Earlier this month in the Kansas legislature, Republican state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald dismissed a colleague’s concern about suicide among transgender youth by arguing that “Suicide does have a high rate with those who are afflicted with some form of insanity.” Iowa Congressman Steve King has called for “civil disobedience” to block transgender rights. In April, Denton County, Tex., sheriff candidate Tracy Murphree apologized after threatening on Facebook that if a transgender woman were in a public restroom with his daughter, she would “then identify as John Doe until he wakes up in whatever hospital he may be taken to.” In her typically clueless way, Republican convert and Fox News commentator Stacey Dash said she’d rather transgender women go “in the bushes” than have access to the restrooms other women do.
With states across the country considering or passing Republican-sponsored, so-called bathroom bills, the debate over transgender rights has, sadly, made it increasingly difficult for transgender people, including me, just to be who we are. What’s doubly disturbing for me: I’m a lifelong Republican.
On transgender rights, my party has betrayed me.
I grew up in a close-knit, northeastern, working-class Irish family. My FDR-JFK Democrat parents raised seven kids and sent each of us off to college. I’ve got an MBA, I’m a practicing Catholic and I’m engaged in my community. I’m happily married to my wife of 16 years and we’re proud parents of two great kids. I became a Republican because I grew up in the 1980s inspired by Ronald Reagan to believe in American exceptionalism, a strong military, limited government and free enterprise.
I voted and campaigned against President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and I still don’t agree with most of the things he stands for. But as an LGBT American, I have to acknowledge that I’m better off that he was our president. It’s hard for me to write those words, but it’s true.
Ever since I became active in the party, my focus has been trying to convince fellow Republicans to work toward making the GOP more diverse. Though I’ve served on my local party committee on and off for years, my calling card for the last several years has been the documentary that I released in 2012, “Fear of a Black Republican.”
Telling the story of black Republicans fighting for visibility in the overwhelmingly white GOP wasn’t easy. But I was, and remain, quite proud of that work because our film spoke the truth that we can’t be a genuinely representative party until we speak to issues of importance in the black community. And as the late Edward Brooke — a Republican and the last black man elected to serve in the U.S. Senate prior to Obama — said in my film, “I would rather change the Party from within, not without.”
I feel the same way about my own identity as a transgender woman. I want my party to practice genuine tolerance. But as long as some Republicans are willing to treat me as someone who doesn’t deserve full equality, our party is lost. And now I’m also fighting for survival. As long as Republican pundits and officeholders are willing to make transgender Americans scapegoats for unfounded fears about what might happen in public restrooms — giving bigots license to harm us — our families can’t ever feel like we’re safe. I feel like I have to be more vigilant than ever to protect myself, my wife and my kids, and I’m an adult who’s spent decades engaged in public debate. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like for a school-age kid to be transgender in the current climate.
No, my party can’t change overnight, but there’s a big difference between gradually evolving with the times and actively going out of the way to be the party of discrimination when it’s supposed to be the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Take North Carolina’s infamous H.B. 2, which currently bars me from using a women’s public restroom. Like every other woman, all I want to do when I go to a public restroom is use the facilities with no drama. Yes, if the occasion arises, I’ll make small-talk with other women while waiting in line or washing our hands. I might even receive or offer a compliment on an outfit and gain a quick smile from someone. Then, after I open the door and leave, I will exhale a small sigh of relief and quietly walk to my destination — I’m not looking to be noticed or cause controversy. I’m looking to blend in. And I’m absolutely not interested in intruding on other women’s personal business while I’m in there.
Despite this, Republicans in several states have launched a war on the transgender community. There’s H.B. 2, but also Michigan’s H.B. 5717 and Mississippi’s H.B. 1523. All of these, despite PolitiFact finding no instances in the United States involving a transgender person attacking, or interfering with, a cisgender person in a restroom. And in Congress, House Republicans blocked an amendment that would have barred federal contractors from discrimination against employees based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
Maybe this helps some Republican politicians score points with socially conservative voters who feel like they’re losing ground — but as the party of smaller government, these are issues they should be spending less time on, not more. When the issue is gun control, Republicans argue that government must respect individual rights. But when it comes to transgender rights, many are all too willing to legislate big-government responses to non-existent problems.
While they’re making a big show of being tough on me, a working mom raising a family, they’re stigmatizing and debasing a vulnerable community.
So what do I want from my party instead?
At next month’s Republican National Convention, I want the Republican National Committee to rescind its recent resolution, which reads:
WHEREAS, A person’s sex is defined as the physical condition of being male or female, which is determined at conception, identified at birth by a person’s anatomy, recorded on their official birth certificate, and can be confirmed by DNA testing;
And, while they’re at it, this:
RESOLVED, The Republican National Committee encourages state legislatures to enact laws that protect student privacy and limit the use of restrooms, locker rooms and similar facilities to members of the sex to whom the facility is designated.
No other community would, or should, accept being segregated in this way, and neither do we.
I want GOP governors and legislators to get a grip and follow the example of Deep South governors Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) and Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) who saw these bathroom bills for what they are. As Haley explained when she rejected the idea that these bills were about public safety: “This is not a battle that we’ve seen is needed in South Carolina … It’s not something that we see that citizens are asking for.” By showing leadership, she and Deal not only refused to discriminate, they spared the business communities in their states the boycotts and legal challenges that North Carolina invited by signing on to this form of un-American hostility. Other elected officials should be able to follow their lead.
I want my party to remember that we’re supposed to be about making sure every American has equal opportunity. I want my party to stop trying to come up with ways to make me less of a Republican and less of an American.
And it’s not just about bathrooms. It’s about economics. Once a climate of animosity has been created, depending on where we live, transgender individuals aren’t just locked out of restrooms, we’re locked out of whole communities. We’re not just treated as outcasts; we’re unable to apply for jobs. When that happens, we’re locked out of the American dream.
Too many of us are thrown out of our homes or forced to deny our authentic selves to keep paychecks coming in. Some of us are pushed into sex work just to be able to feed ourselves, keep a roof over our heads or pay for medical care. Only 20 states and the District of Columbia have full employment non-discrimination laws covering gender identity and sexual orientation. These are among the reasons why the suicide and murder rates are so high in our community. One study, The Post reported last year, found that transgender respondents were twice as likely to be unemployed and “nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000, compared to the general population,” forcing many of us to rely on public assistance. If people won’t hire or work with us, what other options are there? Getting people to work is what the GOP should want.
I’m fortunate that this hasn’t been my story — despite facing my own difficulties transitioning, my family has supported me. I’m happy to say that some of the most encouraging people have been churchgoing friends, who’ve said they don’t fully understand my transition, but that to them, I’m still the same person.
I realize not everyone is going to embrace me and I’m not asking for special treatment.
But Republicans should recognize that those of us in the transgender community are voters. We’re citizens. We’re people. And Republican leaders, going forward, have a choice. What they say and do about transgender rights can either affirm our humanity or continue to create the conditions that justify continued animosity and violence toward us. Republican leaders can decide that my kids will learn about legalized discrimination in the history books, or that they’ll learn about it because we’re living with it.
I want Republicans to embrace the idea that transgender Americans have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For a party once founded to liberate millions of people from legal subjugation, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.
This article first appeared in the Washington Post