NEW YORK — As gays and lesbians rack up victories in their quest for marriage equality and other rights, transgender Americans are following in their path — hopefully, but less smoothly.
There have been some important legal rulings and political votes in recent months bolstering transgender rights. But those have coincided with an upsurge of hostility from some conservative activists, and an acknowledgement by transgender-rights leaders that they face distinct challenges in building public support for their cause.
“My sense is that we are 20 years behind the mainstream gay and lesbian movement in terms of public understanding,” said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“I see a lessening of anti-gay rhetoric as the American people get to know gays and lesbians,” he said. “But fewer Americans know transgender people that way at this point, and that presents an opening that opponents of transgender rights can exploit.”
One high point for transgender activists came in November when the U.S. Senate approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity as well sexual orientation. Only 17 states have such protections for transgender people.
However, House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that his Republican-controlled chamber may not take up the bill, and much of the criticism directed at it by social conservative activists has focused on transgender-related matters.
“This law is about forcing Bible-believing Christians to deny their faith rather than inconvenience cross-dressing, gender-confused adults,” said Rick Scarborough, chairman of Tea Party Unity.
The Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, evoked possible application of the bill to school hiring, asserting that “students as young as 5 or 6 years old will be forced to watch should their teacher choose to transform herself from Marvin to Mary.”
Similar rhetoric has surfaced in California, where conservative groups hope to place a measure on the November 2014 ballot to repeal a new law giving transgender students the choice of playing on either boys’ or girls’ sports teams and allowing them to use either gender’s restrooms.
The National Organization for Marriage, which since 2007 has been a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, decided this fall to join the repeal campaign, even though the California law does not deal with marriage.
“We can stop this outrageous law in its tracks, and thwart the efforts of homosexual activists to use vulnerable children as a weapon in their culture war,” wrote the organization’s president, Brian Brown, in a fundraising appeal to supporters.
Repeal backers have submitted 620,000 signatures supporting a ballot measure; those are now being reviewed to see if enough of them are valid.
Dru Levasseur, director of Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights Project, interpreted the wave of hostile rhetoric as a positive sign.
“The fact we’ve had so many victories on behalf of gays and lesbians means transgender people are now on the radar — and with it comes the nastiness,” he said. “There have been so many advances regarding marriage that the anti-equality groups are shifting to target the next set of upcoming victories on transgender issues.”
Same-sex marriage will soon be legal in 16 states, and opinion polls show that a majority of Americans now support it.
For the most part, transgender activists have welcomed the developments on marriage equality, while expressing some concern that issues of more direct importance to them were not getting sufficient attention from national gay-rights groups.
Health-care coverage figures among these issues. In New York State — one of the most liberal when it comes to gay rights — activists recently launched a campaign to change what they consider to be a discriminatory regulation barring Medicaid payments for purposes related to gender reassignment
Dean Spade, a transgender law professor spending this year at Columbia Law School, said other pressing issues include high rates of incarceration and poverty among transgender people, as well as violence directed against them. She has questioned why some activists are instead placing a priority on helping transgender people pursue military careers.
“We should put our energies into relieving the worst conditions placed on people,” Spade said.
By any measure, there have been some significant gains for transgender Americans over the past decade, including decisions by scores of municipalities and companies to extend protections and benefits to them.
In 2011, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned the firing of a Georgia legislative employee who was dismissed after telling her boss she was about to undergo sex change surgery. In June, the Colorado Division of Civil Rights ruled that a suburban Colorado Springs school district had discriminated against Coy Mathis, a 6-year-old transgender girl, by preventing her from using the girls’ bathroom.
Yet in the western Colorado town of Delta, a school board member suggested at a public meeting in October that use of girls’ locker rooms by boys would be acceptable only if they’d been castrated. In Arizona, a Republican legislator introduced a bill earlier this year that would have made it a crime for a transgender person to use a bathroom other than the one designated for his or her birth sex. After an outcry from advocacy groups, the measure was modified, and then withdrawn — at least for this year.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says the best strategy for combatting such attitudes would be to enable more Americans to become familiar with transgender people.
“A huge number of Americans now have gay family members, gay co-workers ... but most of them don’t know a transgender person, and that means we’re ripe for scapegoating,” Keisling said. “There are a lot of people in this country who just are ignorant about us. They hear people in authority demeaning and dehumanizing us, and they believe it.”
“I think for the next few years, until transgender people are more visible, come out at work, we’re still going to have a lot of ignorance out there,” she said.
Part of the challenge is demographic. According to demographer Gary Gates of the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, an estimated 3.4 percent of adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, while only one-tenth that many are transgender.
One of the most prominent transgender Americans in recent months has been Chelsea Manning, the Army private previously known as Bradley Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified material to WikiLeaks. A day after the sentencing, Manning announced she wanted to live as a woman, and has requested estrogen treatments that would promote breast development and other female characteristics.
Another high-profile transgender figure has surfaced on “Orange is the New Black,” the hit Netflix series set in a women’s prison. A transgender character, Sophia, is played empathetically by transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox.
However, that character is an exception among current offerings of TV shows and films, according to GLAAD, an advocacy group that monitors media portrayals of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
In a report last month, GLAAD examined 20 recent TV episodes that included transgender characters, and deemed 60 percent of them to be negative or defamatory. Common themes, according to GLAAD, are portrayals of transgender people either as clownish or sociopathic.
“We need to get more good images in the media, so people can see us as regular people, not as predators,” said Tiq Milan of GLAAD’s Trans Education and Media Program.
Some conservative activists contend that many Americans will have more difficulty accepting transgender rights than gay rights.
“No matter how one feels about homosexual rights ... there is a visceral reaction to the obvious implications of gender identity laws,” wrote Mathew Staver, chairman of the conservative group Liberty Counsel, in an email.
“One implication is men — no matter how they appear or how they actually think or identify — being able to use women’s changing rooms,” he wrote. “The majority of people will not accept such laws.”
Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow with the conservative Family Research Council, suggested that the visible characteristics of transgender people were problematic for some Americans.
“In many cases, transgender people are not convincing in their appearance, and therefore it may be more troubling to a lot of people,” he said. “It’s something people really struggle with.”
However, Dru Levasseur of Lambda Legal questioned the notion that — in the court of public opinion — transgender rights was a tougher sell than gay rights. The key to winning more acceptance, he said, was a willingness by transgender people to share the stories of their lives.
“Being who you are — being brave enough to be yourself. People can relate to that,” he said.
“A huge number of Americans now have gay family members, gay co-workers ... but most of them don’t know a transgender person, and that means we’re ripe for scapegoating.”
Executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality