opinion

by chris daley

Trans rights come of age

I WOULD HAZARD a guess that few people in California realized when they wound down their celebrations of the arrival of 2006 they were celebrating in the most transgender-friendly state in the country. That lack of realization isn't surprising. While the changes that have been made on the state and local level in the last 15 years are profound and far-reaching, they have transpired largely outside of the spotlight.

Of course, putting a number on anything like advancements in a civil rights movement is inherently flawed. Transgender people throughout the state have been standing up for their rights for at least several decades. This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the very political Compton's Cafeteria Riots that Susan Stryker did such a wonderful job documenting in Screaming Queens. And a little more than a decade after the riot, activists in Los Angeles got the state's first transgender antidiscrimination law passed on a local level.

It was right around 15 years ago that local activists in Santa Cruz got the state's second civil rights law passed, and two years after that when San Francisco passed the third. Since then at least five more local jurisdictions have followed suit. More far reaching, though, have been the changes on the state level.

Beginning with a 1999 law designating gender-identity-bias-motivated crimes as hate crimes, California public policy has advanced quickly and solidly toward fully recognizing and supporting transgender people as full participants in civil society. State law now clearly protects transgender people from discrimination in public education (2000), housing, employment, and the foster care system (2004), and public accommodation and insurance (2006).

Of course, the passage of each of these laws was the culmination of years of individual and organized efforts for dignity and justice. Each time a transgender employee in Fresno, a parent in Orange County, a student in San Jose, a health care patient in San Diego, an attorney in San Luis Obispo, an asylum applicant in Los Angeles, a tenant in Oakland, or a city/county commissioner in San Francisco stood up for themselves, their families, and their friends, they opened minds. Each transgender artist in San Francisco who told their story in a universal way, each person who transitioned as a volunteer in a homeless shelter in the Inland Empire, each patron in a bar in Salinas who refused to use the wrong restroom set the stage for the profound social change California is experiencing. And each time parents welcomed the person they thought was their daughter home as their son, each time a coworker supported the creation of a nondiscriminatory work environment, each time a teacher questioned whether they were doing everything they could to break down negative gender stereotypes, and each time a doctor, or a lawyer, or a plumber for that matter, provided nondiscriminatory services to a person whom they didn't really understand, the state moved forward.

But passing these laws does not end the conversation. The laws are just tools to help bring about change. They are the manifestation of a public potential for full inclusion of transgender people and their families.

That potential will only be realized through the continued efforts of activists, artists, writers, policy wonks, insiders, outsiders, and "civilians" pushing nontransgender individuals forward. Sometimes that pushing will be gentle and supportive, sometimes urgent, and sometimes it'll just be pushy. To be successful, the movement has to be broad-based, inclusive, strategic, and self-reflective.

While transgender people have been, and will continue to be, in the driver's seat of this movement, those of us who aren't transgender have our role to play. After all, these laws passed through a state legislature that doesn't contain a single "out" transgender elected official.

California has come a long way in the last 15 years, but we still have a long way to go. Each of us has a role to play in this movement that is about so much. It's about gender, power, class, and culture. But, at its heart, it is about the opportunity to be accepted as ourselves.

Chris Daley is executive director of the Transgender Law Center.