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‘Because of sex’ approach to protecting trans people

Many analyses of Bostock decision missed the real history

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“Here, I thought, looking around me, is where it all changed, because I was still too young to understand that history is not simply made up of moments of triumph strung together like pearls. I didn’t know that large changes were made up of many small ones, and of moments of suffering and backsliding and incremental, selective progress; unnecessary sacrifices and the opportunistic, privileged and lucky walking forward over the vulnerable and the dead.” —Carmen Maria Machado

The road to LGBTQ equality has been long and winding, made up, legally, of two paths — sex (gender) stereotyping and “because of . . . sex.” Until the Bostock decision last month we had a quantum mechanical, “Schrödinger’s Cat” causal conundrum — would the decision be based on “sex” as written in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or “sex stereotyping” as developed in the landmark 1989 Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins Supreme Court decision? Many guessed it would be the former, “because of . . . Gorsuch” and his penchant for textualism, but that didn’t stop plaintiff Aimee Stephens’ lawyer, David Cole, from arguing with the latter. Turns out it was the former, but before I trace the social history of that path, I would like to point out a delicious irony.

It’s long been understood that the modern Supreme Court rarely leads, and usually follows, public opinion. That opinion is shaped by the people, and primarily by the people’s activist corps. In the case of the gay rights movement, the people universally known through the 1960s as homosexuals became known in the 70s as gay people. Why? Because the “sex” in “homosexual” directed one’s gaze to sex acts, which is still what most Americans conjure in their minds when they hear the word “sex.” And since many were repelled by the thought of gay sex, it became evident a different, de-sexed, label was necessary.

Similarly with the trans community, which had been universally known as the transsexual community through the 1980s, and which de-sexed “transsexual” to “transgender” in the ‘90s (the first national trans rights group, founded by Riki Wilchins and Denise Norris in 1993, was called “Transexual Menace,” and the second, was the “National Transgender Advocacy Coalition,” in 1999), and then finally just the single syllable “trans” in the aughts, to match the single syllable, “gay.” Language matters. Just as Americans viewed homosexual people through the lens of their sex acts, they viewed transsexual people the same way, often reduced to sex workers and homicidal maniacs (“Dallas Buyer’s Club,” 2013 and Hitchcock’s classic, “Psycho,” 1960).

So, today, gay and trans individuals have their employment rights, and soon full protections with the Equality Act next year, because of a return to the modern source of those rights, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and “because of . . . sex.” Not gender, but sex, and, refreshingly so, but devoid of any implications of sexual activity. Justice Gorsuch, interestingly, returned to using the archaic term “homosexual” throughout his opinion, but did not revert to “transsexual,” and treated Ms. Stephens respectfully in his comments.

How did we get here? In the weeks following the decision many of the analyses of the decision missed the real history. That history is written by the victors, but it also very much matters which victors do the writing.

The path of “because of . . .” and “but for” sex began in the 60s, as Justice Gorsuch mentioned: Not long after the law’s passage, gay and transgender employees began filing Title VII complaints, so at least some people foresaw this potential application.

Trans persons won some lower court decisions in the ‘70s, before the religious and feminist backlash began in 1979 with Janice Raymond and then the Reaganites. Trans plaintiffs lost in the late ‘70s and ‘80s because transsexualism was not recognized as a form of sex (Holloway v. Arthur Andersen, 1977, Sommers v. Budget Marketing, 1982 and Ulane v. United Airlines, 1984). And then, in 1989, came Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, and the landscape utterly changed for trans plaintiffs.

The first, and until Bostock, only SCOTUS decision (and victory) for a trans plaintiff occurred in 1994, in a unanimous Eighth Amendment decision written by Justice Souter on behalf of the plaintiff, a black trans woman, Dee Farmer. The next federal appeals court case, and the first in a string of victories leading to Bostock, was Smith v. City of Salem in 2004, won on both sex and sex stereotyping concerns, followed by another Sixth Circuit case, Barnes v. City of Cincinnati in 2005. Philecia Barnes was also a black trans woman and she won “because of sex.” The only hiccup in this long chain of victories was Etistty v. Utah Transit Authority in the 10th Circuit in 2007. This was followed in rapid succession by the blockbusters: Schroer v. Billington, 2008; Glenn v. Brumby, 2011; and Macy v. Holder, 2012.

