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September 14, 2006
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
Real concerns, imaginary transphobia
I do not normally use my column to reply to readers, but I must respond to Sadie Crabtree’s false and defamatory statement (Letters, Aug. 31) that the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C. (GLAA), of which I am an officer, “is one of only two statewide gay organizations in the country that have opposed transgender protections in recent years.”
Far from opposing transgender protections, GLAA is a leading defender of the D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA), including a provision prohibiting discrimination on the basis of personal appearance, which has long been acknowledged to protect transgender people. That existing protection led GLAA to question the need for amendatory legislation. The amendment championed by Crabtree’s group was titled the Human Rights Clarification Amendment Act precisely because its explicit reference to “gender identity or expression” merely clarified the longstanding intent and understanding of DCHRA.
Even after Ms. Crabtree and I clashed at a GLAA meeting last year, I assured her that it was overwhelmingly unlikely that we would oppose the bill. She simply objects to having any critical discussion at all. Her attitude from the outset, which I readily concede infuriated me, was that you had to go along unquestioningly or you were tarred with opposing transgender rights. As it turned out, GLAA’s close examination of the bill revealed that it had been drafted so as to amend only the preamble to the Human Rights Act. We pointed out all of the places where the new language needed to be inserted to have any effect. GLAA’s eventual endorsement of the bill was not only because it became clear the bill was moving forward, but because scenarios were raised under which the prior law’s applicability to possible cases of anti-transgender discrimination would be in doubt.
GLAA’s testimony in support of the Human Rights Clarification Amendment Act was presented on October 17, 2005. It can be found, along with other relevant material, in GLAA’s online archive at www.glaa.org. Readers can decide for themselves if our testimony is “pseudo-intellectual” or contains any hint of insincerity.
As to the draft implementing regulations for the new law, the First Amendment concerns that Crabtree considers a perversion were expressed not only by GLAA but by the ACLU of the National Capital Area, whose testimony I cited in my August 17 column. If the concerns raised by GLAA and ACLU/NCA are wrong, Crabtree’s contemptuous attacks, in which she scare-quotes “free speech,” do not begin to make her case. If anything, the final rulemaking will be stronger if it takes our concerns into account, because the result will be less vulnerable to a First Amendment challenge. No one is helped if a claim of discrimination can be laughed out of court. The most sweeping legislative language is not always the most robust.
GLAA also raised strategic concerns caused by D.C.’s special relationship with the U.S. Congress, which can overturn any law the District passes. As we stated to Ms. Crabtree and others early in the process, any congressional veto of a transgender bill could have undermined the established view that the original law’s prohibition against discrimination based on “personal appearance” was intended to protect transgender citizens. We are happy that Congress did not block the bill after its passage by the District. However, Crabtree’s suggestion that the bill’s success was no thanks to GLAA flies in the face of our 35-year record of advocacy. Over that time we have cultivated constructive relationships with District officials and helped make GLBT equality a settled issue in our city. Indeed, GLAA’s testimony archive shows support for transgender rights at three different times in 2006 when Crabtree’s group was silent.
GLAA collectively, and I personally, have defended transgender rights over many years, which would make no sense if Crabtree’s characterization of us were accurate. To cite one example, I personally led efforts in 1999 to petition D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to settle the discrimination and wrongful death lawsuit that had been filed against the city by the mother of Tyra Hunter, a transgender woman who, gravely injured in a 1995 car accident, suffered discrimination from a firefighter and died from incompetent care at a city hospital. Even after the mayor pledged to settle the case, GLAA spent months arguing with the city’s attorneys and working with attorneys for Tyra’s mother. GLAA has been all-volunteer since its founding in 1971, and we deserve credit for our vigilant efforts, whose scope is far wider than a single bill.
While it may offend Ms. Crabtree, supporting legal protections for transgender citizens does not require uncritical acceptance of the farthest-out aspects of gender theory. Insisting that it does only makes sense if you are convinced there is no further need to persuade anyone. You cannot change minds by bullying people into silence, any more than you can overcome constitutional concerns by ignoring unwelcome court precedents.
Crabtree’s parting shot at me is ironic for two reasons. First, her suggestion that my work needs to be fact-checked is awfully brazen considering her own false statements. Second, her call for reputable publications to stop giving me a forum shows once again her true feelings about free speech. Of course, freedom of the press gives private newspapers the right to print (or not) pretty much whatever they like. Fortunately for me and this paper’s readers, its editors are more comfortable with a free exchange of views than Crabtree shows herself to be.