As Marriage Equality Marches Forward, Don't Forget the Trans People Left Behind

Just yesterday, Delaware lawmakers voted to allow gay couples to marry freely after weeks of contentious debate from religious leaders. Governor Jack Markell, a vocal supporter of marriage equality, has agreed to sign the legislation.

These victories for same-sex couples are slow to come and each is meaningful for the people who want to marry the partners that they love. Often, though, the marriage debate tends to exclude the “T” in “LGBT” and focus almost exclusively on cisgender gay or lesbian couples.

Some LGBT groups have been under fire for a while now for their lack of trans inclusion. The Human Rights Campaign, perhaps the most well-funded and well-known of these groups, drew criticism last month with reports of an HRC staffer asking an attendee at the Proposition 8 Supreme Court hearings to remove a Trans Pride flag.

HRC quickly apologized, but the organization has a history of refusing to support transgender rights. In 2007, when the Employment Non Discimination Act (ENDA) was in Congress, HRC supported a version of ENDA that would prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, but did not include similar protections for gender identity.

The Human Rights Campaign is the key group that is spending money to support marriage-equality initiatives, and yet they currently have no transgender staffers. Only one board member of over 50 is transgender, and the “T” was not added to the “LGB” acronym on their literature until 2004.

Because HRC is doing such an excellent job at excluding transgender persons from the marriage-equality equation, trans perspectives aren’t being added to the narrative. If reports from Jerame Davis, National Stonewall Democrats president, are to be believed, an HRC staffer told a transgender activist that “marriage isn’t a transgender issue” while they were standing on the steps of the United States Supreme Court fighting for equality.

Marriage is certainly a transgender issue, as transgender individuals love and enter into relationships in the same way that gay and cisgender people do. Transgender people can identify themselves as lesbian or gay, and many enter into same-sex relationships. Of course they’d want the ability to legally marry the partner they love, in the exact same way that cisgender same-sex couples do.

I spoke with trans rights activists to discuss how they fit into the gay-rights movement, what marriage equality means, and how gay-rights groups can include transgender persons in the movement. Writer & activist Kara Tucker thought that the marriage-equality movement wasn’t necessarily excluding her, but that the gay-rights movement as a whole was prioritizing marriage ahead of other rights, like housing and employment for trans people.

When you look at the statistics, it’s hard to argue that trans people aren’t having a really rough go of things. A 2010 study reported that 41% of transgender Americans had attempted to commit suicide. Twenty percent of trans* persons surveyed had been denied necessary medical care because of their gender status, and 2% reported being violently assaulted.

If a trans person isn’t “passable,” they face ridicule and harassment. In the U.S., it’s not even against the law in many states to deny housing to transgender individuals. More and more states are adding trans discrimination laws to the books, but reform hasn’t moved quickly enough. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five trans people will be denied housing based on their gender identity.

For homeless trans people, finding services can be even more difficult - one in three transgender persons has been turned away from a shelter that was supposed to be providing them services. As a result, 42% of trans people who needed emergency shelter were sent to shelters that forced them to present as the wrong gender.

Sophia Banks, a photographer and trans activist living in Canada, told me that finding a trans-friendly shelter “can depend on who is working intake that day.” Think about that — being a homeless or abused woman and having to stay in a shelter with men. At night. In the dark. Alone. I don’t think I can really imagine anything more dehumanizing.

When you consider both the scope and seriousness of what trans people face in order to survive, marriage equality seems like it should be at the bottom of the priority list. The protections that come with legal marriage are extremely important, but they aren’t often a matter of life and death.

If the HRC and other LGBT groups want to truly be inclusive, they should add some of these issues to their lobbying slate. Instead of spending record amounts of money on lobbying against Prop 8, perhaps they should split their funds among that and lobbying Congress to pass non-discrimination laws against trans people.

These victories for marriage equality are deeply important for all queer people, but it’s extremely difficult to consider getting a marriage license when you don’t know if you and your partner will have a place to live or enough food to eat.

When we consider the implications of the HRC’s activism, they amount to erasure and exclusion. If marriage equality isn’t a transgender issue, then what is? All human rights issues are human issues. If trans people can’t get married in this country, then that’s a horrible travesty, not something that the HRC and other groups can quietly pack away.

Should trans people continue to financially support an organization that, at present, supports trans rights in name only? My thought is no. There are plenty of highly-qualified trans individuals who could be in leadership roles at these organizations. Allyson Robinson, current director of OutServe-SLDN, is the first transgender person to assume a leadership role of a major LGBT group without a specific transgender focus.

That is shameful. There are hundreds of gay rights groups that accept money from trans people and tell trans people that they’re working for them. The truth, though, is that trans people have been on the back-burner of the gay rights movement since Harvey Milk, and the Human Rights Campaign isn’t doing a damn thing to change that.

If you’d like to support a group that works for transgender rights and equality, check out www.transequality.org