Voters in Houston recently delivered a devastating blow to a LGBT rights movement that hasn’t tasted defeat too often recently. Almost two-thirds of Houston voters pulled the lever to repeal a broad non-discrimination ordinance that would have protected 15 groups vulnerable to discrimination, including women, people of color, and LGBT people. And they did so out of fear of transgender people because opponents peddled lies and pernicious stereotypes about predators in the restroom.
This loss, and this resurgence of hate, is a reminder of how much is left to do on transgender rights. To move forward, we need to change the way America understands transgender people. The LGBT movement’s experience on the marriage issue can be a guide, at least in part, for how we can win this fight, too.
In the movement for transgender equality, just as for marriage equality, changing public opinion is the ultimate goal. We must create the environment in which meaningful policy change can take hold.
We won the freedom to marry because our collective work, over the course of decades, changed how America thought about same-sex couples. We started from a place where anti-gay stereotypes dominated any public discussion about gay people. People said we were pedophiles. They said that we didn’t have committed relationships like straight people do, that we were only focused on sex, and that we literally had no love in our lives. All of those stereotypes were reasons that, for decades, marriage was an impossible achievement, even something that we were advised not to ask for.
But the LGBT movement changed all of that. The first step was getting the country to talk about gay people and marriage. We did that by forcing the topic onto the front pages of the newspapers by daring to sue over it, then advocating in legislatures, and often having to fight against regressive ballot initiatives at the polls. Even when we lost—and we lost a lot for many years—we were in the media. We were on the country’s agenda.
Having earned the country’s attention, we needed to find ways to show everyone the reality of the lives of same-sex couples, rather than the negative stereotypes to which the country was addicted. We focused on the love and commitment at the center of our relationships and broke down anti-gay stereotypes little by little. We built consensus throughout the country by spreading those stories about love.
After we changed people’s opinions and squashed the unfounded fears that gay parents would harm kids, we started to win the fight for marriage based on the opposite concern, that not allowing same-sex couples to marry would be bad for their kids. The new framing, of course, had been true all along—the stability and economic protections that can come with marriage can indeed help the couple’s children.
When we ultimately won marriage equality in the courts, we were making exactly the same arguments that had lost in the courts a few years prior. What changed was neither the soundness of arguments nor the persuasiveness of our advocacy, but rather the shift in public understanding of who gay people are.
Educating America can have the same kind of transformative effect on the movement for transgender rights and LGBT non-discrimination protections that it had on the fight for marriage. Houston has shown just how much America doesn’t understand about transgender people, just how in the sway of anti-trans stereotypes much of the country still is. And that’s what we need to change.
The good news is that America is now engaged in an intensive remedial course about transgender people. The American conversation about transgender people is light years ahead of where it was even at the start of this decade. Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have become household names. Of course, the reality is that transgender people have been a part of the LGBT movement from the start and have been fighting for decades, but hadn’t made it to living room televisions and dinner table conversations all across the country until very recently.
And we’ve seen significant advocacy for transgender rights focused not only on addressing the many pressing problems faced by transgender people, but at explaining to the country what transgender people’s lives are like. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education recently found that a suburban Chicago school district engaged in unlawful discrimination by barring a high school girl from the girls’ locker room just because she is transgender.
The ruling takes an enlightened, compassionate position on equality for transgender youth and sets an example for the rest of the country about how all transgender people should be treated. And that case, as well as many others, has opened the eyes of countless people all across the country about how difficult it is to be transgender in America.
We need more of that. We need everyone to understand that transgender people are our neighbors, our bankers, our pilots, our waitresses, our doctors. Transgender people are human beings who want and deserve to live a safe life free from discrimination. We need people to care about transgender people and the staggering rates of suicide, harassment, and violence they face.
It’s this education that is going to help us pass the non-discrimination laws we need and that’s going to help us protect those laws from repeal at the ballot box. It’s the education that’s going to enable courts to rule with compassion in cases about the rights of trans people. And it’s ultimately the education that is going to win the soft spot in America’s heart for the transgender Americans who are currently suffering so much.