As we reach November and recognize Transgender Awareness Month, we do so at a time when our community is under attack in many ways. For the last few years, legislation has been brought forward in incredible numbers in states across the country that aims to deny us our rights and existence, school boards are under attack for recognizing who we are in name and pronouns, and city councils are under attack for having public drag shows. And with all the attacks, our safety becomes a more significant concern.
The push against us has started with the rise in bills, especially targeting our youth. In 2019 there were only 25 transgender-related bills, which has risen to 60 in 2020, 131 in 2021, and an alarming 155 this year. Extremists have used us to drive political agendas and are broadening their attacks to be across the community. A national “Don’t Say Gay Bill” was recently introduced in the House.
If they are going to make us political, we need to be political to defend ourselves.
Over 20 years ago, Utah community leaders recognized the need to be able to work in our legislative environment to defend against harmful legislation and to advocate supportive and needed legislation. The organization that would become Equality Utah was then founded. Since then, Equality Utah has worked at the legislature year-round, developing relationships, pushing forward affirming legislation, and defending against bad legislation. This is important as a lot of the hard work is done outside the well-publicized six-week general session at the start of the year.
In that time, they built alliances including the ACLU, GLAAD, NCLR, and many local experts. They also formed the Transgender Advisory Council to bring the voices of community leaders to the efforts given the rise of focus on this community. This year, they have brought on a dedicated Policy Director who has worked with us for years in the same role at ACLU but will now be fully dedicated to our issues. All these people and organizations are brought together working as partners, led by the Equality Utah executive director.
This is how we have a point organization that leads our community’s legislative efforts. And when we bring the strengths of our local and national organizations along with our local experts, we build partnerships that give us the strongest voice. As a note, my work in state-level advocacy was started by creating a partnership between Equality Utah with both the Utah Pride Center and TEA of Utah while I was the board chair of those organizations so that we could all work together. This is how I know it works.
While being a part of this team, I have often had friends reach out and offer their voices to speak at committee hearings. This is always highly encouraging as we need many engaged in our collective voice. I want to present that opportunity and what it looks like when committee hearings occur, as it has been consistent over the last several years.
When an LGBTQ+-related bill is brought before a committee, you can be assured that there will be a crowd. Additionally, there will typically be a lot of committee discussion due to the increased attention given to LGBTQ+ bills and that there are a lot of misunderstandings about our community, and it shows.
The problem that then happens is that the committee will set aside time for each bill being discussed and often go beyond that time allotment for LGBTQ+ bills. To manage their time, they will often limit testimony to one or two minutes per person and limit the number of people. A majority of the time, these opportunities are available either from the committee chair identifying specific expert witnesses or from members of the public signing up on a list to speak, and then the committee chair allows speakers until time has expired for the topic. With that, we have relatively limited control over speakers, and that is mainly recommending experts.
To give context, we just had an interim committee session where the committee discussion went long and was already over time once they turned to the public for comment. The chair stated he would allow four people to testify for one minute and ultimately allowed six people to speak. Think about that, just six minutes for an important topic. This demonstrates that we cannot limit our voices to just committee hearings as it falls far short of the voice we need. I will absolutely encourage everyone to come to committee hearings as it is important to have as much, or greater, showing than the groups that wish to have bills passed against us. But realize only a percentage of us get the opportunity to speak.
So what do we do to be effective? There are many ways in which we can impact the push against us. We do have to realize that this is part of an educational process for our legislators, who are learning about many of the bills they review. If they have no experience with our community, they are subject to what they hear during the proceedings, which includes from the public and in their caucuses.
This takes us to the important first effort. We always hear that we need to talk with our legislators. I want to emphasize the importance of this. Once we get to the committee, the legislators have already heard a lot, and I certainly suspect, in a number of cases, have made up their minds. So we have to be further out in front to be effective.
In reaching out to them, I have some advice. I want to note I have no intention of tone-policing anyone, so take the recommendations as what I feel are the most effective. I understand the hurt and anger from these efforts and how that translates into our interactions.
Connect with your legislators of whom you are their constituents. This is not a one-time email, but an ongoing development of a relationship. In time, they will remember your name and, as such, will note when they have emails or calls from you, and that regular interaction will embed in their memory more.
As a recommendation, try not to yell, swear, or call them names. I assure you this pushes them away instead of getting them to listen, and it not only takes away your voice, but a preponderance of this also becomes their view of the community as a whole. We do hear this from many of the legislators. Certainly, they are getting the same from those attacking us and are not telling us that fact, but if we are better received, we have a stronger voice with them. Is this fair when we are confident we have our rights and existence under attack? No, it isn’t, but we are in a divisive time and trying to get a foothold in holding back the wave of efforts against us. So as much as we can, we need to adapt.
If you have a queer child who you feel is in a good enough place, consider bringing them to a discussion with your legislators. Legislators hear opposite positions from adults on both sides, and they may not know what to believe. But hearing the thoughts of our youth often touches hearts and minds. I can name specific legislators that have moved on transgender issues, and meeting our youth was a large part of that.
Not all the work we can do needs to be with our legislators. Often we hear family and friends state things that show they are misinformed about our community. Sometimes we just move along, either to not engage in conflict or, for many community members, we can only absorb so much. When possible, it is good to educate others. They are also talking to our legislators, so if we can start changing their voices, we change the overall input the legislators are hearing.
To help this, it can certainly be done in a manner to make it less confrontational and still quite effective. For example, if you want a political party to win an election, you are not really going to win by spending time arguing with the most extreme of the other party. The win happens more by influencing the middle.
The same is true here. I see some spend all of their emotional energy arguing with the extreme opposite side. All the while, there are those in the middle who are really thirsting for solid information and experience and these are the minds we can impact and with a resulting swing to the majority, create a better position for our efforts.
I have a saying many have heard: Education Brings Knowledge; Knowledge Brings Understanding; Greater Understanding Brings Social Change. I firmly believe that if we keep educating and focusing on those who can be moved, we can have the change we need. This doesn’t happen overnight, so we have to keep at it. But it will be achieved. If you are uncertain, look at the progression of change from Proposition 8 to Marriage Equality being won, to now over 70 percent of the population supporting Marriage Equality.
We can do this!
Sue Robbins – Equality Utah Transgender Advisory Council, Past Board Chair of the Utah Pride Center and Transgender Education Advocates (TEA) of Utah