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Transgender Legal Director Addresses Utahns

Utah’s many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations have long had a close relationship with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in part because Executive Director Kate Kendall is a native Utahn who returns to the state regularly to update members of the community at large on NCLR’s work.

Another of the law center’s frequent visitors is Legal Director Shannon Minter. As a guest of Transgender Education Advocates, Minter, a transgender man, returned to the Beehive State this month to give a lecture as part of Transgender Awareness Month.

On Nov. 13, Minter and 10 members of Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including TEA leaders Christopher and Teinamarrie Scuderi gathered in the Salt Lake City & County Building’s council chambers for the talk, during which Minter discussed subjects from anti-gay and transgender bullying to a recent trip to China to work with lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocates. There he attended a secret conference in a hotel basement in which 420 people attended and visited a support center organized by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

“They were so excited and proud of what they’d done,” said Minter, noting that the center was located in a rundown building to prevent authorities from finding it (homosexuality is still highly stigmatized in China). “They had this big rainbow flag and had given each color a symbolic meaning. … They put their mission statement up [on the wall] in English because they didn’t want authorities to walk in and know what was going on.”

“Since I came back, I wanted to honor their courage and they made me realize, even though we lose sight of it here, we are part of this movement of LGBT people over the world to stand up for ourselves and be treated with dignity and respect,” he said.

Minter then shifted his focus to the United States, onto reports of student suicides following anti-gay bullying that have rocked the country since September. One problem with the media’s coverage of these suicides, he said, was its lack of examination about how family rejection and societal homophobia and transphobia also drive young gay and transgender people to suicide. He praised a recent move by group’s such as Dr. Caitlin Ryan’s Family Acceptance Project to see the families of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning as allies, rather than enemies. The best way to do this, he said, is not to engage in debates over the morality of homosexuality, but to tell families that “when you say or do these things [like telling their children that homosexuality is sinful] you’re hurting your children and you’re hurting us.”

To underscore this point, Minter discussed his own coming out experiences — first as lesbian and then as transgender —  and the way his family from “a small community in Texas” reacted, and how that reaction changed. He said he was crushed when his family told him not to come and visit because they would be humiliated and would have to move out of town. After seven years of abiding by their wishes, Minter said he missed them too much and finally went for a visit.

“I still remember when my grandma saw me and hugged me and said she loved me. She did not care that I was transgender,” he said.

Rather than forcing his family to move as they had feared, Minter said his hometown “was wonderful” and helped his parents to accept him. A year before his father died, Minter said that he referred to him for the first time as his son in front of other people, and said that he was proud of the work he was doing at NCLR.

“That meant the world to me, and even at my age, I felt it gave me so much strength,” he said. “I thought, ‘What if I’d had that as a child or even as a young adult?'”

Minter also discussed the change in juries’ attitudes in transgender murder cases in which he had participated. In the 2002 trial of Gwen Araujo’s murder, he said that the prosecutor’s insistence on not referring to Araujo consistently as “she” had “an alienating effect on the jury and dehumanizing and hard on Gwen’s family.” Ultimately, that case went through two trials, the first resulting in a hung jury and the second in a second-degree murder conviction for two of the three suspects, without a hate crime enhancement.

By contrast, Minter said that he and NCLR were able to change this behavior in the trial of Angie Zapata’s murderer, Allen Andrade, in 2008.

“Having sat through Gwen’s trial, we reached out to the prosecution and they were very open,” he said. “We worked with them and talked to them behind the scenes and said, ‘Look, whatever you do, you have got to respect who Angie was, and when you’re presenting this case, you have to get it right in your head and be clear with the jury that she was female and used female pronouns and do not deviate from that.’”

“And they did that and put her family up there to testify,” he continued. “Her family totally thought of her as a woman. And her sister — the defense  kept trying to say, “you mean your brother?” And she would say, “You mean my sister.” It was so powerful.”

Unlike Araujo’s case, the jury convicted Andrade of first-degree murder with a hate crimes enhancement.

“That is the first time there has been any prosecution of a bias-motivated crime against a transgender person in this country, and it’s still the only one, actually,” said Minter.

Finally, Minter described a strategy that California Equality has used that would be useful in Utah. After encouraging lesbian, gay, and bisexual cisgender (non-transgender) people to be good allies to transgender people, Minter encouraged the entire community to be good allies for all oppressed people.

“Equality California managed to pass so much positive legislation for community by being a good ally to other communities,” he said, noting that the United Farmworkers played a key role in California’s Legislature’s vote to legalize gay marriage in 2005 (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed this move, however).

“What tipped the balance was the United Farmworkers talking to a couple of the legislators that they worked closely with and pushing them to do the right thing on t hat vote,” said Minter. “That was because Equality California had so strongly supported the United Farmworkers in their boycott of [E&J] Gallo Wines.”

The passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, which re-banned gay marriage just months after the State Supreme Court struck down the ban, “galvanized all these other communities to come to our aid,” Minter continued.

“It has really strengthened the connections between LGBT groups and other social justice groups to an amazing degree actually,” he said.

Minter then opened the floor to questions, which ranged from the possibility of working with the LDS Church to end anti-gay and anti-transgender bullying, President Barack Obama’s successes in granting rights to gay and transgender people, and legal strategies he has employed in arguing that transgender parents should retain custody of their children.

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