Transgender rights are getting a new focus in the civil rights standoff that emerged this week between the Obama administration and the state of North Carolina.
It’s over a law that requires transgender people to use public restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate.
Transgender activists were part of the movement to make same-sex marriage the law of the land, and have long been trying to get people to understand who they are. In Mobile, Ala., LGBTQ advocate Lane Galbraith says he’s busy now dealing with discrimination issues.
“I’m 52 years old, and I’ve dealt with oppression and discrimination my entire life,” he says.
Galbraith, a design engineer in Mobile’s shipbuilding industry, was born Robin Galbraith, the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister. He recalls an uncomfortable coming of age.
“I always had these masculine traits, and I always knew kind of in the background that my sexual orientation was for females and just dealt with it because I was in an environment that said, ‘You’re a female. You’re supposed to get married. You’re supposed to have kids,’ ” he says.
But Galbraith says he wasn’t sure what was going on at the time because sexuality outside that norm was taboo.
“If there was no education, and I couldn’t define who I was and what was internally happening, how was I going to explain it to anybody else? There was nothing. There wasn’t even a word,” he says.
Just having the word transgender is empowering to him today. A Navy veteran, Galbraith started his transition to a man two years ago. He’s got short-cropped hair that’s graying at the temples, a mustache and sparse beard. His calling now, he says, is to put a face on being transgender.
“The way people change their hearts and minds is to have a human being that’s dealing with these issues right in front of them,” he says.
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that in 2011, some 700,000 adults identified as transgender. Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have employment nondiscrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Alabama is not one of them. But Galbraith works for a global company that offers broad workplace protections and also provides health coverage for the unique care he needs, such as hormone therapy.
So, the bathroom question. It’s always been an issue for Galbraith, even before his transition.
“You know, I wore my Harley shirts and my short hair and I like to wear boots. And I’d go into a restroom, and mother with her child next to me, and the child’s going, ‘Mommy, there’s a man in the stall next to me,’ ” he says.
He’s got a bit of a system now, finding appropriate single unisex restrooms for privacy. Sometimes that means a porta-potty. He’s floored that his bathroom habits are now the subject of national news. But he welcomes the focus on transgender rights.
“Even some people would try to say that the T doesn’t belong with the LGB, and it’s like, well, wait a minute, the diversity is different but we’re kind of fighting for the same civil rights,” Galbraith says.
‘Not Racial Discrimination’
Not everyone sees this as a new civil rights battlefront.
“Individuals using the restroom of the biological sex is not racial discrimination,” says Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council. “We don’t think that the law, as a legal matter alone, supports any sort of class protection, class distinction for sexual orientation and gender identity.”
He says states, like North Carolina, should be able to decide this question as a matter of public safety without being “bullied” by the Obama administration.
“What’s underlying this is people whose views of society really break down any distinction between male and female, and you end up in the world where these distinctions don’t matter,” Weber says.
LGBTQ issues divide the country in similar ways as other culture wars — such as abortion rights — have. As courts expand rights, some states push back with new laws.
Now that the Supreme Court has taken same-sex marriage off the table, opponents are moving to a new target, says Josh Block with the ACLU.
“Plan B is attacks on transgender people and attacks on the entire LGBT community by codifying a right to discriminate on religious grounds,” Block says.
The ACLU is suing Mississippi over a law that offers legal protection to public officials and private businesses that refuse to serve gay, lesbian or transgender customers because of religious objections.
“Religious freedom doesn’t give people a right to discriminate against others,” Block says.
For Galbraith, seeing these laws pop up around the country is a letdown coming so soon after feeling like the ground had shifted with last year’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
“Right now I kind of feel like I’m back in the valley, to where I’ve got to find the edge of the mountain to start going back up. I think we will overcome. I’m a true believer. I believe all things are possible,” he says. “But at the same token, being honest, you understand my internal struggle of this environment.”
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