It was the unanimous Macy decision at the EEOC, led by Commissioner Chai Feldblum, that protected trans persons in all 50 states, and cemented the “because of sex” approach to protecting trans persons. Professor Feldblum, a major author of the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), had been living in Takoma Park, Md., in Montgomery County in 2007-08 when I led the campaign for Basic Rights Montgomery to pass and defend the county gender identity law. That law generated the first bathroom bill backlash in the United States, and Professor Feldblum, who had been a believer in the doctrine that trans status was a function of sex and, therefore, covered by Title VII, was further encouraged to pursue it if she ever got her chance in the federal government to make it a reality. Presciently, these were her words 20 years ago: “But a strict textualist approach might work as well (or even better) for those seeking to achieve broad protection for gay people and transgender people. Under such an approach, the intent of the enacting Congress (or state legislature) is not as important as the words the legislature chose to use.”

It had been obvious to me, as well, as I had been teaching and lobbying for years on the medical basis of transsexualism being rooted in brain sex. Research begun in 1995 had been making that very plain. But few LGBTQ attorneys, with the notable exception of Katie Eyer, believed in the possibility of progressive textualism, even though the Constitution is the product of the Enlightenment.

So after being nominated by President Obama to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and confirmed by the Senate, Professor Feldblum looked for the right case and found it in Mia Macy. She then did the same for David Baldwin in the first national gay rights victory, Baldwin v. Foxx, in 2015.

Just looking at these cases it was clear that the federal courts (and some state courts as well) were beginning to respect trans persons enough, including black trans women, beginning in the ‘90s to not only not summarily throw them out of court, but to seriously apply the “because of sex” and sex stereotyping arguments to them. All that at a time when fewer than 8% of Americans (in a 2013 poll) admitted to knowing a trans person; when gay people, far better represented in the media and known in their communities, were routinely failing in federal court. Yet there have been post-Bostock analyses by highly respected civil rights lawyers that turn this history on its head. For example, Shannon Minter, the trans attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), said: “We’ve always known that our legal arguments are strong and should be accepted, but the reason it took decades for the courts to accept these arguments was because transgender people were so foreign to the courts.”

This is not the first time. After promoting the trans legal case “because of sex” for years, I tried to get the national LGBTQ, and particularly trans, organizations to recognize our success post-Macy. They would have none of it. The lawyers at HRC, the National LGBT Task Force, and even NCTE, the National Center for Transgender Equality on whose board I sat, refused to acknowledge the breakthroughs. To get the word out I had to publish a pamphlet, with attorney Jillian Weiss and activist Riki Wilchins, which was promoted by Masen Davis and the Transgender Law Center, the only nationally oriented trans group willing to get on board. We were also supported by Tico Almeida and Freedom to Work.

Fortunately, thousands of trans persons got the message, and filed claims with the EEOC. Many won, with most settling out of court because, you know, the law matters. Yet others have lived the past eight years in fear and anxiety because our institutions’ lawyers repeatedly said that we had no protections without a decision of the Supreme Court. I countered that it would take years, or might never happen because we were winning all our cases, and without a split at the appeals court level the Court might not even take up the issue. Fortunately for us today, SCOTUS rolled us into the Circuit split on the gay rights cases (Bostock and Zarda), and we pulled the gay community along to victory. No gays left behind. We had not lost a Circuit Appeals case since 2007, the only one in the 21st century, so I, for one, was not surprised.

People who are committing themselves to activism need to understand the history so as to most effectively pursue their goals in the future. LGBTQ folks need to understand the bureaucratic resistance within their own movements, from the most well-meaning people. It is, indeed, always a long and winding road to liberty and equality.

Dana Beyer is a longtime D.C.-based advocate for transgender equality.

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Opinion | Why LGBTQ people should fear new Texas abortion law

Slippery slope measure turns private citizens into enforcers

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Texas State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

I worry about everything from climate change to violence against transgender people to racism to reproductive freedom for women. But, until recently, I didn’t have to worry that a “$10,000 bounty” could be collected from me if I helped a woman to have an abortion.

Yet, this is now a terrifying concern for abortion providers, advocates of women’s reproductive rights and those who value civil liberties. Especially, for people in Texas.

If you value the right to privacy and are LGBTQ or a queer ally, you should be terrified.

Here’s why everyone with a sense of decency should feel the hair standing up on the back of their necks: It’s no secret, that the Supreme Court, more conservative since the court of the 1930s, is likely eyeing the chance to overthrow or gut Roe V. Wade.

In May, the Supreme Court said that, in its next term (beginning in October 2021), it would consider an abortion case involving a Mississippi law that would prohibit most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy (about two months earlier than permitted by Roe v. Wade).

The Court’s decision to consider this case gives hope to anti-abortion activists seeking the overthrow of Roe v. Wade.   

States with Republican-controlled legislatures, aware of the make-up of the Supreme Court (with its conservative 6 to 3 majority), have acted quickly to severely weaken abortion rights. This has been especially true this year.

“More abortion restrictions — 90 — have already been enacted in 2021 than in any year since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973,” according to a Guttmacher Institute report.

On May 19, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed a draconian abortion bill into law. This measure, known as a “heartbeat law,” bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

Many women, at the six-week point, have no idea that they’re pregnant.

This is bad enough. Other states, including Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina have passed “heartbeat” laws banning abortion (when a fetal heartbeat can be detected).

But the legislation signed into law this spring by Gov. Abbott is even more insidious.

The legislation, scheduled to take effect in September 2021, gives private citizens the right to sue doctors and abortion clinic employees.

It doesn’t stop there. The new law permits a private citizen (from a pastor to an Uber driver to a friend, family member or perfect stranger) to sue anyone who performs or helps anyone to get an abortion. Even private citizens not living in Texas could sue people performing or helping someone to get an abortion.

Each private citizen could potentially be awarded $10,000 for every illegal abortion.

The law doesn’t allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest. Though it would permit abortions in rare medical instances. Thankfully, on July 13, a coalition of abortion rights and civil liberties advocates, including abortion clinics, doctors, clergy, filed a federal lawsuit to challenge this new law.

Six-week abortion bans passed by other states have been successfully challenged because abortion rights advocates sued government officials.

But Texas’s new law prohibits state officials from enforcing it. It’s set up to be enforced by private citizens.

“We had to devise a unique strategy to fight this subversive law,” Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “We will pursue every legal avenue we can to block this pernicious law.”

This new law sets up a dangerous slippery slope for LGBTQ folk.

If a private citizen is allowed to sue anyone assisting a woman having an abortion, what, for example, would prevent anyone (from a minister to a friend to a cab driver) who helps a queer couple to adopt a child? Or suing anyone helping a transgender person to get health care.

Let’s do all we can to support the effort to block this dangerous law.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Opinion | LGBTQ victories are largely legal, not legislative

Leading lobbying groups ineffective as we face hostile Supreme Court

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anti-discrimination laws, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The recent conclusion of last month’s Pride month celebrations marked an annual milestone in both the history and advancements of rights for the LGBTQ community. The progress for LGBTQ rights over the last two decades has been groundbreaking – oftentimes described as an exemplary movement obtaining rights for a marginalized community. It was less than 20 years ago the United States Supreme Court struck down the country’s first real gay rights test in Lawrence v. Texas, decriminalizing “homosexual conduct” among consenting adults. 

Even in the most recent years, we all recognize how major achievements like marriage equality to the protection of gay adoption – to the recent action ensuring a fully inclusive military with transgender service – have benefited the community. But with new attacks arising daily in state capitals around the nation, like transgender sports becoming the new “bathroom bill,” LGBTQ future generations are counting on the leading LGBTQ rights and legal organizations to secure more equality.

Almost unanimously, these groundbreaking rights – while being achieved at almost lightning speed (although not fast enough for the millions of LGBTQ Americans whose lives have been, and still being impacted) – have been won in American courtrooms, not the halls of Congress. 

