From Courtrooms to Bathrooms, Trans People Made Major Progress in 2015

Transgender rights were expanded across the country, but the victories were set against a backdrop of continued violence.

In 2014, the University of California designated gender-neutral restrooms at its 10 campuses to accommodate transgender students, in a move considered one of the first of its kind for a system of colleges in the United States. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Dec 14, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

A young girl skips to a bathroom stall in her Mary Janes, school bag in tow. Ominous music escalates as an adult man emerges from the toilet beside hers, then follows her into the stall as her eyes widen. “Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day,” a narrator’s voice warns. “No one is exempt—even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom.”

This fearmongering television ad from a group called the Campaign for Houston, among others, helped defeat the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in November. Narrowly characterized by opponents as “the bathroom bill,” the law would have provided nondiscrimination protection for 15 classes of people, among them transgender men and women who would have been able to use public bathrooms that matched their gender identities.

The ordinance’s defeat was a setback for transgender advocates, but it arrived in a year in which gains for the transgender community made regressive campaign rhetoric like that seen in Houston seem increasingly out of touch.

FULL COVERAGE: How 2015 Changed the Future

Celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner graced magazine covers in 2015, pushing transgender people into mainstream American pop culture in an unprecedented way. But members of the long-marginalized community have a way to go before they achieve equal treatment across the legal and social spectrums—or even the right to peacefully live their lives. A spate of hate-motivated killings across the country that took the lives of more than 20 trans women of color this year prompted some to call the deaths an epidemic.

Although the increased visibility of the hundreds of thousands of trans Americans hasn’t caused this pervasive violence to abate, it has in many ways been a historic year for trans rights. While glossy mag covers and reality TV captured the spotlight, the next chapter in this movement is likely less TMZ-friendly. The battle for rights in 2016 and beyond will more likely focus on seemingly mundane, everyday things, like which bathroom trans people may use, what gender is stated on their driver’s license, who their doctor is, and how their health care is paid for. Early progress on all these fronts in 2015 will define the trans rights battle for years to come.

In contrast to Houston’s anti-transgender defeat, transgender student Gavin Grimm waged a successful fight to use the boys’ restroom in his Gloucester County, Virginia, school.

“All I want to do is be a normal child and use the restroom in peace,” Grimm, 16, told resistant parents at a school board meeting. “I have had no problem from students to do that, only from adults. I did not ask to be this way, and it’s one of the most difficult things anyone can face.”

Grimm’s legal battle to use the boys’ restroom at his high school won the support of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, which filed a brief in support of his right to use the correct restroom—and such support was something of a trend when it came to trans legal battles in 2015.

“We’ve seen a consistent drumbeat of support from federal agencies,” Sasha Buchert, a staff attorney at the San Francisco–based Transgender Law Center, told TakePart.

Bills targeting transgender youths have popped up in states such as Kentucky, Minnesota, and Texas, where legislatures have tried to require kids to use school bathrooms consistent with the gender on their birth certificates. Thanks in part to the clever #WeJustNeedToPee social media campaign waged by transgender men and women who shared selfies of themselves in bathrooms inconsistent with their gender identities, all of those bills were defeated. But advocates continue to keep an eye out for regressive legislation.

Under the watch of Eric Holder and later, Loretta Lynch, the Department of Justice repeatedly stepped up to support transgender people challenging discrimination. The department weighed in on the lack of adequate health care provided to Georgia transgender inmate Ashley Diamond and supported Leyth O. Jamal’s fight against employment discrimination—firmly reminding her employer, Saks Fifth Avenue, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.

In April, federal support came from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the case of Tamara Lusardi, a transgender employee of the U.S. Army who was repeatedly barred from using the women’s restroom on the job after her transition. The EEOC established that Lusardi had been unlawfully discriminated against and ordered the Army to provide her with damages and require sensitivity training for all employees and supervisors in her workplace. The Department of Labor has since cited the decision in nondiscrimination guidelines for employers.

Beyond the battles waged to permit Lusardi, Grimm, and many others to safely use public facilities that align with their gender identity, access to health care remains a tremendous hurdle for many in the trans community. While the Affordable Care Act was heralded for its extension of health care coverage to trans people, the reality is that many state insurance agencies deny coverage for trans-specific medical needs such as hormone therapy and surgery. Yet in 2015, more states steadily began to offer equal benefits to insured transgender people, according to Buchert.

“So many trans people are on their state [insurance] plans because of employment discrimination, so it’s really critical that they can get the care they need,” Buchert said. Transgender people are more than twice as likely as their non-trans peers to be unemployed, in large part because of discrimination by employers based on gender identity, according to research from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

New York, Nevada, Maryland, and other states issued bulletins establishing these rules, extending health care to thousands of people. The impact of these wins is difficult to measure, owing to a substantial lack of official data tracked by government agencies on the number of transgender people—a void that poses a challenge for informed policy-making efforts.

Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, an inmate at Mule Creek State

Prison in California, became the first inmate in state
history to seek gender reassignment surgery. (Photo:
California Department of Corrections and

For the incarcerated transgender community, access to health care can be even more restricted. Noteworthy successes in the courtroom pushed the ball forward for trans men and women behind bars this year, though implementation of new policies remains a challenge. In April, a federal judge ordered California to pay for transgender inmate Michelle-Lael Norsworthy’s sexual reassignment surgery and ruled that the denial of her medical needs was a violation of her constitutional rights. In Ashley Diamond’s case, the Justice Department established that state corrections departments must provide gender-affirming health care, including hormone therapy, for prisoners with gender dysphoria.

“Now that we have a clear policy, it will make sure that folks who are incarcerated have access to constitutionally adequate treatment,” Buchert said of Norsworthy and Diamond’s cases. “This is a huge breakthrough not just for transgender folks but for all people who are incarcerated.”

Buchert noted that courtroom wins don’t always translate into reality for transgender people. While an increasing number of states require insurers to cover transgender medical care, for example, many individuals still have to appeal their coverage after being denied care. While more states are requiring insurers to cover this kind of health care, some states limit the types of surgery and treatments that are covered for transgender people—a battle that will be fought beyond 2015.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to create a lived reality along with these policy victories for people of all gender identities and for gender nonconforming people,” Buchert said. “We’re definitely on the radar in a way that we never have been with our opposition, so we’ve seen a record number of bills attacking transgender people this year.”