July 23, 2020 at 5:28 am EDT | by Dana Beyer
‘Because of sex’ approach to protecting trans people
(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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