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Transgender People’s Rights Are in Peril


Aimee Stephens worked in the funeral home business for nearly 30 years. She’d been employed at Michigan’s R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes for nearly seven years and had always received positive evaluations and raises for her good work there.

Then Stephens informed her boss that, after a lifelong struggle to live as the woman she always knew herself to be, she was finally going to transition and begin coming to work following the dress codes for women.

She was summarily fired for being transgender.

Stephens sued for discrimination under Title VII, which prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex. Decades of established law were on her side, with courts consistently ruling that Title VII included workplace protections for gender identity.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that interpretation in a ruling last year. But Harris Funeral Homes is appealing to the Supreme Court — and its newly enlarged right-wing majority.

The Trump administration already endorsed discrimination against people including Stephens last fall, when the Justice Department told the Sixth Circuit Court that it doesn’t believe Title VII should protect transgender people.

Indeed, the Trump administration has been aggressively upending the rights of transgender people since its second month in office, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance that protected transgender children in public schools.

This was a painful blow — at just 14, my own teenage daughter and other impacted students had helped craft that guidance just two years before. They told Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about being bullied, punched and denied use of the bathroom at school, which led the Obama administration to argue that gender expression was protected under Title IX.

Since then, the blows have kept coming.

On May 2, Trump announced a sweeping new rule that expressly rolls back health protections offered to transgender people. It allows medical providers to refuse to treat transgender people, and employers to refuse to pay for medical treatment, if they claim religious objections.

This is just one piece of a barrage of Trump administration attacks on queer and transgender people.

This is just one piece of a barrage of Trump administration attacks on queer and transgender people. Sadly, there are signs that the Supreme Court will go along, including its decision this January to at least temporarily revive Trump’s previously blocked ban of transgender people serving in the U.S. military.

While these legal battles percolate, some in Congress are working to make LGBTQ protections much more explicit in America’s civil rights laws. The Equality Act, now being considered by the House, would make clear that LGBTQ people, people of color, and people with disabilities have a range of legal protections equal to that of other Americans.

It would update the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add public spaces, services, and federally funded programs to the list of areas covered by the law’s protections. And it would add gender identity and sexual orientation as protected characteristics in the Fair Housing Act, Jury Selection and Services Act, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

These updates are more necessary than ever. Americans including Aimee Stephens, my daughter, and I — as both a woman and a person with a disability — need the equal protections articulated in the Equality Act. Without them, our rights depend on the discretion of an administration that’s relentlessly opposed them — and which will now likely enjoy the backing of the nation’s highest court.

This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.

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