While the first federal LGBTQ rights bill was introduced in Congress in 1975 by former Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, it was simply referred to the Judiciary Committee and died. Forty-six years later barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, part of today’s Equality Act, has still not been passed into law by the LGBTQ lobbying organizations – and faces a similar fate this year in the U.S. Senate. 

The Equality Act, the chief legislative target for Washington, D.C.’s LGBTQ lobbying organizations is dead in Congress despite the ripest political environment with a Democratic House, Senate and White House. The Senate’s filibuster and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are major structural problems for the legislation, but there is not even serious discussion or demands from the LGBTQ lobbying community to insist on passage through filibuster reform.  

Must we automatically presume the LGBTQ community is so low a priority we are essentially beholden to prejudice of the minority in the Senate? When, therefore, can we ever expect any action? If not now, then when will gay lobbying succeed?

As an LGBTQ researcher at the University of Sydney in preparation for a new academic piece, I wanted to find out how groundbreaking LGBTQ rights could be won in courtrooms while lingering in Congress for half a century. The central question this research tried to answer was, “what factors contribute to LGBTQ lobbyist and advocate perceptions of movement success by LGBTQ organizations?”  The answer became pretty clear when surveying the top LGBTQ lobbying and government affairs professionals, the ones with the most intimate, front-line view of congressional outreach. 

Overwhelmingly, the research concludes the leading mainstream legal organizations have been primarily responsible for the community’s progress – not the LGBTQ organization’s lobbying efforts. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the wealthiest LGBTQ organization with a $48 million a year budget based in Washington, D.C. and founded 41 years ago, was ranked 10th most effective out of 17 organizations ranked. Since 2018, HRC has fallen six additional positions since the original research was published. In contrast, Lambda Legal, the LGBTQ community’s foremost legal rights organization, followed by the legal powerhouse, the ACLU, have moved ahead of them ranking as the most effective LGBTQ organizations.

The research clearly demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the LGBTQ lobby, which has largely focused on gaining access to power structures instead of winning legislative victories.  Fundraising models of these organizations, built largely around monetizing their access to power, has left little evidence of their effectiveness and in turn, has strengthened systems of oppression against an overwhelming number of LGBTQ people of color, transgender individuals and lower-income members of the community. The “access to power” model of LGBTQ lobbying has essentially commercialized gayness (white, cisgender, English-speaking, middle and upper class gayness) as a consumable product that most often benefits those in power. It’s a “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” system of lobbying that shuts the door on the most marginalized LGBTQ people – those most in need of legislative victories to protect their lives.

Today, regardless of all of the progress in LGBTQ legal victories over the last two decades, the community is in the most dangerous place it has been in 25 years. LGBTQ lobbying does not work, and LGBTQ legal avenues have catastrophically changed. The 6-3 Supreme Court is poised to undermine Roe, which some say undermines Lawrence, which undermines Obergefell (the groundbreaking 2015 marriage equality decision). A house of very successful, but delicate legal cards, may begin to fall. The LGBTQ community is holding its collective breath against an anti-LGBTQ Supreme Court majority, and the spotlight is now shining brightly on the LGBTQ lobby and their ability to produce legislative success. 

Unfortunately, the organizations responsible for shaping the community’s relationship with states and the federal government are largely seen as ineffective and oftentimes harmful to progress. This ineffectiveness leaves the LGBTQ community in a dangerous and perilous moment in the movement’s history.  

To be successful, a radical transformation of the movement’s lobbying must happen immediately by shifting to a much more state-based movement, where anti-LGBTQ opponents are already attacking the identity and existence of transgender people with the introduction of more than 100 bills aimed to curb the rights of transgender people nationwide. Secondly, the danger to the lives of LGBTQ people from these legislative harms must be amplified and ready to be fought against. And lastly, a new model of investment is required that prioritizes the lives of transgender individuals and people of color and embraces an intersectional approach to lobbying. 

