Last night, Jen Cook and I went to the National Council for Transgender Equality’s (NCTE) 10th Anniversary event. The evening was themed “Our Moment,” reflecting the organization’s intention to build upon the successes of the gay rights movement in the past year, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Windsor decision, and the many states that have enacted gay marriage. In fact, even as the party went on, the festivities were interrupted to announce that Hawaii became the 16th state to allow for gay marriage. As acceptance of full rights for gays and lesbians has grown tremendously over the past few years, acceptance of the essential humanity of the transgendered has not moved as quickly. There have been victories- the Affordable Care Act provides increased access to needed medical services to transgender individuals, transgender individuals such as Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, and Lana Wachowski have upped awareness of trans issues in our culture. Even Chelsea Manning has forced us to confront the dilemmas facing trans people in the military and in prison.
There was palpable excitement in the room last night. Last week the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal nationwide to fire or discriminate in employment issues against someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Employment discrimination against trans individuals is a serious problem, with 90 percent of trans individuals reporting that they suffered some form of employment discrimination in their lives. The Senate ENDA bill is termed “trans-inclusive,” because it has expressly included discrimination protections for transgender individuals, whereas previous incarnations had sacrificed the “T” in GLBT as protections for trans individuals were just a bridge too far for some. But this years ENDA is trans-inclusive and is now headed to the House of Representatives. As immigration lawyers, our hearts sank as we heard people express optimism over the chances for its passage in the House. Over the last four months, we have watched as the House has run out the clock on immigration reform. Even after being confronted by young activists who brought their plights to him over breakfast, Speaker John Boehner made it clear today that no immigration legislation is moving this year.
If anyone believes that House members can be moved by hearing the personal stories of those effected by our terrible immigration laws or due to employment discrimination because of gender identity, Boehner’s cold response to these teenagers who spoke truth to power should put that notion to rest. George Washington called the Senate the “cooling saucer” because it was meant to temper the excitable House of Representatives. That role has changed and a group of 40 Tea Party Republicans in the House can stymie the hopes and aspirations of immigrants and trans men and women. It is truly ironic because both pieces of legislation easily passed the Senate and would easily pass the House if the speaker would just bring it to a vote. Yet, the Speaker cares more about the needs of his 40 Tea Party members than he does the suffering of 11 million immigrants or the need for employment discrimination protection for vulnerable minorities.
Our involvement in trans issues began when young trans women came into our office and asked us to help them apply for asylum. Most had come from Central America and they all had stories of beatings, rapes, and rejection by their family. They braved smugglers and human traffickers to make it to the U.S., where they found a chance to be themselves. We have been able to obtain asylum for dozens of transgender individuals and not just from Central America. Persecution of the non-gender-conforming is a worldwide pestilence. To hear and know their stories and their bravery in leaving their homes under dangerous circumstances to have a chance to simply be themselves fills us with great admiration and respect for these individuals. Their needs are far more fundamental than a job. They come to America to be who they are. It all starts there. Over the years of representing trans individuals in asylum and then for green cards and, ultimately, citizenship, we have watched them grow into themselves, get stable employment, start relationships and family, and give back to their communities. To watch a human being develop to her potential is like watching a flower bloom. You can never grow tired of it.
The NTCE has done tremendous work to bring trans civil rights to the forefront of the political arena. Like immigration reform, I am confident that full civil rights for trans people will occur in the future. Last night, we heard from 33 year old Dylan Orr, a White House appointee, and 23 year old Sarah McBride, a political activist, about their professional experiences as a trans man and trans woman respectively. They are the future and that gives us confidence and joy.