Lawmakers gathered with advocates in Washington D.C. on Tuesday morning to announce the creation of a Transgender Equality Task Force to address the discrimination and violence facing the trans population in the United States. The announcement is a first in American history, and it's one of the boldest moves by members of Congress to support transgender people. Like the scaffolding enshrouding the Capitol Building under construction behind them, government officials spoke of altering American law and attitudes from within an old and conservative institution.
"I'm honored to chair the very first task force for issues facing the transgender community," said Congressman Mike Honda (CA-17). Earlier this year, Honda spoke out about his own transgender grandchild, Melissa. "The youngsters in these families face a unique situation and must be taken with utmost care and love. We need to ensure that we have an environment in this country that is nurturing and engaging."
Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) is the first openly gay elected official from New York. He took the podium, saying, "We don't want the young transgender person to feel afraid anymore. We don't want you to be excluded, or to feel like you don't have a place in the highest places of your own government." Other officials spoke, including minority leader Nancy Pelosi, collectively highlighting issues that have long gone unnoticed in Washington.
We don't want the young transgender person to feel afraid anymore. We don't want you to be excluded, or to feel like you don't have a place in the highest places of your own government.
I spoke with Congressman Maloney after the caucus made their announcement. "There was a time when progress on lesbian and gay civil rights was literally put at the expense of other types of minority communities, particularly the transgender community. We're not going to do that anymore," he said. "What we're really saying is that all human beings experience sexual orientation and gender identity, and across that entire spectrum, wherever you fall, you have rights as an American."
"In any civil rights movement, the smallest communities often get heard from last. It doesn't make their rights any less important and it doesn't make the challenges any easier. We need to do something extra to bring attention to these issues, and that's what the task force is. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in congress who are already breaking one ceiling have a special obligation to ensure that we don't leave anybody behind."
The LGBT Equality Caucus within Congress held a congressional forum later Tuesday afternoon at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Nearly a dozen activists, community members, and representatives from different transgender rights organizations addressed a cycling semi-circle of elected officials that included representatives Mike Honda, Joseph Kennedy III (MA-4), and Barbara Lee (CA-13). There are no Republican members of the LGBT Equality Caucus.
The forum was split between two panels that addressed two separate sets of caucus members. The first panel included survivors of violence, as well as advocates like La La Zannell of the Anti-Violence Project, and Joanna Cifredo, a writer, community organizer, and board member of DC's largest transgender health care provider, Whitman-Walker Health. They addressed the impacts and causes of violence against trans people, with the purpose of representing "the lived experience of transgender victims and [to] educate on the scope of violence experienced by transgender people, particularly transgender people of color."
"I hope to provide you context to see the complex variables that make black and brown transgender bodies so vulnerable violence," said Cifredo, seated before the task force. "To do this," she continued, "we must evaluate the different systems in which these bodies navigate. We must recognize how race, socioeconomic status, immigration status, ability, and english proficiency all contribute to the violence against transgender women of color. Most importantly, what role does the state play in all of this?"
We must recognize how race, socioeconomic status, immigration status, ability, and english proficiency all contribute to the violence against transgender women of color.
In the first ten minutes, one of the congressman present thanked the panelists for coming to Washington, and then apologized because he had to step away. Throughout the duration of the forum, Congress members cycled in and out due to their demanding schedules. All spoke with gratitude for the panelists and expressed passionate concern for the plight of violence facing trans people.
"Its absolutely critical that we all have a better understanding of the problems that you face on a daily basis that society has not yet answered," Kennedy said, adding that even in his home state of Massachusetts, which is "leading the way for civil rights and LGBT rights, we're still in the midst of a debate over two bills that would add gender identity to the list of protected classes."
Panelists underscored intersectionality, stating that the issues placing trans people at risk—like rampant unemployment and homelessness—do not occur in a vacuum, and that these problems cannot be solved without recognizing the fundamental role race plays in economic disparity. Their personal stories drove home an often unseen reality for trans people and hearkened to Congressman Maloney's morning statements about the importance of representation in the highest points of government.
Around 3 PM, the forum took a brief recess in order for Congress members to cast their votes for the day. When they returned twenty minutes later, the second panel was waiting for them. Representatives from various organizations including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), the Transgender People of Color Coalition, and the National Black Justice Coalition gave testimonial that centered on LGBT policy in order to "highlight the voices of organizations dedicated to ending bias-motivated violence against transgender people."
I don't know that this congress, as it is currently composed, is going to take action.
Harper Jean Tobin is the Policy Director of NCTE, the leading social justice advocacy organization for transgender people in the United States. She addressed Congress by speaking to the public perception of the advancement of the transgender movement. When people speak of this progress, Tobin said, "they're referring to the tremendous increase in public visibility and understanding that we've seen in the last few years for transgender people. It's very real," she affirmed, adding, "People certainly are seeing and hearing more about transgender people than before and that bodes very well for families and for many young people who are more likely to see somebody like themselves on TV or in their community."
But, Tobin explained, "The truth is that for most trans people, this year has also been deeply traumatic. We have seen tremendous public political fear-mongering and dehumanizing lies for transgender people in state legislatures, school boards, even presidential candidates impugning us as unstable, as deceptive, or as predators and threats to children, for political purposes [and in attempt] to block basic legal protections."
On Tuesday the Department of Justice released its annual hate crime statistics. "They reported 98 reported incidents of bias motivated violence around the country last year against trans and gender nonconforming people," Jean said. "We know the numbers are far far higher than that. Even the FBI will admit the data are collected and reported so inconsistently as to render them almost meaningless. This is a serious public health crisis and a serious public safet crisis and the government is not really studying it. We need strong legal protection, supportive schools, job assistance, and nonjudgmental help for our communities."
"I don't know that this Congress, as it is currently composed, is going to take action," said Congressman Luis Guiterrez (IL-4). "That doesn't mean we don't try, that we don't educate people, and that we don't do our advocacy work." He underscored the importance of change on a local level and asked panelists to speak to the cities that are "leading the way in protecting basic rights of the trans community and in general, in terms of recognizing their place in our society, as well as specifically in the prevention and prosecution of violence?"
These vital protections, these common sense human and civil rights protections, should come from our federal government.
"You're absolutely right," said Chad Griffin, President of the HRC. "The environment today is perhaps not going to get us to a place of passage, but that can't slow down our determination." He affirmed that there are examples of cities with progressive local policies and programs, including San Francisco and New York City. "But at the end of the day these vital protections, these common sense human and civil rights protections, should come from our federal government."
"When they don't, we're left to the whims of political campaigns like we just saw in Houston, Texas," Griffin said. (In Houston, earlier this month, an equal rights ordinance that would have provided protections to a vast array of marginalized demographics—including transgender people—was shot down by a smear and fear-mongering campaign that slandered the lives of trans people by depicting them as predators of children.)
"Because there are no explicit protections on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in this country, it has caused local municipalities to bring about their own protections, as happened at the Houston city council," said Griffin. "If the history of our country tells us one thing: the rights and the protections of minorities in this country should not be left up to the whims of political campaigns and elected officials at the local level. That should come from our federal government."