On Monday, U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch stood before the American public and delivered the most powerful rejection of North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom bill, HB 2, of any public official to date. Comparing HB 2 to Jim Crow, Lynch argued that the North Carolina fight is about more than where trans people go to the restroom, it’s a battle over basic human rights. “This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them—indeed, to protect all of us,” she said. “And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country—haltingly but inexorably—in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”
The rousing, powerful speech is already being called the trans movement’s “I Have a Dream” moment.
It couldn’t come at a better time.
"Bathroom bills" similar to North Carolina’s have been spreading like wildfire in state legislatures across the country. But perhaps even worse than the loss of basic civil rights for the transgender community is the dangerous, hostile, and even deadly environment that LGBT Americans face every single day. On May 1, Reecey Walker, a transgender woman, was found stabbed to death in her Wichita, Kan., apartment. Walker’s was the tenth homicide of a transgender woman this year. Last year, 23 trans women were slain across the U.S., a majority of whom were people of color.
Lynch’s address, set amid this under-reported backdrop of violence, made her speech all the more meaningful. That said, one of the reasons Lynch’s speech was so desperately needed was that it occurred in somewhat of a political vacuum. While transgender people are being forced out of public bathrooms and are being killed in the streets, the Democratic presidential candidates have remained stunningly silent on the issues facing the most vulnerable segments of the LGBT community.
Thus far, the White House hopefuls have chosen to lead from behind, allowing the Republican contenders to utterly dominate the conversation on trans issues. Before dropping out of the GOP presidential race, Sen. Ted Cruz came out vocally in support of legislation like HB 2. During an MSNBC town hall, the Texas Republican called anti-trans bathroom bills “perfectly reasonable,” arguing that “men should not be going to the bathroom with little girls.” Cruz was so against equal access in public accommodations for LGBT people that it even became part of his stump speech.
After a transgender woman was harassed while riding the New York subway last week, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton issued a declaration of support on her Facebook page. “Pearl, I’m so sorry that you experienced this,” Clinton said. “Every single person deserves to be safe and live free from discrimination and cruelty, period. And transgender people need to hear from every one of us that you are loved, respected, and deserving of equality under the law.” This statement is nearly identical to her October 2015 speech to the Human Rights Campaign on LGBT equality. “Transgender people are valued, they are loved, they are us,” Clinton said.
But since her HRC address, Clinton’s social media account has spoken louder than she has. After HB 2 was signed into law on March 23, the former secretary of State remarked on Twitter, “LGBT people should be protected from discrimination under the law—period.” Sanders issued a similar response to the bill. “It's time to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” the Vermont independent said. “This law has no place in America.” But aside from a handful of statements, LGBT rights have largely remained on the back burner this election.
That’s not to say that both candidates haven’t been vocal allies in the past. While mayor of Burlington, Sanders supported Vermont’s first-ever Pride parade back in 1983. The state he represents was also the first to approve civil unions in 2000. During her tenure as secretary of State, Clinton was instrumental in changing federal policy to allow trans people to change their gender marker on U.S. passports. As the National Center for Transgender Equality’s Mara Keisling once remarked, that decision “saved lives.”
But where have those politicians been in 2016? Where’s the Sanders who, as the Daily Beast’s Gina Tron phrased it, made Burlington into “an '80s trans mecca"? Where’s the Clinton who famously told the United Nations in 2011 that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights”? That Clinton has been busy thanking the late Nancy Reagan for her “low-key advocacy” in spreading HIV awareness during the 1980s. In truth, the Reagans ignored the crisis while people died in the streets. The frontrunner would apologize twice for the painfully misjudged gaffe, but it’s sad that, as of late, Clinton’s apologies have been more passionate than her advocacy.
Lynch’s speech should be a call to action for the Democratic candidates: We need educated, committed advocates who are as vocal on the front lines as those who are pushing to roll back the rights of LGBT individuals across the country. As of April, nine other states were considering their own "bathroom bills." These laws will only encourage the violence and discrimination so many trans Americans experience every day. As the Williams Institute reports, 70% of transgender people have been harassed in a public bathroom, and more bills like HB 2 will only serve to further put a target on their backs.
Democratic candidates have long leaned on the LGBT community for financial support for their campaigns, as well as relying on our votes to get elected. As the Democratic primaries wind to a close, if Clinton and Sanders expect this support to continue, they will need to start fighting harder for our lives.
Nico Lang is the East Coast reporter for the Advocate. You can also read his work on Salon, Onion A.V. Club and the Guardian. Find him on Twitter @nico_lang.