Visible Activism Key to Protecting Trans People From Discriminatory LawsRoundup
tags: discrimination, activism, transgender, LGBTQ history, disability rights, Disability Movement
Shay Ryan Olmstead (they/them) is a doctoral candidate researching U.S. queer labor history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
This month, Alabama lawmakers passed two bills that prevent trans youth from medically transitioning and from using bathrooms or locker rooms that align with their gender identity. More than 200 similar bills have been introduced in state legislatures in the first three months of 2022 alone; almost half of them specifically target trans people. Supporters of these bills ground their arguments in “biological facts” and claim that they protect vulnerable members of society — especially women and children.
In the past, LGBTQ activists have successfully challenged such efforts, by lobbying legislators and governors to quash bills before they make it into law, and then, when laws pass, by filing lawsuits. This has proved to be a winning strategy. LGBTQ legal organizing has successfully convinced legislatures and courts to rule favorably on issues such as same-sex marriage, open participation in the military and employment nondiscrimination, among many others.
But as judiciaries grow increasingly conservative, this strategy may prove less effective. In fact, fighting anti-LGBTQ injustices solely within the legal system has not always been enough to kill discriminatory legislation or, critically, to turn the tide of public opinion. The LGBTQ community learned this as it tried to use new laws designed to protect disabled Americans in the 1970s and 1980s to fight discrimination.
Crucially, these laws were the culmination of visible public activism that helped change popular ideas that bodies look and function in “fixed” ways, forcing legislators and judges into action.
Throughout the 1950s, it was legal and common practice to segregate disabled people from abled society. This created a cycle: disabled people were prevented from physically accessing public spaces and their absence from these places helped push a narrative that disabled people were “biologically” inferior, automatically dependent and unable to provide or care for themselves.
But by the 1960s, disability rights activists in San Francisco, Denver, Washington, Boston and other places banded together and demanded change. They argued that their limited participation in society resulted not from biological inferiority but rather from deliberate segregation — in the forms of institutionalization, prejudice, inaccessible architecture and infrastructure, discriminatory government policies and unfair employment practices.