On May 24, civil rights leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis reminded his Twitter followers that 55 years ago, he was arrested for using a whites-only restroom. The idea of a whites-only restroom seems so backward today that it’s fair to say our country has made huge progress in overcoming some forms of discrimination.
But Lewis’s tweet came a day before 11 states sued the federal government to prevent transgender students from using restrooms that match their gender identities. This is another form of discrimination. And just as Lewis was arrested for using a restroom where he wasn’t allowed, transgender activists today are being arrested for a similar reason.
Mara Keisling, the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), is one of those activists. She went into a woman’s restroom in North Carolina as an act of civil disobedience after the state passed a law to further limit transgender rights. The law, known as HB2 or the “Charlotte bathroom bill,” nullifies any local ordinance in the state that protects LGBT individuals, including the right to use a restroom matching one’s gender identity.
“I can’t use the men’s room because it’s uncomfortable,” says Keisling, who identifies as female, “and it offends my dignity.”
Since the debate over transgender bathroom access began making national headlines, Keisling has been speaking out on the subject, including to a group of legislators at the U.S. Congress. Last week she spoke about it at AFSCME’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., during an event celebrating LGBT Pride Month. It’s a topic she treats with the seriousness it deserves, but also with light-hearted irony.
“I was sitting this far from Nancy Pelosi, telling her about where I like to pee,” she said, motioning a few feet away.
But the bathroom issue is “serious stuff,” she added, and not just because it offends the dignity of a transgender person. “There are kids in North Carolina who aren’t going to school because they’re afraid,” she said. It’s a form of discrimination that can harm a person for the rest of his or her life.
Keisling also pointed out that the Charlotte bathroom law targets all workers by forbidding localities from raising the minimum wage, and it shields employers from legal action at the expense of workers’ rights.
“This was an anti-worker bill that used transgender people as a scapegoat,” she said.
That’s why it’s important, she added, to view the LGBT movement as inseparable from the fight for workers’ rights, immigrant rights and other progressive causes.
“We can no longer have an effective LGBT movement or a moral LGBT movement unless it is also an anti-racist movement – a ‘we-are-all-in-this-together’ movement,” she said. “If we see any more obstacles or diminishments happening to the labor movement, it hurts us all.”
Despite efforts in several states to pass discriminatory laws like HB2, Keisling said she has never felt so optimistic about ending discrimination against transgender people.
“Obama is the best President we’ve had on transgender issues, and no one is in second place,” she said.
Since Obama took office, Keisling has counted more than 100 victories for the LGBT community. And she’s predicting more to come.