Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

May 25 2016 2:42 PM

Eleven States Sue Federal Government to Keep Trans Kids out of School Bathrooms

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched a lawsuit against the federal government on Wednesday, suing to block the Obama administration’s recent trans rights directive. The directive urged public schools to let trans students use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, affirming the Department of Education’s interpretation of existing federal law to bar anti-trans discrimination. Any schools that violate the directive risk losing federal education funding. Ten other states joined Texas’ suit, which named the Education, Labor, and Justice Departments—as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—as defendants. The states have asked a federal court to declare the directive invalid and block it permanently. They allege that the directive erroneously interprets federal law—and that it violates the 10th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, and state sovereign immunity.

If recent history is any guide, the federal government will vehemently defend its directive in response to Texas’ attack. When North Carolina sued the Justice Department to preserve its anti-trans law, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke “directly to the transgender community itself” to assure them that the administration had its back:

Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy—but we’ll get there together.

In contrast, Paxton had this to say about the administration’s directive earlier in May:

Once again, the Obama Administration has overstepped its constitutional bounds to meddle in the affairs of state and local government. Today’s announcement seeking to unilaterally redefine and expand federal law must be challenged. If President Obama thinks he can bully Texas schools into allowing men to have open access to girls in bathrooms, he better prepare for yet another legal fight.

Incidentally, Paxton is currently battling serious accusations of wrongdoing related to the secret commissions he made from a technology company during his time as a state legislator. Paxton raised $840,000 for the tech startup without disclosing to investors that he was being compensated for his efforts, as is legally required. He has since been indicted by a Texas grand jury on securities fraud charges and charged with securities fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Unlike Paxton, Lynch has not been indicted for securities fraud. She did, however, vigorously prosecute white-collar crime, securities fraud, and wire fraud during her years as a U.S. attorney. 

Update, May 25, 2016: This post has been updated with additional information about the lawsuit.

May 25 2016 2:10 PM

Last Year, Queer Ugandans Celebrated Pride Like Never Before. But Can They Do It Again?

Last month, Uganda entered the gay rights spotlight once again when Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda’s Speaker of Parliament, declared that a harsh anti-homosexuality law, annulled in 2014, could return at any time. Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, but the law Kadaga supports would allow harsher sentencing, prohibit the "promotion" of gay rights, and call for the punishment of anyone who funds, sponsors, or abets homosexuality.

After the widely-celebrated success of Pride Uganda last summer—the gathering drew record numbers and seemed to many like a sign of new hope—it’s disheartening to imagine Uganda’s queer community being thrust back into hiding by anti-gay legislation. But was last year’s Pride really an indication of better times for LGBTQ Uganda? And what do Kadaga’s threats really mean to that community?

For insight, I spoke with two people deeply invested in these questions: photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi, whose intimate images of Pride Uganda recently appeared in Dazed Digital and Lens Culture; and Rita, an organizer of Pride Uganda. They helped put Kadaga’s remarks in context—and discussed what Pride means for Uganda’s LGBTQ community in uncertain times.

May 25 2016 10:31 AM

Voter ID Laws Are Preventing Trans People From Voting

It is common knowledge and objective fact that the actual purpose and intended consequence of voter ID laws is to prevent traditionally Democratic votersfrom casting a ballot. This highly effective mode of voter suppression has already successfully skewed elections in favor of white Republicans by blockingpoor, black, elderly, and Latino voters. Now it appears these laws are suppressing the votes of another historically left-leaning bloc: transgender Americans.

While obtaining a valid ID is difficult for many voters, trans people face a special hurdle: In voter-suppression states, they must present an ID. If that ID displays a sex that seems obviously different from their current gender identity, poll workers may turn them away. Yet changing the sex on your ID typically necessitates changing the sex on your birth certificate first. In about a dozen states, trans people can do this fairly easily, with a notarized doctor’s note affirming their transition. (No surgery required.) But then, these states also tend to have progressive voting laws. Most voter ID states—and most states in general—force trans people to have sex reassignment surgery before changing their birth certificate sex. Yet many trans people don’t want or need this surgery. For these individuals, the combination of voter ID laws and stringent birth certificate rules essentially revokes their right to vote.

May 24 2016 1:44 PM

Being Uncomfortable Doesn’t Mean You’re Unsafe

I traveled to Europe last week, where I enjoyed such delicacies as tea and scones with clotted cream in England, paella and local wine in Spain, ancient Roman architecture and art, and, perhaps most refreshingly, blissful silence on the transgender bathroom usage.

Many of the restrooms I used while away were single-stalled and not gender-specific. Even those that were gender-segregated had shared space around the sinks—and guess what, no one was assaulted, mugged, or given the evil eye. I felt perfectly safe peeing next to another human being who just happened to have different bits. 

May 20 2016 12:31 PM

Oklahoma Lawmakers: Religious Students Must Get Their Own Trans-Free Bathrooms

Oklahoma legislators introduced a measure on Thursday that is at once vexingly bizarre and wonderfully clarifying. The bill, SB 1619, would declare a “State of Emergency” in Oklahoma in response to the Obama administration’s directive barring public schools from discriminating against trans students.

