OPINION: Four years post-Obergefell, trans people have a day in court

On June 26, 2015, a Friday in the summer before my senior year of high school, I padded out to the kitchen. My mother had NPR on the radio as she sat at the table, eating her oatmeal, which was strange — she almost never listened to the radio in the house.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

She gave me a dirty look. “Sit down! Just listen!”

I did. I heard the NPR news team narrate, over the course of the morning, the end of a long-coming reckoning and the beginning of a new era: one where same-sex marriage was legal in all 50 states.

I cried tears of joy and relief that day.

Now, almost four years after the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision, we are coming to another Great Queer Reckoning, but one where I fear my tears will not be joyful. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Aimee Stephens, who was fired from her job for being transgender.

During the Obama administration, both the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held that it was illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to fire someone because they’re trans. (The CRA bans employment discrimination based on sex.)

But times have changed and the Trump administration has made it clear they will not protect trans people in the same way. In January, the Supreme Court, which now has a 5-4 conservative majority, upheld the administration’s ban on trans people serving in the military.

My fate, and the fates of so many others, are in the hands of nine people, five of whom are conservative. It is a waiting game. Nothing I do can change things.

I’m a pacifist and no fan of the military, but what policy the government implements there is a harbinger of what they will or won’t do to civilians, given the chance. If President Donald Trump wants to expel trans people from the armed forces, a group that he has near-complete control over, I have little faith his government will ever stand for the rights of trans people elsewhere.

Four of the five justices who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges are thankfully still on the court. Some I trust: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor will almost certainly rule in favor of Stephens. I am also mostly sure of Stephen Breyer.

But Anthony Kennedy has retired, replaced by overgrown frat boy Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation to the court was defined by the sexual assault allegations against him. He also ruled in favor of an anti-abortion group on a case involving the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is often cited by anti-LGBTQIA+ groups, while serving as a judge in the District of Columbia.

So cometh the reckoning, and I am terrified.

I’m white, financially stable and transmasculine. I live in California, where I’m about as safe as a trans person can be in the U.S., and I don’t plan on leaving soon. But institutional bigotry trickles down. One need only look at the rise in hate crimes after Trump was elected to realize that bigots are only emboldened by one of their own exercising power.

All the legislation in the world won’t protect me or anyone else more marginalized than me from a bigot who, spurred on by a potential ruling against Stephens, decides to commit a violent act.

This is a problem with no easy solution at the local level. I can tell my readers to write their representatives, to check up more on their trans friends, to give money to groups like the National Center for Transgender Equality, but no action is good enough now.

My fate, and the fates of so many others, are in the hands of nine people, five of whom are conservative. It is a waiting game. Nothing I do can change things.

I have tried to build up an identity as unapologetically queer and trans and make myself into someone who fights back against a world that really doesn’t like people like me. I have tried to be strong for myself and all my trans and non-binary siblings who look to me for guidance.

I cannot be strong on this topic.

Our very right to employment is on the line and will be decided by nine justices, five of whom are conservatives, and all of whom are cisgender.

If they rule against us on employment, I shudder to think of what goes next.

Yes, it’s a slippery slope argument and no, I don’t the administration is going to legalize outright physical violence against trans people. It’s still an extremely precarious position, especially in a capitalist country where employment is virtually necessary for survival and state-level employment protections for trans people are a spotty patchwork.

So I say godspeed and good luck to Stephens, who’s going to need all the help she can get. I offer to hug all my trans and non-binary friends tightly if they want it or sit with them and just offer a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. I hope and pray that this will all go well.

I hear from other people that “we survived [X person or group], we’ll survive this.” I want to yell about how many people who died of AIDS didn’t survive President Ronald Reagan; how many people forced out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t survive President George W. Bush; and how people aren’t going to survive Trump if this decision breaks against us.

This is a reckoning, once again, and one where I am for the first time both truly aware of the ramifications and powerless to stop it. I am terrified. I am exhausted.

I hold onto hope because at this point, it feels like the only thing I have left.

Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20, CG ’21 is a 4+1 BA/MPH public health major from Sunnyvale, California. They’ll be on campus this summer, taking classes and screaming in mortal terror at the squirrels every so often.

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