NEW YORK – Stung by setbacks related to their access to public restrooms, transgender Americans are taking steps to play a more prominent and vocal role in a nationwide campaign to curtail discrimination against them.
Two such initiatives are being launched this week – evidence of how transgender rights has supplanted same-sex marriage as the most volatile, high-profile issue for the broader movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.
One initiative is a public education campaign called the Transgender Freedom Project that will share the personal stories of transgender people. The other, the Trans United Fund, is a political advocacy group that will engage in election campaigns at the federal and state level, pressing candidates to take stands on transgender rights.
"We welcome the support of our allies," said Hayden Mora, a veteran transgender activist who’s director of Trans United. "But it’s crucial that trans people build our own political power and speak with our own voices."
From a long-term perspective, there have been notable gains for transgender Americans – more support from major employers, better options for health care and sex-reassignment surgery, a growing number of municipalities which bar anti-transgender discrimination. But there were two setbacks in the past five months that hammered home to transgender people the challenges they still face.
Last November, by a decisive margin, voters in Houston repealed a municipal nondiscrimination ordinance that provided protections for LGBT people. On March 23, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a hastily drafted law that barred Charlotte and other cities in the state from implementing similar ordinances.
In both cases, conservatives opposed to the ordinances focused their arguments on bathroom access – contending that allowing transgender people to use public bathrooms based on their gender identity would expose women and girls to discomfort and molestation.
Those arguments helped carry the day among Houston voters and North Carolina lawmakers despite the fact that such problems have not materialized in the 17 states already banning anti-transgender discrimination.
"All the people who lost the marriage equality fight, they’ve now decided that trans people are fair game," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "They’re going to claim trans people are sexual predators, but the public is quickly going to learn that’s just nonsense."
The outcome in Houston prompted many post-mortems among LGBT activists: What went wrong? How should the bathroom-access argument be countered in the future?
"It’s been an alarming wake-up call since November," said Dru Lavasseur, Transgender Rights Project director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal. "We need to prioritize bringing transgender people into the movement in leadership positions, with transgender voices leading the way."