This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments that will decide if Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes discrimination against transgender people and gay people in this country illegal under the same act that makes sex discrimination illegal. The argument from those in support of expanding what kind of discrimination is illegal is that sex discrimination is a broad definition, and like harassment, was not stipulated in the original bill, was made illegal under the courts in the same law. It should be in this case as well. It all hinges, it seems, on Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Neal Gorsuch, that one justice who seems to be wrestling with the issue whereas a swath of right-leaning judges have very clearly made up their minds about allowing discrimination against transgender people and gay people continue.
The three cases involved are Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, a gay rights case where Gerald Bostock was fired and sued the county claiming discrimination because he was gay, and a similar case, Altitude Express Inc. v. Zardo, where Donald Zarda sued his employer for discrimination. The third case is R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where Aimee Stephens, who identifies as a woman was fired after she informed her employer of her transition.
The Real News Network’s Marc Steiner spoke to Ava Pipitone, the founder and CEO of HostHome, a service which connects people in need of emergency housing with those who can provide that housing—with a focus on transgender people, and the former executive director of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance about this monumental Supreme Court decision (this interview has been slightly condensed and edited; the full interview is available above and here).
MARC STEINER: This case, when you look at the arguments that the justices are having with one another inside that court, it really does show the divide here, and I think also shows politically, and in terms of human rights, how critical this case may be. What’s your analysis?
AVA PIPTONE: Critical is a good word, right? Regardless of how the case come out, the fact that we’re talking about transgender issues, transgender workplace protections at this scale means that every dinner table throughout the country are having these conversations, right? That we are now talking about my community everywhere. So, that is where I am focused. No matter what strategy wins, no matter what strategy gets the protections we need to cascade from workplace to housing protections and so on, we are having them today throughout the country.
MS: One of the things clearly that’s happening in this case is what you just alluded to, which the conservative side of the court is saying, “Look, if we let this go, if we say, ‘Yes, this is legal, that transgender people can go and say they cannot be discriminated against under a sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of ’64,’ then that opens all the flood gates. That means they’ll be going to the bathroom with us. That means that there are all these things are going to happen. We’re going to have to hire them. We’re going to have to let them live in our homes and rent apartments.” So, what you’re saying is critical to where the political divide is and why there’s such a battle going on.
AP: Underneath of that, right, is bathrooms, employment, housing; this is value, this has access. So, we always say it’s never been about bathrooms. It’s about access to public space. Remember, bathrooms used to be segregated racially. It wasn’t that long ago. So this is about, “Are you valuable members of our society, our community, our workforce? Are you valuable neighbors?” This conversation is actually the core of all of this fear. It’s, “Are we trustworthy and valuable, and therefore, do we have access to public space?” Right? Do we have access to selling our labor under late capitalism? I believe anyone speaking to another human, transgender, cisgender, heterosexual, LGBTQ, how can you say that we are not valuable? How can you say that to our face? That’s the thing. Pulling back to humanity and hinging it on access—this is really the core issue.
MS: How significant is it that you have these three cases that really attack this issue of sex discrimination from this broad kind of united front perspective?
AP: United we are stronger, right? This is a coalition of movements that are all intersecting at this moment to push in this one way, right? In an activist space, we tend to have our Maslow’s needs a little less met, so we can’t be as strategic and as long-term focused. This strategy has been and is long-term focused. We are coming together over our differences, right? We are not infighting today. We are together today. We’re not infighting amongst who is first, who is second—is it trans women first? Is it lesbians second? Is it lesbians first? We’re not having that conversation today. We’re here today together holding hands and walking together, right? That’s when I say this is the first united push like this in several years.
MS: So, when you look at what could be decided here, there seems to be one justice that is the linchpin here, and that’s Gorsuch, who had arguments on both sides. He’s a textualist in terms of the constitution, which is a very conservative movement. This time it may actually work against the conservatives in his mind. We’ll find out. On the other side, this hinges on this one person. Now, let’s talk about the politics of what happens next. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they rule not in the favor of LGBTQ people and in building a more equitable society. Then what?
AP: if we don’t get this right, then it’s glaring that if you believe LGBTQ people have value in society and deserve access to society, then we need more legislation, right? So, if this isn’t the end road to victory, to the protections that we need, to the access that we need. Then they’ll need to be new language built, and building language is a longer process. It’s an opportunity, but it’s a longer process. I believe, and so do the people behind these campaigns and these coalitions, that this moment, we can win and this language can serve this end and we don’t need to go back into the semantics of the scope of the original intent of this word and if this is the right intent. I believe it’s not useful to entertain what failure looks like in this moment because we are all here together, and to ignore us would be a bigger failure than to move forward.
MS: As someone who has been a leader and a forthright person fighting for trans rights in this city, in this country, talk a bit about how far this movement’s come. It’s come to a place now that it hasn’t been before in front of the federal courts, but this also is kind of opening up a conversation in the United States within families. You can see from the polls that a majority of people would support them ruling for the defense in this case, in the Supreme court. So, talk a bit about that, that struggle sojourn and where this is taking us.
AP: Momentum is that word, right? Momentum. People said trans tipping point and they said, “Oh, my God. People are coming out like never before: “Where are these LGBTQ folks coming from? Where are these trans folks coming from? What is this?” Our answer has always been that we have always been here. Actually, the repression of people like us is a newer act. Even more deeply, we have social value to add in a conversation around how we’re going to push innovation, how we’re going to push our state, our country forward. Our voices have a perspective that is crucial to that innovation. I think now that we are speaking and we are out and we have some protections to participate, people are seeing that value. If you’re into the economics of diversity inclusion, there’s a higher return on investment on investing in people who have experienced depression, people who have experienced adversity, because in so many ways, innovation is just a fancy word for survival. If we had to survive in a system that wasn’t built for us, we’ve had to get smart, we’ve had to adapt, we’ve had to come together and develop that emotional intelligence it requires to come together. Days like today are moments where we realized that we all are interdependent and we all are and have been walking together, whether or not we were holding hands as we walk together. Now, I look, and when I was trusted with knowledge and wisdom of elders in the trans community, there was only a few. There were only a few people talking to me and mentoring me. Now, I take it on myself and everyone I’ve talked to that we are constantly bringing up our youth. We are constantly doing that thinking together with our mentees and we are co-learning with the next generation. People talk about transness getting younger and we say, “We’ve always been.” Right? We’ve always been building together. This intergenerational piece where we have these 70-year-old freedom fighters walking hand in hand with 18-year-old non-binary trans folks and lesbian butch women who maybe didn’t use that language in the past and now we see each other and we understand that we were doing the best we could with the tools we had at that time. Now, when we’re not in those academic spaces and we’re not using that language that can be elitist to define who we are, we’re able today to make that emotional connection with people outside of our silo, people who don’t speak like us. And we can now hold hands with them and we can say, “Hey, if the language isn’t perfect in this piece of legislation, if the language isn’t perfect today, I still see you. I’m still walking with you.”