Here we are, in the middle of the struggle over Massachusetts' proposed legislation to assure that transgender people have equal, respectful, access to all places which admit the public. It's a struggle against the usual forces: inertia, timidity, misunderstanding, fear, and the loud opposition of those predicting the end of the world as we know it, if the legislature votes for social inclusion of those who have been relegated to the margins. It feels all too familiar.
I can remember being a little child, seeing the adults in my life gathered around the radio; speaking in low, anxious tones. I wondered, why are they so upset about a little rock? It turned out that the Little Rock was in Arkansas, and President Eisenhower was sending the US Army there, to "federalize" the Arkansas National Guard, which Gov. Faubus had called out to prevent nine students from attending high school. I was mystified - what was going on here? Why were soldiers needed to prevent, or allow, kids to go to school?
Then, the mills closed in our Maine town, and my family moved to Florida, where the mystery deepened. There were, for instance, two water fountains in the grocery store, and the sign on one read "colored water." Turning faucets and comparing streams, I couldn't figure out what color it was supposed to be, and asked my parents. Seemingly embarrassed, they told me it was water for colored people. I wanted to know, was it different water? No, my parents said, it was that some white people wouldn't want to drink out of the same fountain - but they could not or would not answer my most basic question, why?
As a school child in the South, I heard the ongoing arguments about school desegregation - despite Brown v. Board of Education having been decided some years before - and that controversy was just about schools - not movie theaters, beaches, restaurants, or hotels, or any other still-segregated facilities everywhere. Want to talk about bathrooms? Gas stations had them - for white people - otherwise, there was an outhouse around the back. Nobody I knew was even talking about the appalling not-built-to-hurricane-code shanties in "Colored Town" - next to the dump - with its dusty, half-paved roads. Nobody ever talked about the employment ads in the newspaper, neatly divided into "help wanted - white- male" and three other categories.
But somewhere, somebody must have been thinking and talking about these ugly injustices, because a few years later, a federal Civil Rights Act was proposed, and a Voting Rights Act to get rid of poll taxes, too. These kinds of changes were not welcomed by people in my neighborhood, or by the kids in my school. I remember being shown Confederate money - temporarily worthless, I was told, but the South would rise again - because it had to, to guarantee states' rights - the whole point of the Civil War, according to my informants.
The 1960s and 70s proceeded, marked by the Civil Rights movement, by a second wave Feminist movement, and by the first stirrings of a Gay Liberation movement. To my surprise, Dade County, Florida, in 1977 adopted a local ordinance banning discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations, based on sexual preference. This declaration of tolerance triggered a massive protest campaign, "Save Our Children, Inc." led by pop singer Anita Bryant (also spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Growers Commission), who claimed that the ordinance interfered with her right to teach her children "Biblical morality."
"Save Our Children" managed to get the anti-discrimination ordinance on a referendum ballot, where it was, by a two-to-one vote, overturned. Having left Florida ten years previously, I was disgusted at a comfortable 1,500 mile distance. But I saw how the successful Florida campaign led to repeal of similar anti-discrimination ordinances in less obvious places: St. Paul, MN; Wichita, KN and Eugene, OR.
Setbacks seemed to be the tenor of the late 70s, 80s, and 90s. The Civil Rights movement often looked a lot like a Pyrrhic victory, and the push for Women's Rights seemed to have hit a glass ceiling. Gay Rights had made a little progress, with antidiscrimination laws enacted in some places, but largely stalled. Often, protections extended to the "LGB" community, but left out the "T." In the early 2000s, when I was first serving in elected office in my city, having a governmental "liaison" to the Gay and Lesbian community (even if an unpaid volunteer) was a big deal, and a Domestic Partner Benefits ordinance was beyond the pale.
Then, in 2004, the MA Supreme Judicial Court affirmed equal access to the civil institution of marriage. I was privileged to be elected to the legislature in February 2006, during the ultimately successful fight to keep the question of marriage equality off the ballot (not that it ever should have been certified as a suitable ballot initiative - but that's another discussion.) This enormous victory in MA led a series of legislative actions and court decisions in other states, crowned by the US Supreme Court's decision last summer, with stops along the way to repeal "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" and DOMA.
None of this has occurred, however, without on-the-ground opposition, court challenges, and legislative counter efforts. The opposition in MA - to marriage equality, and to affirming the rights of transgender individuals - has been largely framed in terms of Anita Bryant-style rhetoric about religious belief and the protection of children. The most conspicuously successful recent effort in the nation to eliminate protections for the rights of LGBT people was the passage, on March 23, 2016, in North Carolina, of House Bill 2:
What strikes me most about this standoff? It's that North Carolina's talking states' rights here - NC Governor Pat McCrory channeling the ghost of former Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus; 2016, meet 1957. I wonder if the boys in my old Florida neighborhood are still hanging on to their Confederate dollars.
In NC and other states, the conflict over the rights of sexual minorities is clearly headed to the courts for resolution. In MA, on April 29, 2016, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary favorably out two different bills to affirm inclusion of transgender individuals in the public realm, the House bill having been amended in committee. We have a governor playing cute, still unwilling to say if he will support any such bill coming to his desk. Our Senate is about to vote on one bill, confident that the votes are there; the House is still in play.
So, how will it be recorded on the books of history?