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Patchwork of Rights

While the Constitutions’ Bill of Rights and subsequent Amendments lay out a swath of important laws and mandates for the citizens of the United States, they are broad and left open to the interpretation of the judicial branch. In fact, our rights as citizens cannot simply be defined in earnest by the Constitution alone. Using the guidance of the founding document, our laws are written on both the state and federal level, creating a patchwork of rights for the citizens of this country. This patchwork, ever growing, has been slow to recognize the rights of people who were neither white nor male. And despite the fact laws have been enacted to protect and endow greater rights to marginalized Americans, those rights have often not so easily been wrested from the hands of those in the majority.

Photo courtesy of Victoria Stauffenberg/NPS

While civil rights movements have helped further propel the rights of discounted Americans forward for a century and a half, the communities for whom the laws were written see progress in dribs and drabs. From Black Americans to women to queer people to Native Americans to disabled Americans to immigrants, these groups have been paid lip service as laws have been enacted, but not enforced. Or, as is the case with many civil rights and social justice movements, the “Big Tent,” in order to push for greater justice for the whole, overlooks the important, yet smaller parts of their movements whose rights may be most at risk. Take for example the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1960’s and ’70’s, which created the space to celebrate, recognize, and greater protect the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. While the movement did provide advancement for most,  a group of individuals included in the rainbow acronym remain the most vulnerable and have been too often left out: trans individuals. 

From every ethnicity, race, and religion, trans and gender variant people exist and have existed throughout history. While European cultures that came to dominate the American continents historically only recognized two genders, and often punished gender nonconformity, various native peoples did not ascribe to such binary terms, as is the case with other cultures around the world. Whether hidden in plain sight for fear of retribution or actively leading a lifestyle that was supported or at the very least not punished, trans individuals have and always will be a part of the fabric of society despite efforts to suppress, harm, and disenfranchise them. 

Photo by Mike Von/Courtesy of Unsplash

However, despite being leaders of the Gay Liberation Movement and gaining better recognition through the last several decades, the patchwork of rights that has extended to parts of the gay community, has yet to grace trans people with important human rights. And despite recent Supreme Court decisions which render workplace discrimination illegal, there are no laws currently in place that protect trans individuals from discrimination elsewhere. In fact, in the absence of federal law, state legislatures have passed — or are working to pass — legislation that further undermines their rights as human beings. And during the Trump administration, guidance has been issued on the federal level which barred trans service members from the armed forces, challenged their access to homeless shelters, created guidance against trans athletes, and actively worked against protections put in place for trans students. 

Trans people have been vilified by heteronormative society for too long but also actively ignored in the communities that should be there to support them. Because of this, of the two million plus trans people living in the United States, 29% of them find themselves living in poverty, which is probably because 27% of them have experienced workplace discrimination (firing, passed over for promotions, harassment). Nearly half of all trans people have reported harassment by the police and about the same percentage have reported experiencing abuse from their partners. About one third of trans individuals have identity documents that do not match their gender presentation or their name and therefore face a host of issues from an inability to travel, difficulty registering for school or other services, or challenges with voting for fear of harassment, intimidation, or violence. These issues stem from both a lack of education about the trans community and a lack of legal protections. 

This patchwork of American rights has seemed to work for most individuals, but ultimately they work best for cisgendered straight white men, who make up 31% of the population. Every other group of people is left to fight for their inclusion in this patchwork. And while laws and legislation to harness change are by no means created overnight, we have seen examples in American history where change has moved expeditiously. 

Photo courtesy of Boston National Historical Park/NPS

Almost a year after President Kennedy gave his report to the American people on civil rights, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights act of 1964 into law. This legislation moved through both houses of Congress in five months time to create a landmark law which has affected the course of this nation in incalculable ways. But the law, for as much good as it did at the time, does not fully protect the people who need it most today. In order to amend the current laws and extend these protections to trans individuals and the rest of the gay community, the House of Representatives has introduced and passed the Equality Act, which seeks to provide consistent and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people. This law would encompass protections in areas of employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service. Not only that, but it would help to show in good faith to the global community, that the United States’ policies seek to enrich the lives of their citizens rather than rob them of basic freedoms.

While the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” are certainly noble goals, nowhere are they guaranteed as law. While these achievements have come easily for some, in the history of our nation, most have had to fight, and fight hard, for their rights. As a country, we have reached another opportunity to expand the rights of others, to better protect Trans Individuals and to more fully protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community at large. We must not only recognize the importance of these legal protections but the humanity, dignity, and worthiness of these individuals. We cannot claim to be a great nation, one of diversity and differences, if we do not support, uplift, and protect everyone equally. And we are living through a moment that highlights the fact that a patchwork of rights will no longer suffice for all current and future people of America.

Header photo: courtesy of NPS

Dustin Ballard and Michael Ryan are the co-hosts and co-creators of Gaze at the National Parks, the Podcast, a show that features one hiking trail in one national park, one park at a time.

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