Mix of setbacks and gains unsettles many transgender Americans

Lillian Lennon poses for a portrait in Anchorage in April 2018. Lennon, a transgender teenager, was a field organizer who helped defeat a bathroom bill before Anchorage voters.
Lillian Lennon poses for a portrait in Anchorage in April 2018. Lennon, a transgender teenager, was a field organizer who helped defeat a bathroom bill before Anchorage voters.
(Mark Thiessen / Associated Press)

For transgender Americans, 2018 has been marked by series of advancements and setbacks.

The steps forward have included numerous legislative actions and court rulings buttressing civil rights and a victory by a transgender candidate in Vermont’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The steps back have included the Trump administration rolling back protections, and anti-transgender vitriol that caused an Oklahoma town’s schools to be closed for two days in August after adults made threatening comments on Facebook about a 12-year-old transgender student’s use of a girls’ bathroom.

And the coming weeks may be even more unsettling, ahead of the first statewide vote on whether anti-discrimination protections should extend to transgender people.


On the Nov. 6 ballot in Massachusetts is a measure drafted by conservative activists that would repeal a 2016 state law — passed with bipartisan support — that provides such protections in public accommodations, including bathrooms and locker rooms.

Though Massachusetts is among the most liberal states, and the first to legalize same-sex marriage, recent polls indicate voters are closely divided on the ballot measure.

Transgender attorney Kasey Suffredini, co-chair of the campaign seeking to preserve the 2016 law, calls the measure “one of the single biggest threats to equality in recent memory.” If the pro-repeal side wins, he predicts, opponents of LGBTQ rights will try to scale back nondiscrimination protections in other states.

Uncertainty about the outcome in Massachusetts has added to a sense among some transgender Americans that their recent civil rights gains are fragile and their acceptance by fellow citizens is far from universal.

“I just try to focus on the long run,” said Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender writer and professor. “We’re in this less for ourselves than for our children, whom I pray will grow up in a world less cruel than this one.”

The progress in 2018 has included several cities and states making it easier for transgender people to change their gender on identification documents. Courts have upheld policies enabling transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice at school. Connecticut became the first state giving transgender inmates the right to be housed in prisons matching their gender identity.


Among other breakthroughs: A best-foreign-film Oscar for the transgender-themed film, “A Fantastic Woman,” and transgender candidate Christine Hallquist’s Democratic nomination in the Vermont governor’s race.

But Hallquist’s triumph had a downside: She says she’s been targeted with a stream of death threats and other personal attacks during her candidacy.

In early September, transgender activists got a jolting reminder that even some allies might belittle them.

At the national meeting of NLGJA, the Association of LGBTQ Journalists, anger was sparked when gay emcee and TV weatherman Marshall McPeek began the closing ceremony by welcoming “ladies and gentlemen, things and its.”

McPeek, of Columbus, Ohio, soon apologized, as did NLGJA, but many transgender people were outraged. The journalism organization promised to become more diverse and inclusive, and McPeek resigned from the group while promising to learn from his mistakes.

More broadly, transgender-rights activists are angered at moves by President Trump and his administration to undermine gains achieved before his election. Trump is seeking to ban transgender people from military service, although that effort has stalled in court.


The administration rescinded an Obama administration guideline advising schools to let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice. And it has asserted that civil rights laws don’t protect transgender people from discrimination on the job.

Transgender attorney Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he remained optimistic about the overall progress, citing favorable court rulings, broad resistance to the military ban, and new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics for how parents and others can support transgender children.

These changes “reflect a growing understanding on the part of families, communities, courts and elected officials that transgender people are part of the fabric of our society,” Minter said.

In April, transgender people got some support from voters in Anchorage. By a 6-point margin, they defeated a ballot measure that would have repealed a trans-inclusive civil rights ordinance and required transgender people to use public bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender at birth.

For activists, that result was heartening in light of events in Houston in 2015 after its City Council adopted an ordinance that included protections for transgender people using restrooms based on gender identity. Opponents of the ordinance gathered enough signatures for a repeal referendum, then campaigned using the slogan “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.” By 61% to 39%, the anti-bias ordinance was repealed.

Now, the divisive issue is resurfacing in Massachusetts, where the campaign seeking to repeal the 2016 state law is using Houston-style messaging.


“The law puts women, children and vulnerable minorities’ safety at risk,” says Keep MA Safe. “It allows a person to self-identify as any gender in order to use whatever bathroom, locker room or shower facility they choose — even convicted sex offenders.”

Transgender-rights supporters consider this argument malicious. They say 20 states and scores of cities have experienced no significant public safety problems linked to their policies allowing transgender people to use public bathrooms of their choice.