By LaLa Zannell, Trans Justice Campaign Manager, ACLU
When the House of Representatives votes on the Equality Act on Friday, 50 years after Stonewall, our elected representatives will be engaging with one of the most urgent legal questions for queer people: how our lives should be protected under by federal law.
If you’ve never had to stop and think about whether a visit to a business or an attempt to access a public service will result in an uneventful transaction or end in humiliation or even death, you may not understand the need for protections like the Equality Act. But for me and my queer community, passing the Equality Act could give us a freedom and security that we have never experienced.
Opponents have said that LGBT people don’t need federal protections, since states can and have passed their own versions. But even in states where these laws exist — like New York — discrimination is still all too common. My own story is proof of that; at every stage of my adult life, I’ve been affected by the kinds of discrimination this bill would outlaw.
As a Black trans woman, when I finished school in Michigan and began looking for a job, I could only find seasonal employment. Every time I would get an interview for a permanent position, the call back would never come. I tried everything — including dressing up as a man — to try to get a job. Every time, I was rejected. I grew up poor and had been doing sex work on and off since I was 15 to support my family. But this time, I ended up homeless, and had to do sex work full time.
I watched so much violence happen around me in Michigan, but it was when I was almost killed that I decided to leave. One night, a client tried to rob and assaulted me; my clothes were ripped off, and if my cousin, who was also doing sex work, hadn’t been nearby and driven me home, I don’t know what would have happened. I knew then that I had to move or that I would die in Detroit.
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So, I moved to Atlanta in 2004, hopeful that it would be a fresh start. And it was: I started working at Starbucks to support myself — until I lost my job for being trans.
I had been working at my Starbucks for a year and half and had never gotten into any kind of trouble at work or even been written up. Although I hadn’t legally changed my name yet, I was able to go to work as my authentic self, and use my pronouns and my name.
But then I had to transfer to a different Starbucks, and my new supervisor began to bully me. It began as subtle microaggressions: She’d refer to me using the wrong pronouns. Then, it started to escalate. She’d deny my gender, out loud and to other people. If I had a nice conversation with a customer, she’d question them loudly enough that the rest of the store would hear. “Why are you being so nice to him? You know that’s not a girl, right?” Customers would complain on my behalf, but it would keep happening. If I tried to speak up, she’d call me “that crazy trans person.”
I loved working at Starbucks and needed the job, so I elevated the problem through the barista support services, eventually taking a meeting with my supervisor and employees at a corporate office, hoping we could talk and the harassment would stop. But throughout the meeting I was gaslit, treated as though I were crazy, told my experiences were wrong and hadn’t happened. Even my colleagues who’d witnessed the discrimination wouldn’t speak up for me. They were promoted; I was fired for “insubordination.”
Finally, a friend told me to come to New York explaining that, in New York, unlike in Georgia, I would have the ability to legally change my name, and that there were shelters and housing for economically vulnerable women like me. But the discrimination — and danger — followed.
At a women’s shelter, people threw trash on me while I was in the shower and poured bleach on my bed, ruining a blanket I had gotten from my late grandmother. But the staff refused to respond, saying that I was a “man” in a woman’s shelter.
And it was in New York City that I experienced hate-based violence for the first time in my life. I was with a group of gay and queer friends outside of the Stonewall Inn when several straight men came up and started harassing us. When I moved to defend my friends, the men physically attacked me, beating me and putting me in the hospital. We called the police, but they never came. It was yet another painful lesson that even in New York, I wasn’t safe.
And it changed how I move through the world; now, I rarely go anywhere alone: If I go to a restaurant or the movies by myself, I’m overwhelmed by anxiety. If go into a store, I have to wonder if I’ll be publicly misgendered and humiliated, like when I was in a New York City Macy’s — as recently as 2018 — and an employee created a public spectacle by calling over his colleagues to come “see” me because I was “a man.”
If the Equality Act is passed, I will be able to go into a store and know that if something happened to me, I would have federal law on my side no matter what state I was in. I could go comfortably into a job interview knowing the process would be fair or there could be consequences. If I got sick or injured, I could go to the emergency room confident that they couldn’t turn me away or delay my care because of my gender.
The Equality Act wouldn’t put an end to transphobia, but it could begin to put an end to fear. It would tell transgender and queer people around this country that our rights are grounded in law, and that when we are harassed, discriminated against or mistreated, the law will protect us. It would give legal rights to our humanity that are consistent, explicit and nationwide. It would allow the LGBT community to move forward, and to grow and live in every corner of the country.
All that we’re asking for is, just like our cisgender and straight friends and family, to be able to go through our daily lives as our full selves without fear. I can only hope that Congress sees that such equality isn’t too much to ask.
LaLa Zannell is an transgender rights and anti-violence activist, currently serving as the Trans Justice Campaign Manager at the American Civil Liberties Union