Been there, done that, you might think—but wait: The precise mechanism by which the bill legalizes anti-trans discrimination is unusually inventive. Rather than explicitly excluding trans students from school bathrooms, SB 1619 grants non-trans students a right to use trans-free bathrooms. The reason? Non-trans students may have “sincerely held religious beliefs” that using the same bathroom as a trans person violates their religion. And accommodating these beliefs is necessary “for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety.”

May 20 2016 10:48 AM

How the Gay Twist in Neighbors 2 Turns the “Bromance” on Its Head

Spoilers for Neighbors 2 ahead.

Early in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and other frat bros from the original 2014 movie assemble around a poker table. Square jaws and goofy bravado intact, they are a little more domesticated, but no less tribal and demented. Everything is as it should be.


Then something odd happens. Suddenly, several of the men break into a ukulele-led rendition of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and Darren (John Early), a newcomer to the group, takes a knee in front of Pete (Franco). It’s a proposal. Of marriage. Pete says yes, the men kiss, and the camera never cuts away. The proud brothers break into a chant of “USA! USA!!”

The scene is ingeniously direct. There are no weird jokes, just a cute proposal inflected with priceless post-frat touches (see: Mraz, ukulele, inexplicable patriotism). The infectious moment almost distracts us from what’s really going on. Recall that in the original Neighbors, Pete hooked up with women and was carefully coded as heterosexual, even though his most intense emotional (and really, physical) bonds were clearly with his frat brothers. This is the “bromance” contract Neighbors observed: The love between the two men in question (in this case, Efron and Franco) must never become sexual. In turn, the audience, usually young men, giggles rather than asks questions.

By bringing Pete out of the closet without so much as a wink, Neighbors 2 tries to tear down that wall. The proposal scene is beautifully engineered to catch audiences off guard and then disarm them with genuine sweetness and giddy emotion. The sequence feels like a stinging rebuke to years of skittish comedies about male bonds, up to and including the original Neighbors—an unforced triumph in a movie that could have been much safer.  

We can trace the modern bromance movie back about a decade, roughly to the years following 2007’s Superbad, about two teenage outcasts with filthy mouths and an undying love for each other. Comedy about male friendship wasn’t new, but these movies and their mutually adoring heroes felt like a shift after a decade of virulently homophobic frat-pack flicks—Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball, etc.—in which same-sex kisses and man-on-man contact were the ultimate transgression. Seth Rogen, a co-writer and co-star of Superbad who also leads both Neighbors movies, helped usher in this new tide along with his Apatovian ilk, from Pineapple Express to the less subtle I Love You, Man. The movies proved to be a formidable challenge to the Will Ferrell-Vince Vaughn anti-laugh factory. Before long, they became a bit of an assembly line themselves, and they brought their own problems, but they seemed at least to reject many of American comedy’s most toxic gay-panic instincts in favor of newly introspective male relationships.

Or so I thought. Lately, Rogen doesn’t seem so sure. In a widely quoted Guardian interview promoting Neighbors 2, he said:

It’s funny looking at some movies we’ve made in the last 10 years under the lenses of new eras, new social consciousness. There’s for sure some stuff in our earlier movies—and even in our more recent movies—where even like a year later you’re like, “Eh, maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea.” …
There are probably some jokes in Superbad that are bordering on blatantly homophobic at times. They’re all in the voice of high school kids, who do speak like that, but I think we’d also be silly not to acknowledge that we also were, to some degree, glamorizing that type of language in a lot of ways.

Looking back, he’s not wrong. Superbad, now nearly 10 years old, was the first feature Rogen wrote (with his writing partner Evan Goldberg), and the jokes tended to hinge on the fear of sucking dicks, drawing dicks, or just being near dicks. It’s the kind of movie where a character named Fogell inevitably becomes Fagell. There are plenty of other examples in the oeuvre. Take, for instance, Channing Tatum’s cameo as a bottom-boy sex slave in This is the End. Or The Interview, with its truly idiotic scenes where Eminem comes out as gay and James Franco kisses Kim Jong-un. Neighbors itself toggles between gay baiting and gay panic, as when two frat bros grasp each other’s balls during a fight but then have a near breakdown when one of them gets an erection.

But even as they relied on these sometimes-homophobic crutches, the movies really were getting at something new. To a viewer like me—who nearly melted in a college-town theater when Superbad’s wistful teen boys stared into each other’s eyes and declared, “I love you, man”—it felt as if they were priming the audience to accept new modes of male intimacy. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the bromance hit a zeitgeisy high at the same time American pop culture began to question its ideas about male closeness and kneejerk ridiculing of gayness. Gay panic didn’t disappear from Hollywood comedies, but this gentle progress certainly made a difference.

Still, a clear taboo remained, a new code that still seemed to forbid explicit romance. That brings us back to Neighbors 2. Rogen, who reprises his role as a young father warding off the excesses of the Greek house next door, picked up a screenwriting credit this time around, along with his writing partner Goldberg. Goldberg was apparently the one who suggested that Pete “should just be gay,” since he basically was already. Rogen agreed, and so Neighbors 2’s unlikely reveal was born. In their passing acknowledgement that one of these guys could love another one romantically, they dismantled one of the bromance’s foundational constraints. Just like that.

