Quora: Transgender Rights Should Not Be Left to the States

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A sign protesting a recent North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access adorns the bathroom stalls at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina May 3. Reuters

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Answer from Jae Alexis Lee, trans woman:

I grew up in the south. Thirty years ago, in southern grade schools, we were taught that the Civil War (you know, the War of Northern Aggression) was a war about states’ rights. We were taught about northern “exploitation” of southern states and… We were taught a bunch of specious nonsense to mask what was fundamentally a war motivated by racism and a desire to maintain slavery.

“States’ rights” is frequently a rallying cry for bigotry, as is “religious freedom” and this has been true for as long as there’s been a United States of America.

In the US, we’ve had a struggle since the founding of our nation between the competing ideas that we are a single nation unified under the federal government and that we are a collection of sovereign states. The founders of our nation fought furiously among each other over this very concept.

If history has taught us a lesson it is that a strong federal government is necessary to protect the rights of citizens. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1968 and the Title IX amendment of 1972, laws enacted at a federal level, have been critical to protecting the rights of women, people of color, immigrants and people of a number of religious persuasions. These laws were passed to help our nation live up to its creed that we are all created equal. Without federal protections, our nation would be a patchwork quilt where citizens of different backgrounds could lose fundamental rights simply in crossing state lines.

We see this again and again and again on civil rights issues. When opposition to protecting a minority is couched in terms of “states’ rights,” the notion of states’ rights is being used to cover decisions motivated by bigotry. It’s one of many that have been deployed recently on transgender issues.

Defending bigotry is hard when bigotry is naked. I want you to stop for a moment and imagine popular support for this statement: “We believe that doctors should have the right to leave children to die if they find the child offensive.” Anyone lining up to support the statement? No? Not surprising. Try this one: “We believe that doctors should not be forced to provide medical care that is against their religious beliefs.” Easier to stomach? The effect is the same. Several states have successfully sued for the right for doctors to refuse to treat transgender patients on the basis of protecting religious freedom. A hospital in New Jersey recently refused to allow a surgeon to treat his transgender patient who needed a hysterectomy due to health concerns related to that patient and a potential complication of hormone therapy. Stop and think about that for a moment: A hospital told a surgeon that he wasn’t allowed to operate on a patient who was dealing with a significant health risk. The hospital’s argument? Religious freedom.

When I talk about trans issues and bigotry piling up bodies I’m often accused of hyperbole. I’m not joking about this stuff. I’ve looked at the data and the case studies, I know what the effect of discrimination and bullying of trans youth is, and I know how significantly that impacts the rate at which trans youth attempt suicide.

Recognizing that Title IX protections apply to transgender students is a vital part of protecting a vulnerable population from horrific discrimination and abuse. When schools do not protect the rights of transgender students, they legitimize the abuse those students suffer from peers and staff, they ostracize the students, and the students suffer not only significant emotional damage but in the case of bathroom access we have high rates of kidney damage and urinary tract issues that result from trans youth not having appropriate bathroom access.

This isn’t an issue of states rights, this is an issue of human rights. We’re talking about protecting children here. How any human being with a claim to a shred of human decency can stand up and say “I support the right of schools to discriminate against transgender children,” I have no clue. But when they stand up and say “This is a case of federal overreach by the executive branch”… well, that’s a different statement, even if it piles up just as many bodies.

Is Trump right to consider the transgender bathroom issue a states’ rights issue? originally appeared on Quora—the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: