It’s fair to say that the 2012 elections were a big victory for the LGBT community, in terms of both issues and candidates, but that is much more true for the LGB than it is the T. Certainly the transgender community can benefit from same-sex marriage laws; some states will recognize their gender identity and others won’t, confusing who they can legally marry based on their identity documentation. Ideally, lawmakers who claim to be allies will also support transgender issues, but there is no guarantee. Vice President Joe Biden told a constituent recently that transgender justice is the “civil rights issue of our time,” but progress can only be made with visibility.
One important victory took place this week in New Hampshire: the state elected its first openly transgender lawmaker. Stacie Laughton (D) easily beat two Republican candidates for an open seat in Ward 4. She told the Nashua Telegraph that she believes the LGBT community “will hopefully be inspired,” but in her campaign she also advocated for the homeless, people with disabilities, and strengthening public schools. A seat in the huge New Hampshire House of Representatives is not the highest profile position, but Laughton’s election is a notable milestone for trans visibility.
The primary struggle facing trans people remains discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has languished in Congress for decades, and with Republicans maintaining control of the House, its status is not likely to change. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is the perfect example of a Republican who opposed ENDA specifically because it included transgender protections. President Obama could still issue an executive order protecting employees of federal contractors, but he has been reluctant to do so because it’s not a permanent solution. In 34 states, a person can still be legally fired just for being transgender. For example, though New York and Maryland have both advanced same-sex marriage, gender identity protections (bills known as GENDA and GIADA, respectively) struggle to advance.
Having a basic understanding of transgender identities continues to be a huge obstacle in discussing these issues. In Washington state, which also just passed marriage equality, controversy is erupting over a supposed “incident” where a 17-year-old girl saw a transgender woman changing in the locker room at Evergreen College. Even ABC News offensively felt the need to explain that this transgender student “identifies as a woman but has male genitalia.” It’s become a story because the Alliance Defending Freedom has threatened the college with ambiguous legal action, all because of the visibility of a person’s genitals in a space designated for changing clothes. Evergreen, admirably, is standing by its nondiscrimination protections, pointing out that there are privacy curtains available — for hiding one’s body or one’s eyes, as the need may arise. The controversy is a simple example of the everyday stigmatization trans people experience and how that stigma is used to justify discrimination.
Kerry Eleveld argues this week that President Obama will be a “better progressive” in his second term, and standing up for transgender people is the perfect opportunity to do just that. From ending the military’s exclusion of transgender servicemembers to protecting trans people from the discrimination that inhibits their basic life needs to ensuring they have access to proper medical care, there is plenty of room for progress.