Nearly 27 years ago, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and other transgender women of color led the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn in New York. On Monday, the attorney general of the United States heard their voices—and, as an African-American woman from North Carolina, welcomed them into the American civil rights movement.
This is what history looks like.
Rivera, Johnson, and their friends weren’t called “transgender” in 1969. They might have been called “transvestites” or “drag queens” by their friends, or, by their enemies, mentally ill, perverted, or sick—just as trans people are sometimes maligned today. But they knew something society didn’t. They understood themselves to be female.
In 1969, they understood what the Department of Justice said to a federal district court Monday: that “transgender individuals are individuals who have a gender identity that does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender man’s sex is male and a transgender woman’s sex is female.”
This insight is not news to trans people, or to anyone who knows someone trans. But that it is the position of the United States government, and that anti-trans discrimination is sex discrimination, and that the hideous anti-trans backlash that we have shouted about in these pages is, in Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s words, akin to Jim Crow and George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door—well, that is news.
The great irony is that Monday’s historic moment was brought on by cynicism and duplicity. HB2, the North Carolina bill at the center of the controversy, was passed in response to a Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance that never once mentioned bathrooms. The Transgender Bathroom Menace was meant to be a scare tactic. It worked in Houston, after all, so why not in North Carolina? And lo and behold, HB2 undid all of North Carolina’s ordinances protecting LGBT people from discrimination, all on a false pretext.
Then the pretext backfired.
First, trans individuals stepped forward to tell their stories. Images circulated of highly masculine transgender men who now were required to use the ladies’ room. Trans people shared their experiences of violence that would now only get worse.
Then the lie was laid bare. North Carolina Gov. Jim McCrory had said back in February that anti-discrimination laws, which he called “Bathroom Bills,” would “create major public safety issues by putting citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy.”
Except that’s never happened. It’s all just a myth. Not only do sexual predators have plenty of other ways to do harm to women, Charlotte’s law wouldn’t protect them even if they wanted to cross-dress and sneak into the bathroom. Transgender women are not cross-dressing men; they are transgender women.
Quickly, even conservatives like Fox News’s Chris Wallace wondered if HB2 was a solution in search of a problem. Fortune 50 companies with presences in North Carolina registered strong opposition (Apple, Dow, Biogen, Bayer, Google, American Airlines), some (PayPal, Lionsgate Films) announcing plans to leave. The NBA cast next year’s All-Star Game into doubt. Public opinion turned against McCrory; a poll released Monday showed that 57 percent of Americans opposed laws like HB2. Even Donald Trump weighed in opposing the law. Clearly, the tide had turned.
And then came Lynch. Announcing the filing of a federal suit alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act, she chose not to focus on the legal niceties of the case but to situate it in its proper context. In lines that have already been analogized to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches, she said: “This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them—indeed, to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country—haltingly but inexorably—in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”
But that wasn’t all. Continuing, she stood at the podium and said: “This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. We saw it in fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. And we saw it in the proliferation of state bans on same-sex unions intended to stifle any hope that gay and lesbian Americans might one day be afforded the right to marry.”
These weren’t fighting words, aimed at the prevarications of Gov. McCrory. These were soaring words, aimed at the history books.
And in firmly asserting that gender identity is like sexual orientation, gender, and race—that is, a characteristic of the human soul, not some deviant or malicious pathology—Lynch brought transgender people into the wide arc of the liberal civil rights tradition.
Of course, none of these characteristics is really so straightforward. Race, gender, and sexual orientation are all, in part, socially constructed. They are unstable, and may not be quite as fixed as human rights discourse implies. But whatever transgender is as a psychological/physical phenomenon, it is not what HB2’s sponsor, state Rep. Dan Bishop, said when he introduced his ignorant bill: “a cross-dresser’s liberty to express his gender nonconformity.”
One would think that the myth that transgender women are just male perverts in dresses would be dead in the age of Caitlyn Jenner. But it isn’t. Not long ago, the Southern Baptist Convention declared that trans people do not exist, that they are simply mentally ill. (Indeed, one Twitter troll informed me of that “fact” on Monday.) And if they are mentally ill, then perhaps they’re not so different from those Dressed to Kill men in skirts after all.
But if the myth isn’t dead, it does have a fatal flaw: that it just ain’t so.
Like the myth that gays are perverts who prey on children, like the myth that African Americans are somehow less than human, like the myth that women are too irrational to vote, the myth that trans people are sick perverts Is. Simply. False.
Sooner or later, people are going to figure that out. Maybe they’ll meet someone trans, or watch Transparent, or just fire up YouTube and see for themselves. And when they do figure out that transgender is a real thing and trans people are real people, they’ll see that HB2 and its ilk are discriminating based on fear, not protecting based on concern.
Four years ago, President Obama made history by including LGBT equality within the American civil rights struggle when he described that struggle as ranging “from Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall.” At the time, the obvious context was same-sex marriage and the rights of lesbians and gays.
But the real heroes of Stonewall weren’t just gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; they were also women who did not yet have a name but had their dignity, their fierceness, and their pride. Standing with Loretta Lynch on Monday, they came of age, our country having finally caught up with them.