On paper, the current conflict between the U.S. Department of Justice and North Carolina can seem dry, academic even. North Carolina passed a law forbidding trans people from using certain bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The Department of Justice notified the state that its measure violates several federal civil rights laws; North Carolina threw a tantrum, filing a lawsuit against the agency. Then, on Monday, the DOJ struck back, filing suit against North Carolina for infringing on trans residents’ federal civil rights.
The DOJ’s suit is a wonderfully tough, clear-headed document that carefully explains why “sex discrimination”—which is barred in employment and education under federal civil rights law— encompasses gender identity discrimination. Sex, the suit notes, is an incredibly complex concept: “An individual’s ‘sex’ consists of multiple factors, which may not always be in alignment,” including chromosomes, hormones, and gender identity. By distilling sex to the label a hospital put on one’s birth certificate—then restricting bathroom access based on that label—North Carolina “stigmatizes and singles out transgender employees, results in their isolation and exclusion, and perpetuates a sense that they are not worthy of equal treatment and respect.”
“Gender identity is innate,” the suit declares, “and external efforts to change a person’s gender identity can be harmful to a person’s health and well-being.” Then the lawsuit affirms a simple truth that North Carolina has spent months attempting to deny: “A transgender man’s sex is male and a transgender woman’s sex is female.”
That’s all strong and necessary stuff. But you can’t understand the full import of the DOJ’s actions until you watch Lynch’s astonishing speech announcing the lawsuit. Lynch is wry and unassuming in person; on Monday, she was as fierce and passionate as any member of the pantheon of American civil rights defenders. Lynch joined that pantheon on Monday. Her remarks are certainly the most important speech ever delivered on the topic of trans rights by any government official. They are a turning point in the history of LGBTQ rights in the United States, a resounding declaration of the equal dignity of trans Americans.
“This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms,” Lynch explained. “This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them—indeed, to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country—haltingly but inexorably—in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”
Lynch then placed North Carolina’s law in the context of America’s dark history of segregation:
This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. We saw it in fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. And we saw it in the proliferation of state bans on same-sex unions intended to stifle any hope that gay and lesbian Americans might one day be afforded the right to marry. That right, of course, is now recognized as a guarantee embedded in our Constitution, and in the wake of that historic triumph, we have seen bill after bill in state after state taking aim at the LGBT community. Some of these responses reflect a recognizably human fear of the unknown, and a discomfort with the uncertainty of change.
To Lynch, however, this response contradicts basic American values:
But this is not a time to act out of fear. This is a time to summon our national virtues of inclusivity, diversity, compassion, and open-mindedness. What we must not do—what we must never do—is turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans, for something they cannot control, and deny what makes them human. This is why none of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not, or invents a problem that doesn’t exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.
Lynch, who was born in North Carolina, also addressed her fellow North Carolinians directly:
Let me speak now to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my state of North Carolina. You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm—but that just is not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society—all it does is harm innocent Americans.
Instead of turning away from our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, let us instead learn from our history and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Let us reflect on the obvious but often neglected lesson that state-sanctioned discrimination never looks good in hindsight. It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference. We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward. Let us write a different story this time. Let us not act out of fear and misunderstanding, but out of the values of inclusion, diversity, and regard for all that make our country great.
Finally, Lynch reached out to the trans North Carolinians who have been targeted and stigmatized by their state’s sudden turn toward intolerance:
Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy—but we’ll get there together.
This is a historic moment. North Carolina has elected to declare war on trans people’s civil rights—and the Obama administration has chosen the side of equal dignity for all. Lynch may be an ally rather than a member of the community, but it’s clear that she deeply empathizes with the trans movement’s fight for justice. To the states that would deny trans people fundamental rights because of their identity, to the governors who would defend their animus-fueled laws with chicanery and pretext, to the lawyers who would line up to reverse trans Americans’ hard-won civil rights, Lynch has an unmistakable message: Not on my watch.