservative objections and ensured that the groundbreaking law protected people with HIV and AIDS from discrimination.

Trans people did very differently. Without a national lobbying force directing great public pressure to remove anti-trans changes, transgender people seeking protection based on their gender identity were severely excluded from the ADA, in part because they were largely invisible to most Americans.

Today, trans people in the United States are far more visible and better organized than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, and the work of an organized and visible trans movement has already yielded some success. When North Carolina tried to pass an anti-trans bathroom law in 2016, activists pressured businesses, other state governments, sports coalitions and the public to oppose the legislation. These efforts put enough pressure on lawmakers to effectively kill the bill before it could be passed.

Such activism is not always successful, due to a growing lobby of anti-trans activists, “concerned parents” and other conservative forces drafting anti-trans bills to protect the rights of women and children. Example: Earlier this year, Florida high school students staged work strikes to protest the Education Parental Rights Bill. While this brought national attention to the legislation, which critics considered the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, it did not prevent Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) from signing it into law. DeSantis’ move reflected the political power of the anti-trans powers.

To counter them, LGBTQ activists must maintain visible public pressure while also working through the justice system. As the disability movement proved, this duel-track strategy gives them the best opportunity to repel the wave of magnificent legislation.

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