We were in the car recently and turned on the radio to catch the headlines on the five o'clock news. We turned the volume up extra loud when we heard the lead story: the United States Department of Justice was suing the state of North Carolina for violating the civil rights of transgender Americans by denying them the right to use the bathroom that fit their gender identity.
We heard United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch name North Carolina's notorious House Bill 2 (HB2) for what it is: unlawful discrimination against transgender people. Lynch did not mince words. She explained how North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and the state legislature "created state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security--a right taken for granted by most of us." Lynch exposed the duplicity of HB2's proponents, explaining that they had "invent[ed] a problem that doesn't exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment." She explained that HB2 "inflict[s] further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society--all it does is harm innocent Americans ... This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens... ."
We were moved when Lynch, the first African American woman to head the Justice Department and herself a North Carolinian, went on to relate HB2 and the struggle for LGBT freedom to civil rights struggles of the past. Lynch explained: "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. That right, of course, is now recognized as a guarantee embedded in our Constitution, and in the wake of that historic triumph, we have seen bill after bill in state after state taking aim at the LGBT community ... [N]one of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not... ." She reminded the nation that "[i]t 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."
Lynch impressed us further by speaking directly to the transgender community. She said: "Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward."
We thought to ourselves: "We can't believe we are alive." The Attorney General of the United States is engaging the full force of the Executive Branch of the United States government to fight for the rights of transgender people. We've experienced similar feelings a few times over the last dozen years-when we married in San Francisco City Hall in February 2004, when Congress repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell by a supermajority, when the President came out for full marriage equality, and when the Supreme Court made it a reality. Standing up boldly for civil rights is exactly what our government should be doing, and millions of LGBT Americans over decades have lived their lives openly and proudly and worked to make this day a reality.
As the marriage equality struggle made abundantly clear, great harm can occur when Americans' civil rights are put up to a popular vote. It's déjà vu as legislatures and electorates are now putting transgender people's dignity up to a vote. The Obama administration is doing exactly the right thing by trying to stop these laws dead in their tracks.
As with many other LGBT struggles, crisis presents opportunity. Over and over, when we have faced our greatest adversities, we have educated the nation about lives and ultimately about our common humanity and the universal human desire for safety and happiness. Attorney General Lynch in her remarks recognized how our nation's advances in civil rights have not been "easy" and have come with "pain and suffering." The current struggle sadly is no different. But we are very hopeful that what transgender Americans are doing in response to HB2 and other attacks--telling the truth of their lives--is educating Americans day by day. As this process unfolds, we are very glad that the United States Department of Justice is by our side.
John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for nearly three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality.