Worth Fighting For
This year too many legislatures and governors have given into fear and lies about transgender people. It sucks that we have to keep having this fight. But we can create a world that celebrates every young person for who they are.
At the beginning of Pride month this year, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a bill that excludes transgender girls from school sports. It was just one of the too many bills targeting transgender people signed into law this year.
While it is decades since I have lived in Florida, seeing the governor signing an anti-transgender law in the name of school children brought me right back to a painful moment in my own youth.
I was 12 years old, just about to turn 13, and living in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1977 when Anita Bryant, the “orange juice queen,” spearheaded the Save Our Children campaign. That campaign was designed to overturn one of the country’s first gay rights ordinances, in Miami-Dade County, and it succeeded.
I remember crying the day I heard about the vote. It was overwhelming to learn that my neighbors voted for repeal by a 2:1 margin.
After the defeat of the Miami-Dade County ordinance, Save Our Children turned its efforts elsewhere and, within a year, overturned similar laws in St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon. But the LGBTQ community in Florida and across the country organized and fought – and allies began to join us.
Save Our Children’s efforts were stopped in November 1978 when California voters rejected Proposition 6, or the Briggs Initiative, a proposed state law in California that would have banned openly gay teachers in public schools.
That history is the foundation of my professional life and the formative experience that would shape my connection to advocacy.
I recall sitting in typing class and hearing my teacher repeat what Bryant was saying about the danger of gay teachers in public schools. Only she used a much more offensive term – a six-letter F word – for gay men.
I remember that moment vividly to this day more than 40 years later. I knew, of course, she was speaking out against gay teachers. But more personally, I felt the clear and stinging message that my life, my trans, gender non-conforming, queer, soon-to-be lesbian self was also not, in her view, worthy of the dignity, humanity, and respect afforded to other students at Nautilus Junior High. And that hurt.
If I could speak to my 12-year-old self now, though, I would tell that young person: there will be remarkable changes ahead. And you will be a part of them.
As Director of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project, I have seen tremendous progress over the more than 20 years I have been doing this work.
But while we have made such positive advances, we are in this moment experiencing backlash, the likes of which make the Save Our Children campaign look almost moderate.
During this legislative session, we saw over 200 bills introduced in legislatures across the country. These bills seek to exclude transgender students from school programs, deny youth medical care for their most basic needs, and target transgender people for exclusion and demeaning treatment in places of public accommodation.
Transgender people and our families have had to endure hours of legislative discussion and testimony putting up for debate our most basic protections under civil rights laws. And newspapers have been filled with editorials calling into question who we are and how we should live.
Alongside Florida, the states of Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, and Tennessee also enacted some of the most reactionary laws ever passed this legislative session. Many of these laws directly target transgender young people, and all of them impact trans youth as well as adults.
The Tennessee legislature was arguably the most aggressive in its attacks. Governor Lee signed five bills targeting transgender and LGB people, including a bill excluding transgender girls from school sports, one taking aim at healthcare for trans youth, a bill restricting transgender students’ access to school restrooms, and one prohibiting LGBTQ topics in school.
A final new Tennessee law – the first of its kind in the country – requires businesses in the state to post a demeaning and fear-mongering warning notice on their premises if they allow transgender individuals access equally to other patrons. The Tennessee legislature and governor have basically rolled out a giant “Not Welcome” sign to transgender people in the state.
But GLAD is fighting back. Partnering with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, attorney Abby Rubenfeld, and the law firm of Sherrard, Roe, Voigt, and Harbison, GLAD is challenging the sign law in federal court on behalf of Curb Records and the Mike Curb Foundation – Nashville-based companies speaking out because demeaning and excluding transgender people is counter to their values and also bad for business.
In an interesting twist of fate, our client in the case, Mike Curb, was on the front lines in California challenging the Briggs Initiative when I was a young teenager reeling from the impact of the Save Our Children campaign back in Florida. Mike, his family, and his company have been dedicated to full inclusion and equality for LGBTQ people for decades and it’s so important to have allied voices like his in this fight.
“Our foundation has been dedicated to inclusion and nondiscrimination, including for LGBT people, from day one. It is hard to believe that our LGBT community in Tennessee is being assaulted with so much harmful legislation, much of it being signed by Governor Lee, at a time when our country needs to come together more than ever before.” – Mike Curb, plaintiff in Curb v Lee.
Filing this Tennessee lawsuit gives me strength and hope. As a 12-year-old, there was less I could do to fight against the repeal efforts of the Miami-Dade gay rights ordinance. But I did what I could. And despite how hard it felt, then too there were experiences that gave me hope and glimpses of the better future that lay ahead.
One day, I went to a sign-making event at a restaurant located in a vibrant gay district called Cocoanut Grove. To set the scene just a bit, Cocoanut Grove had one of the first outdoor exercise courses popularized in the 70s, and it lay along a course that ran along the Miami Bay. I can now look back and think how powerfully affirming it was for me as a young, queer person just beginning to understand who I was, to see strong butch lesbians (I am sure there were femme ones, too, but my eyes queued on the butch ones) and athletic, handsome gay men of many shapes, colors, and sizes sitting kissing on park benches or holding hands while rollerblading through the park.
That was the backdrop through which I walked that day from our car to the Coco Plum. In my hands was a bright orange poster board and an array of pink and black markers. My plan was to write a big sign that said – A Day without Human Rights is a Day without Sunshine – the slogan the movement had crafted as a play on Anita Bryant’s famous orange juice slogan, to call out the hypocrisy of Bryant and her team.
As I sat down at a table toward the rear of the restaurant, I saw someone I recognized. Seated at another table working on another sign was my science teacher, Mr. Wilson (not his real name). There were lots of rumors about Mr. Wilson being gay, but to me, they were just that – rumors. That day Mr. Wilson walked over to my table and said,
“I know kids talk. And I want you to know it’s true that I’m gay. I’m proud of it and willing to put it all on the line to make the world safer for teachers like me. But more than that, I want the world to be a safer place for young people to come out and not just be accepted but celebrated for who they are. I know that day will come. And we’ll all get there together. It’s sucks that we have to have this fight. But I don’t know any other way to it than through it.”
I can’t tell you how much it meant to hear his message that day. One thing we can all do in this moment is to be that person for the young queer and trans people in our lives – or even for the queer and trans kids halfway around the country who desperately need to hear an affirming message from us right now.
The queer community in Miami-Dade County lost the fight in 1977. But the struggle formed a local movement that connected eventually to a state and then a national one.
Having one teacher reach out to me and seeing so many adults standing up to bigotry and prejudice inspired and transformed my life and future.
This year too many legislatures and governors have given into fear and lies about transgender people. It sucks that we must keep having this fight. But like Mr. Wilson, I still believe we can create a world that celebrates every young person for who they are. And that’s worth fighting for.