On May 9, when US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced she was suing the state of North Carolina over a law that restricts transgender people’s use of bathrooms, she shifted tone at the end of her speech: “Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself.”
“We see you,” she said into the TV cameras. “We stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
With only five weeks left at the Justice Department, Lynch told BuzzFeed News in an interview she chose those words to spoil an old tactic used to marginalize minorities. “You isolate them and make them invisible,” she said. “You make them feel that, not only do they not have any recourse, but nobody even sees what’s happening to them.” And if the mass public doesn’t witness discrimination, she said, “Then it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t exist.”
“Making someone invisible means that you don’t have to deal with their problems,” Lynch continued, noting that transgender people, particularly women of color, face extraordinary rates of homicide and violence. “I think the transgender community can no longer be invisible. They need to be front and center. By marginalizing the transgender community…that is not an invisible issue to me as a prosecutor, as a law enforcement officer, as the attorney general. So to tell a group, ‘We see you,’ means you are standing here next to me.”
An hour earlier, Lynch, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the country, had been at a public high school sitting on a gray plastic chair in a circle of queer and transgender teenagers.
"The transgender community can no longer be invisible. They need to be front and center."
She was listening as each one described being outcast and harassed in New York City — a fairly progressive place. She thanked them by name and hugged them one-by-one. She fist-bumped a girl. She held another girl’s hand. She grinned next to one of the teens — who wore black patent-leather boots with platform heels so high that the student needed to crouch to get both their faces in a selfie.
“That was wonderful,” Lynch beamed later. “Honestly, it was an inspiration.”
Lynch was tucked into a vinyl-upholstered booth in a back room of the Stonewall Inn, where a dim red light barely revealed her security detail outside the coat check. Police had raided the place in 1969 — this year, Obama declared it a federal monument to LGBT history — and Stonewall is still, to this day, a charmingly seedy queer dive bar.
Lynch was confirmed nearly two years ago, and she has made LGBT people — particularly transgender students — a priority. Her civil rights division pushed the envelope for interpreting civil rights laws, expanding their reach. But it has come at a cost. About half the states in the country sued the Justice Department to overturn guidance that protects transgender students, and North Carolina also sued the government to protect its bathroom law. Defending and advancing its pro-LGBT stance has swallowed months for federal lawyers, who have flown to courtrooms around the US to argue their cases.
It’s difficult to imagine Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, hanging out with queer kids, hugging them, taking pics with teens in cat-eye makeup. The Republican from Alabama voted to advance a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex couples from marrying and against a bill to protect workers against discrimination.
It’s even harder to fathom the Trump administration suing a state for its bathroom law; asked about North Carolina’s law, specifically, Trump said this year on Fox News that “states should make the decision” and the “federal government should not be involved.”
But for Lynch, cracking down against those laws and speaking up for transgender people is rooted in her own life as a black woman from North Carolina, where she was born in 1959. “I am someone who is a beneficiary of the civil-rights movement,” said Lynch. “I would not be sitting here today without the work of people who fought and bled and died so I could be here — or that I could vote, or that I could go to a great school. Some of those people are in my own family.”
Her background sets a foundation for her ethos as a law enforcement officer: “The next time you see a group that is also being marginalized, oppressed, made invisible, those same principles are the ones you have to pull out — and bring them into the forefront and to protect them.”
It is further critical, she said, to amplify stories of queer students before they reach court. “When you think of all the work that we do — we do cases — it’s the end of the fight,” Lynch said. “Before it hits the courts, before it hits Department of Justice, it’s in people’s lives. It’s the kid’s lives.”
Lynch accused North Carolina when she sued of mimicking “dark days” of the South — comparing a ban on most transgender people from restrooms in government buildings that match their gender with racial segregation that was enforced with “signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out.”
It stung Gov. Pat McCrory — a white man — who fumed on cable TV that Lynch’s comparison was irresponsible. “It’s an insult, and it’s a political statement instead of a legal statement.”
Lynch responded to that accusation flatly in our conversation: “It was not a political issue, nor was it a political statement.”
“It was a description of the larger context in which this struggle was being waged. Part of that struggle was a legal one we were advancing…But it is very much part of a larger struggle.” Standing on the shoulders of civil rights advocates, she said, responsibility means drawing the connection between oppression of the past and oppression in the current day.
Lynch was also disappointed by the backlash to guidelines for schools to protect transgender students, which were sent in a dear colleague letter by her agency and the Department of Education this spring. But she wasn’t surprised.
“We weren’t trying to calibrate the response,” she shrugged.
About two dozen states sued Lynch and the Obama administration to block the guidance, arguing the executive branch overstepped its authority by effectively making new regulations without fielding input.
“It wasn’t writing new law, it wasn’t creating new law,” Lynch countered, adding that schools had asked about how to accommodate transgender students and her agency answered. “That was actually protective of students, which I what I think schools should be about.”
But backlash is also a signature of making gains, she argued. “As we have advanced in a number of ways, particularly involving LGBT rights…you tend to have a backlash. You see it through the history of the civil rights movement and other human rights movements, so I think that as we have made great progress in advancement on LGBTQ issues, that is going to get people’s attention, and it has led to a backlash — whether it is individuals not wanting to issue a marriage license or sell wedding cakes and the like.
But, she added, “When you look at history, you see you can, in fact, move past that backlash. You can in fact educate people and address the fact that they are reacting out of fear and ignorance of people who are just like them in so many important and fundamental ways.”
Lynch has about one month left in her post. She hopes that some on the career staff who stay on with the next administration, as opposed to the political appointees who must clear out, will continue to advocate for LGBT people. Of particular question is whether they will maintain the Obama administration's view that prohibitions against sex discrimination, as written in civil rights law, also ban transgender discrimination — a legal interpretation with impacts across every government agency.
"You can, in fact, move past that backlash."
“We are going to reach a point in time when that is out of my hands,” Lynch said. "So much of the Department of Justice work is important
to me, and so much of it is done by the outstanding career people who I know
will try to carry it on."
But the internal career staff can only do so much, and Lynch is also looking outward, toward the same LGBT advocates who pressured the Obama administration to lobby the Trump administration. “What we are focusing on is reaching out to communities that are involved in these issues, that are engaging in these issues, that are concerned about these issues, and letting them know they still have our support until the end, and there are ways to continue raising these issues to the department and to other agencies as well."
"Every administration does have different priorities, and that is a fact of life, but that does not mean that issues go away," Lynch told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. "It does not mean that they disappear from the hearts and minds of people who care about them."