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June 28, 1969. With no civil rights protections available for LGBTQ people and rampant harassment and brutality by law enforcement against our community and LGBTQ establishments, a group of brave men and women — including two transgender women of color, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson — stood up to the New City Police Department and determined that they were not going to take it anymore.
We have come a long way since June 1969 and it’s important to take into account the critical battles that have since been fought and won for LGBTQ rights — legal victories that would not be possible without the incredible courage shown by members of our community at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. In 1969, a person could be fired from a job, denied an education and be turned away from businesses open to the public, merely on the suspicion of being LGBTQ.
Today, 21 states have laws that specifically protect LGBTQ people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, Michigan continues to not be among them. However, clearly support for LGBTQ people has grown over the past five decades and today in Michigan more than cities and townships have local human rights ordinances that prohibit LGBTQ discrimination.
In May 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, (MCRC) issued an interpretative statement that said that LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, in violation of our Michigan civil rights laws, based on gender stereotyping. This now makes it possible for LGBTQ people who have suffered discrimination to file a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which is governed by the MCRC. This interpretation is consistent with federal court case law, where we have won significant LGBTQ gains.
In 1996, the Supreme Court of the United States in Romer v. Evans for the first time acknowledged that LGBTQ people had constitutionally protected rights, including the right to be protected from the government when it purposely targets us for discriminatory practices and policies. Another hard-fought victory occurred in 2003 where SCOTUS struck down laws the criminalized same-sex sodomy. Such laws had been used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people, defining us solely by our presumed sexual behaviors. In Lawrence v. Texas, SCOTUS held that the constitutional right of privacy regarding sexual intimacy between two consenting adults extends to LGBTQ people, ending the practice of criminalizing our community. A decade later SCOTUS struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of legal marriage between same-sex couples in Windsor v. U.S. This was the first time that the Court spoke about the dignity of LGBTQ relationships and the harm that is done to our families, including our children, when our relationships are denied recognition and legal protections. This decision set the template challenging laws like Michigan’s that denied LGBTQ people the right to marry one another, culminating in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which held that the fundamental constitutional right to marry and enjoy the benefits of marriage includes same-sex couples.
And yet despite these many victories, many challenges remain. Opponents of LGBTQ rights have found allies in the current Trump Administration in their quest to roll back gains that have been made for LGBTQ equality. Three cases involving LGBTQ rights will be heard by SCOTUS this Fall. One of those cases is ours — involving Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who was fired from her job at a Detroit area funeral home for disclosing that she is transgender.
In a reversal from the Obama Administration, the Trump Department of Justice is arguing that LGBTQ people are not protected under sex discrimination laws. Because of the DOJ’s reversal, several federal agencies have rescinded discrimination protections for our community, and the Trump Administration along with Senate Leader Mitch McConnell are attempting to remake our courts with judges who are not only conservative on social justice issues but have issued decisions that are anti-LGBTQ rights. This Administration has launched a fully fledged attack against transgender people, with among other things, a trans-military ban and HUD rules that permit federally funded homeless shelters to turn away transgender people, in the name of “religion.” The Administration has also introduced a medical “conscience” rule that permits medical providers to refuse to provide medical care to transgender people. In addition, it has issued a proposed rule that states that the Affordable Care Act does not protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in accessing medical care and health insurance coverage.
Along with these political, legal and policy challenges (many the consequence of the 2016 Presidential Election), the murders of trans women of color continue to occur at alarming rates. Nine murders have been reported this year so far nationwide, and that number is most likely undercounted. With all the progress our community has achieved, Michigan’s Hate Crimes law still does not acknowledge crimes of violence motivated by animus towards LGBTQ people.
So as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion and recognize the contributions and significant roles that transgender people played in this demonstration, let’s recommit ourselves to fighting for our rights and dignity and refuse to allow our opponents to roll back the clock.