It was difficult to sit long at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this past week without hearing about the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or the party's now-official statement, "We support marriage equality." Rarely discussed, however, was the dramatic new focus on transgender issues within the Obama administration and the Democratic Party.
In the early days of the Obama administration, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates and activists pushed for more action to match President Obama's campaign promises on their rights. As Obama accepted the nomination to run for re-election this past week, however, transgender advocates had the opposite concern. Thrilled, for the most part, with the administration’s actions on trans issues, many transgender Democrats found themselves looking for the action to be matched more often with words — from elected officials like Obama, but also from LGBT leaders themselves.
According to survey data collected by LGBT organizations, transgender people — those people whose own sense of their gender does not match the sex with which they were born — face significant discrimination. Nearly half of the respondents to a 2011 survey reported being ﬁred, not hired or denied a promotion because of being transgender or gender non-conforming. Anti-transgender discrimination in housing, health-care provision and education was likewise reported to be widespread.
Diego Sanchez, an out trans delegate from Massachusetts who works in the office of Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, said of Obama's Thursday night speech, “I wish rather than ‘gay,’ he had said 'LGBT.'" Noting the Obama administration's actions on trans rights — from prohibiting housing discrimination to making it easier for transgender people to change their passports to reflect their gender identity — however, Sanchez added, "I know that when he said gay, he meant LGBT, and I trust that a lot.”
Dana Beyer, an out transgender member of the Credentials Committee in Charlotte, said, “The trans community has clearly experienced a quantum leap in recognition by the national Democratic Party. That was evident not only by the 75 percent increase in trans delegates" — there were 14 out transgender delegate or alternate delegates in Charlotte — "but by the acceptance of trans rights by those who were already accepting of gay rights.”
A former candidate for the statehouse in Maryland, she added, “I won't pretend we've reached paradise. Many people were polite and respectful because it's proper, not because we've been fully embraced. And there is still a long way to go on the state and local level.”
The progress on trans issues, though significant, has happened under the radar for the most part. And, unlike steps taken by the administration on marriage and the military, movement on trans issues — including coverage in the party's platform — rarely is trumpeted as a success outside of LGBT-specific (or even trans-specific) forums and media.
Sanchez posed the issue as a greater question about the LGBT community, and not just elected allies.
“There’s an accountability back to our own LGBT organizations, starting with [the Human Rights Campaign], the [National Gay & Lesbian] Task Force and the [Gay & Lesbian] Victory Fund," he said, pointing to three organizations with a presence at the Democratic National Convention. “Every time that they say 'gay,' rather than LGBT, it denies me from having license to criticize the president for saying 'gay' because their heads say 'gay' when they mean LGBT.
“So, I do not fault the president for saying 'gay,'” Sanchez concluded. “I felt that his intent was to be inclusive because his actions have been inclusive.”
In every notable instance of administrative action taken — from the State Department to the Education Department to Health and Human Services to Housing and Urban Development to the Justice Department — discrimination against and protections for transgender people, based on gender identity, have been addressed alongside those based on sexual orientation. Aside from the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — which only addressed gay, lesbian and bisexual, but not trans, service — almost all federal changes during the Obama administration for LGBT people have been inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
In April, one of the most significant developments actually presented a situation in which transgender rights have advanced more quickly than those for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Groups like HRC and the Task Force, with the administration’s endorsement, have been pushing for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to outlaw anti-LGBT discrimination in most workplaces. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in the case of Mia Macy, however, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, a ruling that applies to all federal agencies and echoes similar federal court rulings in Diane Schroer’s case in D.C. and in Vandiver Beth Glenn’s case decided by the Atlanta-based Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Yet, as Sanchez noted, when the president took the stage in Charlotte, none of his three mentions of LGBT issues actually addressed the “T” of LGBT. Obama’s first reference was, as Sanchez noted, only to “gays.” The second related to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the third was a reference to congressional opposition — primarily Republican — to same-sex couples’ marriage rights. The first lady’s Tuesday night speech, widely praised, contained only references to marriage rights.
Vice President Joe Biden’s only reference to LGBT issues was an oblique reference to “a future where no one … is forced to live in the shadows of intolerance,” and the other main DNC speech, given by former President Bill Clinton, contained no direct references to LGBT issues.
Meghan Stabler, a Texas delegate who also is a member of the Obama 2012 LGBT Leadership Circle, recalled "only a couple of times" in both the main stage and the LGBT caucus meetings when trans issues were discussed or the word used.
Stabler said her main point of frustration came from within the LGBT caucus itself.
“It’s the lack of recognition from within our LGBT caucus leaders. We heard consistently about marriage equality. Rick Stafford even stepped over himself,” she said of the LGBT caucus chair, who made a comment about the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enabling out LGBT service, but then correcting himself and noting that work remained to be done to enable out transgender military service.
Beyer said, though, that even on that front, the situation was improving.
“Many more of our gay allies are sincerely involved for pushing for our advancement,” she said, adding that the 14 out trans delegates or alternate delegates included four national committee members, showing a growing national inclusion of trans people in the Democratic Party. (Stabler said her aim is for trans representation from every state in 2016, an ambitious goal only reached by the entire LGBT community for the first time in Charlotte.)
Looking at the evolution on transgender issues within the Democratic Party makes the story very clear for Babs Siperstein, a superdelegate who is the first out trans member of the Democratic National Committee executive committee.
“There has been a dramatic positive change in the Democratic Party in its attitude and actual inclusion regarding transgender Americans, both at the leadership as well as grassroots levels,” she said. “From 2004 to 2012 there has been a 180 degree shift.”
Stating that the inclusion led to increased media coverage of trans participation at the convention, from Time to The New Yorker to the Christian Science Monitor, Beyer noted, “Had the party neglected us or just considered us as window dressing, the media would have sensed it and ignored us.”
Of efforts that remain, Beyer was optimistic: “[T]he national respect will trickle down, sooner rather than later, just as the entire party got in line behind the President on marriage."