Being in the Room—The Equality Act

Witnesses from left to right: Kimberly Shappley, Patrick Hedron, Lawrence Lorber, and Sarah Gallagher Warbellow.

Witnesses from left to right: Kimberly Shappley, Patrick Hedron, Lawrence Lorber, and Sarah Gallagher Warbellow.

By Sullivan Haine

When I attended a Congressional hearing on the Equality Act, a piece of legislation aimed at banning gender and sexuality-based discrimination on the federal level, I burst into tears at least three times. Though I come from Maryland, where discrimination based on gender or sexuality is illegal, but in 29 states, it is still legal to be fired based on gender identity or sexuality, according to this map of LGBTQ+ protections in the U.S.

Of the four witnesses testifying on April 9th at the subcommittee hearing for Civil Rights and Human Liberties, only one had any concrete experience in discrimination based on gender. Kimberly Shappley, mother of eight-year-old Kai Shappley, recounted her journey from Christianity-based transphobia to acceptance of her trans daughter. The two had to move across the state of Texas so that Kai could access public schools without being harassed after socially transitioning.

It was Mrs. Shappley’s heartfelt and emotional testimony that moved me to tears. “The kids are counting on us to get it right,” she said, and I saw myself in the young trans child sitting behind her coloring a picture. I wished someone had seen me for who I was as a younger child.

Though I looked around the room and saw other trans individuals attending the hearing, I saw only cisgender people testifying. This worried me. While I am more comfortable in the crowd as a trans journalist, I feel as though there were no trans voices for me to include in my piece.

We, the trans and gender nonconforming, are those who would be most affected by the passage or failure of this bill. The lives of transgender children in the education system, like Kai, depend on the results here. No one should have to move across the state to access education without worrying about harassment or bathrooms.

The Shappley family’s story spoke to me, and I fought back tears for myself and every other trans kid who’s had to live through American public school, in or out of the closet. But besides that family, all I saw were lobbying groups. My heart sank.

The other three witnesses were from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Human Rights Campaign, and a local D.C. law firm. NAM representative Patrick Hedren discussed the benefits of the bill for both employees and employers, because it would allow LGBTQ+ people more freedom of movement without fear of losing their jobs. Sarah Gallagher Warbelow of the HRC argued along the same lines.

Lawyer Lawrence Lorber argued that definitions of “gender identity” under the law were too broad and would be used to damage businesses and religious settings.

I’ve faced little blatant transphobia in my lifetime, because of my various intersecting privileges:  my whiteness, passing male privilege, and middle-class background all contribute to my success in a system that is designed to make LGBTQ+ people—particularly feminine-perceived people of color—uniquely disenfranchised.

That’s why I almost couldn’t believe, looking at the Ranking Republican Rep. James Comer, that someone could look at a room of people affected by and in support of legislation, and ignore them. As the bill is still in small stages on Capitol Hill, Comer was the only Republican in the room for most of the hearing. A knot grew in my stomach as I watched the questioning continue.

“Would a public college or university have to award him [a trans woman] a scholarship or award that might otherwise go to a woman?” Rep. Comer asked lawyer Lawrence Lorber. “Would schools have any recourse to protect the rights of women?”

Let’s unpack what he said: first it wrongly implies that trans women are not, in fact, women. His rhetoric echoes that of TERFs, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who are often denoted as claiming that trans-positive activism is “anti-lesbian” and/or “anti-woman,” as this article from NBC illustrates. Secondly, he blatantly misgenders and dehumanizes the fictional trans woman he’s imaging stealing a scholarship from a more deserving cis woman.

In most hot-button trans issues, from bathrooms to sports teams, transgender people are inevitably painted as the aggressors, infringing on the safety of cisgender people.

Rep. Comer also asked leading questions about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and how this bill would harm the rights of individuals to religious freedom. He expressed concern that this act would bar discrimination against LGBTQ+ people within churches.

And I couldn’t see the hearing all the way through.  After roughly two hours, my brain hurt. My self-deprecating thoughts had grown just a little too loud, and I had to leave.