It was Monday, May 9, 2016 and the week began with a press conference. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, were to announce a legal challenge to North Carolina’s anti-transgender House Bill 2. Lynch in her remarks compared laws like HB2 to Jim Crow laws of the past and as the nation’s first female, African-American woman attorney general her words directly confronting discrimination against the transgender community held special weight.
For me, these words went to the heart of the matter:
It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference. We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward. Let us write a different story this time.
I barely fought back the tears that welled-up into the corners of my eyes as she spoke.
Next, ACLU alumnus, Vanita Gupta spoke. Her speech was equally as poignant as Lynch’s:
The complaint we filed today speaks to public employees who feel afraid and stigmatized… And it speaks to all of us who have ever been made to feel inferior – like somehow we just don’t belong in our community, like somehow we just don’t fit in. Let me reassure every transgender individual, right here in America, that you belong just as you are. You are supported. And you are protected.
By now, tears were rolling freely down my cheeks.
Taken together, this press conference, the lawsuit and the civil rights action amounted to nothing less than a long-awaited historic moment for the transgender community.
I can’t deny that the years of vitriol directed at trans people have taken a toll on my spirit, just as they have on all of us in the trans community. Over the years, it becomes impossible to ignore the hate directed at you by people who have absolutely no idea why they hate you—other than you are different from them. The untruths told about you take a toll. The hatred takes a toll.
The years of your community being spoken about only in hushed whispers, while others in the LGBT pantheon march and are celebrated, they too have taken a toll.
For many, the toll has been too great and they have chosen to turn away from the struggle, to live privately. Who can blame them?
Tragically, for some, not only was the toll on their spirit too great to remain in the struggle, but the choice between continuing to fight and existence itself was a question that could not be faced and ultimately, they paid the toll with their lives. It seems no one in the transgender community is immune to this. I know I am not. I have been to that point where the toll seemed too high and I didn’t think I could take even one more humiliation. I too have asked myself if I could go on; “Was the toll too high”? Merely asking myself that question felt like a failure.
Then something deep in my soul stirs and I, like thousands of other transgender people, rise to greet another dawn and continue to fight – even when the toll seems too high.
On Monday May 9, 2016, the Attorney General of the United States of America told me, told the entire transgender community that she and the federal government saw us; they respected us, and they had our back.
And that’s when I realized, no toll is too great to get where we need to be.
The legal battle will be long and it will be hard fought and it will be won. But, dignity and respect are not granted by courts – they come from being known as brothers and sisters in our common humanity. It is up to those of us in the trans community to marshal the forces we need to fight the battle for our humanity. It is our responsibility to tell our stories. To educate and shape the narrative about who we are. To hazard the personal interactions upon which the respect and empathy of our friends, neighbors, and co-workers depend. And above all, when the toll seems too great, we must not let each other fail.
Lorretta Lynch and Vanita Gupta told us they had our back, now we must have theirs. That’s how this works.