Alas, Neighbors 2 arrives a little too late to mark a sea change—the genre as I have defined it is now in decline, giving way to a long-overdue wave of female-star vehicles and a far less welcome resurgence in frat-pack tendencies. But the moment is still worth celebrating, because it shows how the movie’s homosocial progenitors really did open up new possibilities. It’s hard to imagine the marriage subplot (and that unabashed same-sex kiss) could have made it into a studio comedy aimed at young men a decade ago. We can thank these films for some of that evolution. And on that hopeful note, should there be a Neighbors 3, perhaps Rogen and Goldberg can explore why Pete didn’t get engaged to Teddy (Efron), who showed pretty much the exact same signs of being smitten with his frat brother in the original movie. That’s a wedding I’d truly like to see.

May 19 2016 2:46 PM

Chaos in the House as Republicans Bend Rules to Save Anti-LGBTQ Bill

Remember, way back in July 2014, when President Barack Obama issued an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity? You may not, because by 2016 standards, that’s pretty uncontroversial stuff. But Republicans in the House of Representatives certainly do, and many of them are working very hard to reverse it.

In April, Republican Rep. Steve Russell slipped an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act that would legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination by government contractors. When the House approved the NDAA on Wednesday, Russell’s provision remained. So, on Thursday, openly gay Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney put forth an amendment to nullify Russell’s amendment.

May 19 2016 12:45 PM

One of Trump’s SCOTUS Picks Supported a Revolutionary Pro-Trans Constitutional Ruling

On Wednesday, Donald Trump released a list of judges he might nominate to the Supreme Court, should he win the presidency. Predictably, the list waspacked with reactionary conservatives who would likely use their position to advance the Republican Party’s agenda from the bench. I initially included Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee on the 11th Circuit, in that group; Pryor has, after all, issued rulings against contraceptive coverage and clean election laws.

But as ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley pointed out to me, Pryor also has one strikingly liberal case under his belt: He supported an absolutely revolutionary opinion in 2011 holding that anti-trans discrimination qualifies as sex discrimination and is thus generally forbidden under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Pryor didn’t write the decision—it was authored by Pryor’s 11th Circuit colleague Judge Rosemary Barkett, a liberal firebrand—but he did join it in full, suggesting he endorsed its logic and conclusion. If that’s true, then Pryor, as a Supreme Court justice, would be almost certain to invalidate the recent spate of anti-trans legislation, including North Carolina’s odious bathroom bill.

May 19 2016 10:33 AM

Gender Dysphoria Is Killing Transgender Teens. Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

A 2011 survey of 6,500 transgender people published by the National Center for Transgender Equality revealed that 41 percent of transgender individuals have attempted suicide at least once. Fifty percent of transgender youth will attempt suicide before their 20th birthday.

In an attempt to make sense of these staggering statistics, I spoke to Michael Mancilla, a licensed clinical social worker at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. He told me the story of a 15-year-old patient he had seen the previous day. The patient, a transgender male, was admitted following an aspirin overdose, his third suicide attempt. After speaking to him, Mancilla learned that the attempts were temporally linked to the patient’s menstrual periods. The hormonal changes and the physical and emotional dissonance caused by menstruation were severe enough to lead to suicide attempts.

May 18 2016 10:14 AM

How a 1964 Civil Rights Law Makes North Carolina’s Bathroom Bill Illegal 

The United States and North Carolina are currently engaged in the fiercest legal battle over Americans’ civil rights since the era of integration. At issue this time around are the rights of transgender Americans, specifically, the right of trans students and employees to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity without fear of legal punishment. This battle largely boils down to the meaning of sex discrimination, which federal law forbids in education and employment. The federal government argues that sex discrimination is an expansive concept that encompasses the ways we express our gender. North Carolina insists that sex discrimination is narrow—little more than a ban on mistreatment because of an individual’s “biological sex.”

Gillian Thomas, an attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, is the country’s foremost expert on the meaning of the “sex discrimination” prohibition in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars workplace discrimination. Thomas recently published Because of Sex, the definitive account of Title VII’s sex provision. We spoke on Tuesday about the original intent of the law, its evolution in the courts, and its extension to North Carolina’s new measure. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

How did a ban on sex discrimination in the workplace wind up in the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

In its original form, the law addressed discrimination based on race, national origin, color, and religion. And then, just as the bill was about to be sent to the full House of Representatives for a vote, Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia—a virulent racist who was rabidly opposed to the bill—announced that he wanted to add a sex provision.

It wasn’t a total surprise; Smith had, for many weeks, said he was thinking about adding the amendment. Incongruously, he was a longtime supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and the National Women’s Party. Women’s groups started pressuring him, saying: Listen, if this bill passes, black women will enjoy more protection in the workplace—by virtue of their race—than white women. So Smith was worried that white women might have less coverage, but he also did have a real, genuine support for women’s rights and believed that if this bill was going to pass, women should be a part of it.