The LGBTQ movement is about to face darker days ahead. Leaders in Washington’s premier gay rights groups, including their lobbyists, must figure out how to protect our children, protect the poor, and lift up the marginalized or face disastrous consequences in the next few years in legislative bodies from city halls to the U.S. Capitol. Otherwise our hopes to tackle issues like transgender sports and equality will rest solely on the LGBTQ legal apparatus.

Christopher Pepin-Neff, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, is the author of ‘LGBTQ Lobbying in the United States.’

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Opinion | Macha, Byrne for Rehoboth Beach Commission

Aug. 14 election critical after reckless vote on Clear Space permits

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Double L, Diego's Hideaway, Fourth, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, gay news, Washington Blade

On Saturday, Aug. 14, voters in Rehoboth Beach, Del., have an opportunity to make a strong statement on what they want their city to be in the future. During last year’s election for mayor and Commission, I suggested a vote for Stan Mills, Susan Gay and Patrick Gossett would take Rehoboth back to the Sam Cooper years and put anti-business candidates in control of the City Commission. My prediction has sadly proven accurate. The latest fiasco is the vote to turn down the city’s Planning Commission recommendation for the second time and potentially force the iconic Clear Space Theatre out of Rehoboth.

While voters of Rehoboth Beach can’t turn around the Commission with one election their votes can make a huge difference. That is why I urge support for Rachel Macha and Richard Byrne who have both shown an in-depth understanding of what Rehoboth Beach needs to flourish and promise a fair and balanced look at the future of the city. They understand to be successful for years to come Rehoboth must fairly balance the needs of its residents, businesses, and visitors.

Rachel Macha and her husband Rich have owned property in Rehoboth Beach for more than 21 years. They have a great loving family, 23-year-old triplets and 21-year-old twins. Macha is proud of the fact that since her kids were 14, they have held summer jobs in Rehoboth at Funland, Royal Treat, Jungle Jim’s, Bin 66 and Big Fish Restaurant Group.

She understands Rehoboth’s Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) and that within the next year the updated CDP will set forth a strategic vision for Rehoboth Beach. Macha said “It will be the Commissioner’s guide to navigating the way to a sound future to achieve its key strategic objectives, including preserving our sense of place, infrastructure, arts and culture, strategic projects, and safety. As a member of the Planning Commission, I focused intensely to carefully analyze and understand the concerns, desires, and suggestions of residents, businesses, and tourists before, during and after COVID.”

Her professional experience is in the area of improving customer service and customer experience in the technology, software, and service industries. She has spent years serving on various school, church, company, and non-profit boards and committees. For the past three years, she leveraged her experience serving Rehoboth on the Parks, Shade Tree Commission, and Planning Commission.

Macha also understands the future of the city depends on fiscal responsibility and enhancing the sense of community that Rehoboth Beach was developing before the current mayor’s efforts, intentional or not, destroyed it. To foster that sense of community Macha has proposed launching a Customer Experience Committee comprised of residents, organizations such as RBHA and CAMP, and local businesses to generate and openly discuss ways to move Rehoboth forward positively with a unified sense of purpose.

Richard Byrne and his wife Sherri have been coming to Rehoboth for more than 25 years. They bought their home in 2002 and have lived in Rehoboth full-time since 2009. Byrne has more than 30 years of experience in education, running university extension programs in Maryland and Minnesota. Those programs required collaboration among citizens, volunteers, youth, community organizations and working with county and state agencies. He has served in many ways including being a member of the Rehoboth Beach Commission for the past three years and is proud of his many accomplishments during that time.

He authored legislation creating Steve Elkins Way; created the environment committee; and promoted endeavors to take care of the city’s natural environment. He led the review of the city’s wireless communications facilities ordinance; has been involved with bringing back recycling to the boardwalk; brought forward several measures to improve pedestrian safety; and secured a grant to support the beautification of the public triangle on State Road.

He said, “If I am re-elected I will continue to preserve residential neighborhoods, protect the city’s natural environment and promote ethical, open, fair, and transparent government. I will continue listening to concerns of residents and business owners and look for new ideas for improving our city.” So on Aug. 14, vote Rachel Macha and Richard Byrne for a better Rehoboth Beach.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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