The Supreme Court of the United States made a landmark decision on June 26, 2015, when it legalized same sex marriage across the nation in the case Obergefell vs. Hodges. Proponents of marriage equality have been celebrating, and rightly so – it is not every day that rights which have been unjustly withheld from a group of people are finally awarded to them in one swift stroke. However, conservatives are not going down without a fight, which makes it abundantly clear that the battle is not over. This begs the question: what happens now? What about those states in which gay marriage was not previously legal? And what should be the focus of the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality moving forward?
In terms of conservatives attempting to delay the inevitable, there have been a few states that are vehemently fighting to “preserve religious rights.” Mike Huckabee has vowed to make several executive orders to undermine the decision if elected to the Presidency and, as CNN explains, while most states are abiding by the decision, states such as Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, and others are outright defying the decision either by encouraging county clerks to not issue marriage licenses or issuing executive orders at the state level, among other things. Other conservative states, such as Arkansas, are acquiescing more easily, though leaders are clear that they are not happy with the decision.
The Sexy Politico reached out to both Democrat and Republican leaders in the Michigan state legislature, another state where same sex marriage was illegal until the SCOTUS decision, to get a feel for the atmosphere around the case. The Republican caucus could not be immediately reached for comment. However, Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, has said that the state government will abide by the law and make the required changes. The Democratic side was, unsurprisingly, quite pleased. “This is a great day for everyone who believes in equal rights,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) in an official statement. “Far too many people have waited far too long for this day. We stand with them in this celebration today, but also in the ongoing effort to ensure complete equality and fairness in all aspects of life.”
It is Senator Ananich’s final words that bring to light the real issue facing the LGBTQ community now: ensuring complete equality and fairness. The fight over complete implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision was one that everyone knew would come, as it always does after contentious decisions made by the high court. But where should we, as an LGBTQ community and its allies, focus our efforts now? There are many issues that need to be addressed: protection based on sexual orientation in the work place and adoption rights being a few. But I contend that those in greatest need of our support and our efforts are our trans* friends and family, and all those whose gender identities are anything but cisgender.
For the remainder of this article, I will attempt to illuminate what gender identity is, what it means, the struggle faced by those who differ from the traditional norms, and how we can aid in the fight for equality.
What is gender identity?
By this point, almost everybody is familiar with the concept of sexual orientation, and have at least some exposure to the spectrum it represents and the many different possible identities. But just as one’s sexual orientation and romantic preference resides on a spectrum, so, too, does one’s gender identity. A common misconception is that biological sex and gender are inherently the same thing, when, in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. “Beyond anatomy, there are multiple domains defining gender,” explains the official website of Gender Spectrum, an organization that, in their own words, helps create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for children and teens. “In turn, these domains can be independently characterized across a range of possibilities. Instead of the static, binary model produced through a solely physical understanding of gender, a far richer tapestry of biology, gender expression, and gender identity intersect in a multidimensional array of possibilities. Quite simply, the gender spectrum represents a more nuanced, and ultimately truly authentic model of human gender.”
But if gender identity is separate from biological sex, what identities can we observe? There are many, but the Human Rights Campaign gives a number of useful definitions of sexual orientations and gender identities as a reference. Transgender, they explain, is an umbrella term used to refer to those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. While this often refers to those who identify with the opposite gender they were assigned, this is not universally the case, and not every person who identifies as transgender will choose to transition, the process by which a person will begin to live as the gender identity with which they, personally, identify. In some cases, those who choose to transition do so because they are experiencing gender dysphoria, a condition by which the difference between the gender assigned at birth and that which they identify causes significant distress. This is not the case for all people who transition, however, nor even for all people identifying as a gender other than that which they were assigned. Gender identity is much more complex than that.
In fact, many people’s gender identity falls completely outside the traditional binary system, wherein we find the natural spectrum of gender. One might identify as genderfluid, for example, wherein they have characteristics of both genders, as Ruby Rose of Orange is the New Black explained when talking about her own gender identity with The Huffington Post. A person might identify as agender, wherein they feel they have no gender identity, identify as gender neutral, or identify as genderless (among other possibilities). This barely scratches the surface of all the possibilities within the gender identity spectrum, however, and many identify with the term genderqueer, that is, any identity falling outside the traditional binary gender system.
What difficulties do the transgender community face?
To somebody who identifies as cisgender (identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth), the problems faced by the transgender and genderqueer communities may seem minimal. The truth is actually substantially more terrifying. Let’s begin with the workplace – a startling number of states in the USA have zero protections for the transgender community. That means that you can be fired on the basis of your gender identity and nothing else. The Huffington Post reports that, in 2013, there were only sixteen states in which you could not be fired for being transgender. Some states have taken steps in the right direction by passing some LGBT protections in the workplace, but many of these only cover sexual orientation and make no mention of gender identity. There is currently no federal law protecting the LGBTQ community in this arena. However, that could soon change; the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (or ENDA) is a piece of proposed legislation that would afford these protections to everyone in the LGBTQ community. It has not yet been introduced to Congress, so if it is something we want to see happen, it will take combined effort of everyone working together to make it abundantly clear to Congress how important this piece of legislation is.
Another area of concern is the ability to live and represent oneself as one’s gender identity, including name, appearance, and even where to use the bathroom. Many states require that driver’s licenses reflect not chosen name and pronouns, but the name one was given at birth, and require pictures represent the assigned gender. And the process for legally changing your gender to adhere to these rules is often prohibitive. Take Michigan, for example: The state provides a system for legally changing one’s sex (note: not gender) on the official birth record only following sex reassignment surgery, and only if the doctors who performed the procedure complete a medical affidavit verifying that the transition is complete. This completely excludes anybody who, for various reasons, might choose not to transition, or find themselves unable to do so. And this doesn’t even cover the fight to be able to use the bathroom corresponding to your gender identity. Several states have even fought to ensure that it would be illegal to do this, even if one lives, dresses, acts, and appears as the gender identity in every day life (not that this should be a requirement, anyway). Arizona was only one of several states that attempted to target transgender people with one of these infamous “bathroom bills.”
These are only a few of the legal issues the transgender and genderqueer community face and they are, by far, not the most horrifying. As Advocate.com reports, although general anti-LGBTQ violence fell in 2014, violence against the transgender community rose by an astonishing 13%. And that’s not the worst of it: an estimated 41% of transgender people in the United States have attempted suicide as a result of the treatment they have been given, and 19% report having been actually refused medical care because of their gender identity. Sexual assault and harassment are also a very real threat to those in this community, and statistics show that the situation is actually worse for minorities who identify as transgender. In fact, it has been reported that 13% of transgender African-Americans alone have been assaulted at work. We live in a society where anyone falling outside the traditional gender norms finds themselves placed in a lower class, denied the rights that they deserve.
This is why gender identity needs to be at the forefront of the LGBTQ community’s fight. While it is true that the fight for marriage equality is not completely over and we need to continue to safeguard the new rights that have been gained in that fight, we now need to turn our attention to all of our brothers, sisters, friends, and loved ones that find themselves oppressed and/or living in fear because of their gender identity.
Looking to learn more and find ways that you can get involved? The websites for the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Susan’s Place are great places to start. There are many ways that you can get involved and save a life. Just as we have been the generation that has seen marriage equality across the nation, we need to be the generation that will not stand for discrimination based on gender identity.