Just days after the White House pledged to uphold federal LGBT workplace protections, activists say they fear something more ominous is in the works — an executive order that could in essence legalize discrimination.
On Thursday, reports surfaced of a draft order that creates widespread exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious objections on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and transgender identity — something that would undercut workplace protections instituted by President Obama in 2014.
"(President) Trump’s decision not to rescind the executive order protecting LGBT people from discrimination appears to have been a smokescreen for doing something far worse," said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project (MAP). “The draft executive order suggests that Trump is looking to blow a hole through those protections."
Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, a Christian conservative organization, said an executive order is needed. "In recent years, people of faith have experienced measurable pressure from government entities to engage in activities that violate their deeply held religious beliefs," he said. "We welcome President Trump's sincere efforts to alleviate government-sponsored compulsion and do what he can to ensure true freedom of conscience."
Amid the fury lands a study from MAP, a think tank that researches LGBT issues, that paints a disconcerting portrait of the LGBT community’s battle for equality at the state level and highlights a glaring deficit of legal protections for those who are transgender.
Twenty-three states — almost half the nation — have more laws on the books that harm rather than help transgender people, shows the study released Friday.
“The absolute lack of protections for transgender people across the U.S. and the breadth of challenges they face,” is the No. 1 takeaway from the report on 2016 laws, Mushovic said.
If the draft of Trump's executive order stands, "it would provide a sweeping license to discriminate, gut women’s health care and provide targeted tax incentives only available to those who wish to lobby against LGBT people and women’s reproductive health care," she said.
The study’s stark stats are alarming, Mushovic said: There were about 200 anti-LGBT bills introduced in 2016 in more than 20 states.
While the MAP study does show the progress several states have made — California has the best protections; Washington, D.C., is next — Alex Sheldon, the report's author, noted that 15 states have more than 40 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation in the works in 2017.
“Bathroom bills” — legislation that seeks to regulate access to restrooms by transgender people over perceived threats of safety — captured most of the headlines in 2016, particularly North Carolina’s HB2 law that requires individuals to use facilities corresponding with the sex on their birth certificate. After months of upheaval in the state that saw canceled sporting events and concerts, lawsuits and an ousted governor, an attempt to repeal the law failed in December.
“People think what’s the big deal; it’s just a restroom,” Mushovic said. “But there is an incredible limiting effect on how transgender people can live their lives. They have to plan their day on where they can find a gender-neutral restroom.”
The study reveals issues well beyond restrooms, Mushovic noted:
• Mississippi enacted a law that permits businesses, doctors and government officials to deny services and care to LGBT people.
• Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina ban cities and counties from extending non-discrimination protections to LGBT people in employment, housing and public accommodations.
• Alabama and Louisiana have laws restricting educators from discussing LGBT issues. The vague wording of the law — intended to limit discourse within sex education programs — has led to exclusion of LGBT people in school events and extracurricular activities, Sheldon said.
• Georgia and Tennessee have laws that allow health care providers to refuse access to transition-related care for transgender people.
The study also noted real-life impact:
• 68% of transgender people live without an ID that matches their gender identity.
• 27% of transgender workers say they have been fired, denied a promotion or not been hired because of their gender identity.
• 31% of transgender people say they were denied service, verbally harassed or physically assaulted in a public place.
ON THE FRONT LINES
Alaina Kupec, whose wife calls her an “accidental activist” for transgender rights, said the revelations in the MAP survey are agonizing but not unexpected. “It’s so disheartening; it almost brings tears to my eyes,” Kupec said. “It’s local ignorance on the part of politicians to appease their Christian, conservative base.”
Kupec, 47, transitioned from her gender assigned at birth (male) to female in 2013. Her battle to come to terms with her gender identity “was a lifelong struggle. I knew I was different, but I didn’t know why I was different, or what about me was different.”
Kupec recalls going to the library as a college freshman at North Carolina State and scouring books and microfiche to help make sense of the turmoil she felt inside with “feelings of being feminine,” but “parts of a boy.”
At a school of 25,000 people she found no answers. “There was nobody in public I could say that I felt like that person. No one I could look at and say how come I am not like that person.”
It wasn’t until she was a newly married intelligence officer in the Navy with a top-secret clearance that she had an epiphany. “Oh my God, there are other people who feel this way; there’s a word for it; there’s a term: transgender.”
Kupec said she first tried to “suppress and compartmentalize” her feelings. But reluctantly she left the military when the burden became overwhelming and she knew she could not “live my life as a lie any longer.”
Now, living in Chapel Hill, N.C., she is at ground zero of the bathroom battles. She calls the state’s HB2 law a “ruse. ... The whole legal premise is to deny the existence of transgender people.”
Kupec, who filmed a public service spot on HB2 in which she is confronted by a restaurant owner who won’t let her enter the women’s room, said before the law she never worried about restrooms.
That has changed. “For the last year, I have had to use public restrooms in fear of confrontation, physical harm or even arrest. I even canceled my gym membership,” she said. “Doing something as essential as using a restroom is emotionally taxing.”
COURT RULING BACKLASH
The uptick in anti-LGBT legislation is driven by a backlash to a landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling upholding same-sex marriage, Mushovic said. “I think once that ruling came down, those who opposed LGBT people needed a new front to attack. So few know someone who is transgender.”
Blue Montana, a transgender program manager for The Center in Las Vegas, couldn’t agree more. “The trans community is the last community to be able to pick on and scrutinize,” he said.
Legislation such as bathroom bills “has nothing to do with gender,” he says. “It’s from someone who is intolerant and ignorant. There are no reports of a transgender person doing anything in a bathroom. All the fear is unsubstantiated.”
Montana, who enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, started the transition from his gender assigned at birth (female) to male after an honorable discharge in 2005. He has felt the sting of discrimination first hand, being denied an apartment rental. And now: “I’m 41 and scared of going to the bathroom.”
The reverberations for transgender youths are devastating, the activists said. The MAP study shows that 75% of transgender students feel unsafe at school and 70% say they avoid bathrooms.
The lack of protections leads to skipped school days, limited food intake and kidney infections, Mushovic said. “Can you imagine navigating that as a 13-year-old? It’s already a difficult time in your life.”
Montana has seen an even darker side: He knows of four transgender youths under 17 who committed suicide after being bullied in school. “School officials did nothing,” he said.
Kupec donated money to start a collection of books on transgender issues at her alma mater, N.C. State, so other students struggling with identity issues would not be as lost as she was. Lawmakers need to do what's right, she said. “Shame on us for passing this bigotry.”
On Wednesday, more than 400 national faith leaders sent a letter to Trump, who touted religious freedom on the campaign trail, imploring him not to sign an executive order allowing religious exemptions.
The transgender community could be hit hard with such an order, said Sarah Warbelow of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights advocacy group.
“Organizations that receive money from the federal government to provide critical services such as homeless shelters, emergency shelters, basic health care could turn transgender people away,” she said. “They could try to force transgender youths to go through conversion therapy, which is an incredibly dangerous practice that has been discounted as an illegitimate form of therapy.”
Although Montana is advising clients to be vigilant and get passports now to reflect their identity before any changes in the law, he said he feels hope because of one overarching fact: “You can’t erase your existence. We are not going anywhere. ... Nobody can ever force me back into that closet.”
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