Mara Keisling talks transgender legal battles

by Thomas J. Billard

Mara Keisling talks with host Joel Cohen about the issues endangering the transgender community and what organizations like hers is doing to protect their rights.

NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling recently sat down with Joel Cohen at TalksOnLaw to discuss some of the ongoing political battles for transgender access and equality in the United States. In part one of the interview — released last week — Keisling discussed the rise in anti-transgender legislation, how such bills impacts the daily lives of transgender people and how the community is fighting back.

With increases in transgender visibility in media and popular culture, more Americans find themselves confronted with what seems to them to be a new social phenomenon. This has bred conflict, both socially and politically, which has placed the transgender community smack in the middle of the ongoing “culture wars.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in North Carolina, where Republican lawmakers used the transgender community as a cultural scapegoat to pass anti-labor legislation, Keisling said. North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” HB 2, among other things prohibited municipalities from increasing the minimum wage. Anti-transgender restroom regulations were included in the hopes that the bill would pass due to prejudice against the transgender community, a community lawmakers thought was weak and un-allied.

But this was a gross miscalculation. Allies rallied around the transgender community, calling on officials to repeal the discriminatory law. The NCAA boycotted the state, refusing to hold championship tournaments there. Countless companies withdrew investment plans in the state and professional organizations rescheduled conferences originally planned to occur there. All told, HB2 had a negative impact of over 3 billion dollars on North Carolina’s state economy, according to Keisling.

Ultimately, HB2 was partially repealed, but North Carolina’s cautionary tale hasn’t prevented the nearly 100 similar laws that have popped up around the country in 2016 and 2017 alone. Yet more than having negative political and economic consequences for the state, these laws endanger transgender citizens’ safety and prevents them from participating in daily life.

“If a kid can’t use the bathroom at school, they can’t go to school. And if somebody can’t use the bathroom at work, they can’t have a job. They can’t be a full member of society.” — Mara Keisling

Indeed, schools are another site of major controversy over basic transgender rights. Keisling cited the example of G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice issued guidance on how Title IX protections applied to transgender students, but the week after Attorney General Jeff Sessions took office, the Trump administration demanded the rescission of the guidance. As a consequence, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Yet despite the onslaught of anti-transgender legislation around the country, the amount of pro-transgender legislation is increasing as well. California, for example, recently passed a law requiring single-occupancy restrooms to be gender-neutral. Not only is this a major victory for transgender people, protecting transgender access to public space, but it also protects cisgender people who don’t fit gender stereotypes, who have certain types of disability, and who have small kids, among others.

Indeed, the future of transgender rights is hopeful, Keisling said. Legislators at every level no longer distance themselves from transgender rights issues and activists get meetings with policymakers they would never have previously gotten. And citizens and politicians alike are beginning to speak up in defense of the transgender community.

In part 2 of the interview, Keisling discussed other types of anti-transgender bills, failed and currently pending, that attempt to restrict two essential aspects of daily life: access to adequate and nondiscriminatory health care and identification documents (birth certificates and driver’s licenses) that correctly reflect the transgender person’s gender identity.


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