Law & the Courts

What I Learned at an LGBTQ Rally: Part 1

A police officer keeps watch at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The LGBTQ activists outside the Supreme Court were a diverse crowd.

Washington, D.C.
‘Equal justice under law” reads the engraving on the front of the Supreme Court, where around 70 campaigners for women’s and children’s welfare (and about 700 LGBTQ activists) were gathered. Yesterday the Court heard three cases related to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace “on the basis of sex.” But as those in attendance know, these decisions will have further implications about whether sex is defined for legal purposes as anatomical, as observed at birth.

The day began at the northeast corner of Constitution Avenue and Second Street. Off to one side were ten people from the Westboro Baptist Church. They held placards saying, “Go and sin no more” and “God hates pride.” Nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to them. In the middle were a diverse bunch holding differently colored flags: Rainbows for LGBT; pink, white, and blue for trans; navy blue and yellow for the Human Rights Campaign (an enormously well-funded LGBT lobby group). Some signs:

  • This is what democracy looks like.
  • The life expectancy of a black trans woman is 35.
  • Break the binary.
  • My faith does not discriminate.

“Hey ho! Hey ho! Donald Trump has got to go!” a man in fishnets, floral shoes, and a pink kippah shouted as another a man draped in rainbows and carrying a megaphone lead the crowds in a chant:

What do we want? Equality?
When do we want it? Now!
What do we want? Equality?
When do we want it? Now!
If we don’t get it — shut it down.
If we don’t get it — shut it down.

Shut what down? I wondered. Just then, a very friendly young man in a “Pride” T-shirt approached. I asked him what brought him out today. “I’m homosexual,” he said. I asked what he thought of LGBT activism. He explained his theory of “social evolution.” First, lesbians were excluded from the women’s movement; then gays and lesbians were excluded from civil rights; now trans people are excluded from gay rights. That obviously needs to change, he said; and it obviously will. What’s after trans? I asked. “Good question,” he said. “You know, I’m not sure.”

I asked if he thought, like Martin Luther King, that it’s healthier for societies to define people by their character rather than by this or that attribute that they cannot control (e.g. sexual desires) and which aren’t even that interesting. He said that this was a reasonable point of view. I asked whether he thought it is bigoted to acknowledge that a man presenting as a woman is still a man, or whether it is hateful to recognize that there are multiple contexts (e.g. prisons, sports, and public facilities) where a person’s sex remains relevant even after they transition. Again, he thought that was a valid perspective. I pointed out that some people in our present company would find the views I’d just expressed abominable. He seemed surprised by this. But, then, this was his first rally.

Wandering through the crowds I then came across a group of four 18-year-old girls. They had just started as freshmen at American University and this was also their first rally. I asked what brought them out here today. To celebrate their queer and lesbian identities and to offer support to other LGBT people! Why all the labels? “Because it gives us a name to how we’re feeling,” one explained. None of them knew what the cases being heard at the Supreme Court were about, but they had a vague idea. They were about discriminating against LGBT people. Which they’re obviously against. How did they hear about the rally? “We found out about this event at our [college’s] center of diversity,” one explained. What’s that? “It’s a really good community for LGBTQ people and their allies.”

Like the first young man, I put the Martin Luther King idea to them. They considered it. “But it doesn’t hurt to respect someone else’s identity,” one said. I agreed but gave a handful of scenarios — real scenarios — in which overlooking a person’s biological sex has hurt people, mostly women and children.

“Well, I don’t know how much we can read into these kinds of one-off cases,” one said. I then walked them through some of the feminist arguments about redefining sex (which they had never heard before). “Are you talking about terfs?” [trans-exclusive radical feminists] “Because terfs are really problematic for a number of reasons,” one said. I gave an example of a “terf” I know, a lesbian who is not attracted to trans women because, though it’s considered impolite to say, trans women are men. Is it transphobic for her not to want to date a trans woman? “A woman with a penis?” At this, the girls became visibly uncomfortable. “Oh, we’re only 18,” one said. “We don’t know so much about the sex stuff. You’d need to ask someone older.”

Near a line of cops blocking the road to the Supreme Court were a handful of quiet people from “the other side.” As far as I could see, only the women’s-rights groups — a.k.a. the “terfs” — had posters and placards, though I knew for a fact that there were concerned parents and citizens standing with them. Several posters had the face of Selina Soule, the 16-year-old female athlete who shot to fame for her stand against her state’s transgender sports policy (which allowed boys to compete in the girls’ athletic category). Other signs read “#SexNOTgender” and “Protect fairness for women.” These attracted the attention of a nearby LGBT activist with a megaphone. She walked over to the front of the crowd and yelled through the megaphone, as close to her perceived enemies as possible: “Go home homophobes!” This was met with much hooting and laughter.

As I sat on a wall, waiting for the cops to move, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two rainbow clad men. They are talking about “terfs.” I turned and asked how they defined “terf.” “A terf is a person who thinks that trans women are not women because they were assigned male at birth,” one explained. The other snorted at the very idea! “They think that women can never have penises. Ever.” I must have looked confused by what is so unreasonable about this belief because he continued: “They think that a trans woman’s claim to womanhood is a violation of their womanhood.”

I asked who he thought was worse — terfs or religious bigots. “Good question,” he said. “But there is no hierarchy of bigotry.” A nearby woman then explained that some feminists have even cooperated with the Heritage Foundation — the greatest of right-wing bogeymen — where (I neglected to tell them) I was speaking the next day.


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