Civil Rights Should Not Be States' Rights: Why We Can't Leave Bigotry Up For Debate

02/23/2017 08:37 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2017
Getty Images / Eric Thayer

Today good ‘ol Sean “Spicey” Spencer said at a White House press briefing that bathroom laws pertaining to transgender students “should reflect the will of the people in those districts.” Let’s talk about that.

Years ago, when gay marriage was still illegal in most states, I was having drinks with a straight female coworker. She’s liberal, well-educated, and is in no way homophobic. Yet when the issue of gay marriage came up, she said she felt it should be a decision left to the states. It sounded like she may have been echoing her conservative parents — she’d also say things like “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative,” which is not a thing, and has, for the most part, always been a way of saying “I’m rich and I’d very much like to stay that way, but also please get rid of all the homeless people on my block.”

She said gay marriage should be handled differently than abortion. She felt the Supreme Court rushed the decision for a lot of states, instead of allowing their constituents to catch up on their own. It was an easy thing for her to say as she sipped Pinot Noir in the Upper West Side in 2011, never having needed an abortion and fully intending to marry the dude of her choice when the time came.

I reminded her that not that long ago women were using insane methods to administer their own abortions, thousands of women were dying in the United States, and continue to die in the developing world due to unsafe abortions. These laws don’t seem as pressing if they don’t directly affect you.

“I might want to marry a woman,” I said. At that point I had one foot outside the closet and wasn’t even sure if I wanted to marry anyone at all. “So for me, leaving this kind of a decision up to the state seems insane.”

I could feel it. The weight of this decision, the urgency. What if I couldn’t marry who I wanted? Why couldn’t straight people at least try to relate?

When I started dating my girlfriend in 2015, gay marriage was still not legal on a federal level. How crazy is that! My stepmom used to say that since marriage is religious, gay people shouldn’t get married, because being gay goes against a lot of religions. They should “respect the sanctity of marriage.” And she’s married to my dad — who’s been married three times. (By the way, my stepbrother came out the following year and is now engaged.)

If we leave important legislation — that deals with the human and civil rights of U.S. citizens — up to the constituents, we’re leaving it to the whim of people like my stepmother. Who just “feel” like it’s “wrong” based on their own biases and bigotry.

Leaving civil rights “up to the states” might seem okay to people who have no intention of marrying someone of their same gender or getting an abortion. It might seem okay to cisgender students who are completely comfortable using the bathroom that aligns with their biology. But it feels VERY MUCH NOT OKAY to anyone who wants to live a normal life and whose government won’t let them. A life that includes very basic things — things white cisgender straight people take for granted every day — like going to the bathroom.

Our executive branch should set an example for the constituents. “Gay people aren’t normal” or “transgender people are predators” shouldn’t be valid opinions that we treat with respect in this country, and they certainly shouldn’t be perpetuated through our laws.

After gay marriage was legalized, there was a decrease in suicide attempts among LGBT youth. These are the real-life effects of these laws. These kinds of anti-discriminatory precautions do nothing but help people, and hurt no one. There is no evidence that these laws encourage or somehow make it easier for men to use transgender identities to get into public restrooms and assault women, and even if there were, these new laws don’t protect predators or legalize sexual assault. In fact, school districts who have enacted these laws to protect transgender students have confirmed that there is no increase in sexual assault.

There is absolutely no data to show that transgender protection laws result in unsafe public spaces. There has, however, been an uptick in violence against transgender people in America over the past few years.

Spicer said during the press briefing that the guidance the Obama administration put into action last year was not “properly followed” because it didn’t include the input of teachers, administrators, etc. It was fly-by-night — the way literally everything in the Trump administration has been done.

“There’s a reason that in August of last year the court enjoined this,” Spicer said, referring to Obama’s guidance protecting transgender students, “because it hadn't followed the law.” Yet, instead of finding a way to implement it better than the Obama administration did, they are going to now call it a “state issue.”

What our president says matters. Obama was the first president to even mention transgender people in a speech in 2015. This matters. So if Trump and his cabinet truly do want to protect children, and they simply want to implement the laws differently, they sure as hell aren’t making that clear. The only message they’re getting across is: “Your safety is secondary. If your state cares about you, you’ll be fine. If they don’t, good luck.”

We can’t leave discrimination up to the states. Bigotry is not debatable. I exist, and you have to get used to that fact. I don’t care if you ever love it, and I definitely don’t care if you ever like me, but you have to accept it.

When the country says gay people deserve the same rights as straight individuals, gay people are safer. Same for transgender and gender nonconforming people. Same for women in need of the proper medical care. When the country shames these groups of people, and suggests that their rights, their humanity, are up for debate, then that opens us up to more threats. That sets us back as a nation.

Trump’s administration shouldn’t be defensive when it’s citizens are scared, they should be comforting. They should make it clear that they won’t let transgender students get hurt. That they won’t tolerate bigotry and discrimination. They shouldn’t reluctantly address the issue at a press conference and say, “How come nobody yelled at Obama?!”

Because the message Obama was sending was powerful. The message is important. Leaving our children’s safety up to the constituents doesn’t send a powerful message. It sends a message that it’s every trans man and woman (and boy and girl and non-binary) for themselves. And we refuse to let that happen.

Here are some organizations you can support to protect trans and gender nonconforming people (and if you have any more please leave in the comments!):

CONVERSATIONS