Transgender Rights Landscape in America

with Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality

Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to same-sex marriage in 2015, many LGBTQ Americans lack basic legal protections in states across the country. Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, joins host Paul Lisnek to discuss The Equality Act, pending legislation that aims to extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ people nationwide.

Posted on:

May 29, 2019

Hosted by: Paul Lisnek
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: Nearly 2/3 of LGBTQ Americans report having experienced discrimination in their personal lives. While same-sex marriage is legal in 50 states, the federal protections don't exist in other areas like employment, housing, or even public accommodations. Hi, welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers". I'm Paul Lisnek. Basic legal protections for the LGBTQ population vary by state. Current federal law does not provide consistent non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Here to talk more about that is Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, and, Mara, thanks for joining me.

Keisling: Thanks for having me, Paul.

Lisnek: So it is an interesting dichotomy between having to look at what states do and the fact that the federal government is kind of lagging behind, but there is an effort at the federal level to pass an Equality Act. Talk about that.

Keisling: Well, yeah. First, I want to say we argue that there are federal protections already in sex-discrimination laws. If a transgender person is fired because they're transgender, it is because of their sex. It's because either -- If I get fired, it's because you think I'm a woman or you think I'm a man, and I'm not the right kind of man or I'm not enough woman -- whatever it is you think, it's about sex. So we would argue that existing sex-discrimination laws protect us, and courts have been saying that for some years. The current Trump administration is, in fact, saying that they don't believe that, and they're not enforcing federal laws for us, so we do need to do something. And what that is is the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Lisnek: Well, and a couple of things -- number one, of course, as you know, related cases are going before the Supreme Court in the new term, so with the shape of this court, they could certainly find that the Civil Rights Act does not apply to the LGBTQ community. So this act seems to be an effort to get ahead of that a little bit, but you got to drum up Republican support. Does that happen?

Keisling: Well, we've been winning more and more Republican support every year. This has been a 40-year effort so far. The first -- what was called the Gay Civil Rights Bill --

Lisnek: 45 years ago, right?

Keisling: Almost exactly And there have been various iterations of the bill. This is the first time -- the Equality Act's only three years old or so, and it never got any traction the last Congress, but this Congress...'s getting some traction, which is good. I don't think it's going to get through the Senate or the president will sign it, but we're making progress. And I think another couple of years, and we'll get it done.

Lisnek: And we may see what the courts do and protections will come in that direction.

Keisling: Absolutely.

Lisnek: But it's also interesting -- you know, the focus on the transgender community is more prevalent now than it was "x" number of years ago. Fill in the number. So the administration's current ban on transgenders serving in the military seems to be -- well, it seems to be a step not in the right direction for the transgender community. How do you respond to that?

Keisling: The military was ready to implement full transgender service, and the president just on a whim decided to ban us. And the courts have sided with the president, so a ban is in place. Transgender people can no longer join the military, for now.

Lisnek: So what do you say to some people who say, "Look, I don't have a problem with transgender people serving in the military, but because health care being the way it is, the objection I have is that they want to come into the military so that all of the surgeries and whatever else is paid for by the government", and they might say, "I don't care to pay for it. That's my issue."

Keisling: Yeah, well, there's nothing to that. The Defense Department has said it is not a cost issue. The costs involved are really largely about people seeking advice and counsel and therapy, so the cost that the military's already experienced -- but the total cost for every transgender service member last year was less than it costs to train one pilot. And so, if you're throwing out all of these people, including pilots, it is much more cost-effective to keep them in, and I heard also that the cost that they say it costs to have all the transgender people is something like 1/100th of what it costs for the various military bands.

Lisnek: We talked about the Equality Act, which is all-encompassing. In fact, it actually goes beyond what the Civil Rights Act would protect. That's its goal. But my question is, is this battle better fought on that wide front or is it better fought on individual fronts like the military ban, like bathroom issues? Is it better to tackle battle by battle rather than as a war?

Keisling: Well, I was going to say, it is a war. I don't mean it that way. Both. You know, we have to go after whatever we have to go after. We need to pass the Equality Act. We need protections in employment, housing, credit, military, jury service, ending conversion therapy, things like that. And if we can get a lot of them done at once, that's really great. If we have to get them one at a time, we will, but the military ban is just not acceptable. It is our federal government discriminating against people, Americans, and it is our federal government saying that transgender people can't be full citizens. If you can't live up to your responsibilities of citizenship, they will claim, then why should we be giving you the privileges of citizenship? That's why they're doing it. That's why we're fighting it.

Lisnek: Finally, my best guess is that one way to resolve this issue -- the more people who know transgender people, who meet transgender people, who have exposure to transgender people, maybe the more accepting and understanding they become.

Keisling: That is so true. You know, we do policy work at NCTE, but the most important thing any transgender person is ever going to do is educate their families and educate their classmates and their co-workers and the people they worship with. Because when you know somebody, they're not some abstract problem. They're just Paul, and I know most Americans these days sit around and they're like, "Where did all these transgender people come from? They didn't use to be this many transgender people."

Lisnek: Yeah, there were.

Keisling: There were. You're correct.

Lisnek: Thanks so much for being here. Continue the work you're doing.

Keisling: Thanks, Paul.

Lisnek: Mara Keisling. She is from the National Center for Transgender Quality. Appreciate your time. Appreciate your time, as well. If you want to watch more great conversations with leaders in our community and across the nation, just go to I'm Paul Lisnek. Thanks for watching.

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