Guest: For LGBT rights, the to-do list is still long
The Supreme Court victories for same-sex marriage must not obscure the fact that transgender individuals still encounter significant legal and structural barriers to justice, writes guest columnist Scott Skinner-Thompson.
Special to The Times
THE U.S. Supreme Court decisions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and, in effect, granting marriage rights to all Californians are significant victories for equal rights and a meaningful step in the fight for justice for all Americans.
The decisions should be celebrated. But these victories must not obscure the fact that across this state and nation, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals still encounter significant legal and structural barriers to justice.
As a result of Wednesday’s decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the citizens of the most populous state in the country will now be permitted to marry the person they love regardless of sexual orientation.
The court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor guarantees that married same-sex couples enjoy the same federal benefits and recognition as opposite-sex couples. The decisions are also a recognition by this nation’s highest court — a court generally slow to get ahead of cultural norms — that America is changing and becoming a more open and tolerant nation.
But the fight for LGBT rights has only just begun.
The legal and structural barriers that remain are particularly high for transgender individuals. Transgender children face discrimination in schools where they are often not permitted to participate on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. Transgender individuals are frequently denied access to and insurance coverage for medical care associated with their gender identity.
Transgender individuals are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, and they face discrimination and violence once incarcerated as a result of the failure to provide appropriate housing.
In many states, transgender individuals encounter impossible requirements to change the gender marker on their government identification documents, outing individuals as transgender anytime they present an ID that does not comport with their physical appearance. And transgender individuals endure discrimination in employment and have an unemployment rate twice the national average.
Many states lack protections for discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Congress has failed to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employment discrimination because of an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, in large part because the bill would protect transgender individuals.
And while Washington state recently did pass legislation prohibiting discrimination based on “gender expression or identity,” the scope of those protections remains largely untested and undefined.
Moreover, legal protections are not enough for true justice and empowerment. Sustained community resources must be devoted to help bring transgender individuals in Washington state out of the cycles of poverty, homelessness and imprisonment. This includes providing support for programs that provide job training to transgender individuals, and programs designed to educate employers, educators and criminal-justice officials regarding transgender rights.
At this weekend’s Pride festivities, those concerned with justice and equal rights should celebrate the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding same-sex marriage rights, but should also build on the momentum of those decisions to enact protections for transgender individuals where they do not yet exist, enforce them where they do exist, and follow up by ensuring that legal rights are not illusory because of structural or economic barriers.
As is apparent from the Supreme Court’s decision this week in Shelby County v. Holder, further eroding the Voting Rights Act and protections for racial minorities, the rights secured for LGBT individuals may not be long-lasting.
The rights we have obtained require constant vigilance, and we still have a long way to go.
Scott Skinner-Thompson serves on the board of Seattle’s Ingersoll Gender Center, is an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney and served as counsel to the American Sociological Association in its amicus brief to the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. The opinions expressed are his own.