We Are All Diminished By Discrimination
A Letter to the Massachusetts State Legislature:
My name is Arjuna Greist and I live in Greenfield, Massachusetts. I am a musician, a genderqueer woman, and a Unitarian Universalist.
I am writing to urge you to support An Act Relative to Equal Access in Hospitals, Public Transportation, Nursing Homes, Supermarkets, Retail Establishments, and all other places open to the public, introduced in the Massachusetts State House by Representatives Carl Sciortino and Byron Rushing and in the Senate by Senators Ben Downing and Sonia Chang-Diaz. This proposed law would prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation. These are venues that all sorts of people use every day, including hotels, nursing homes, polling places, and convention centers.
I imagine that the majority of testimonies you will hear in support of this bill will focus on how it will positively affect the lives of transgender and transsexual citizens. People like my partner, people like many of my friends, people who are under constant threat of violence and discrimination for engaging in perfectly legal and often vital activities such as eating in restaurants, voting, shopping, taking a bus or taxi, and going to the hospital. This bill, when it becomes a law, will make the Commonwealth more fair, more free, and less dangerous for my partner and my friends.
What you may not realize is that it will also make Massachusetts more fair, more free, and less dangerous for you. Though those in the trans* community will undoubtedly benefit in profound and life-saving ways from this law, it is not actually a law banning discrimination against trans* people. It is a law banning discrimination due to gender identity and/or expression, which, though some are more conscious of it than others, applies to every single one of us; we all have gender identities, and we all express those identities in a myriad of ways. When we measure up to the idea of how a particular business owner, police officer, administrator, doctor, poll worker, paramedic, mall cop, waiter, or bus driver thinks we should look and act, then there is no problem. It is only when someone decides that we do not fit neatly enough into their definition of masculine or feminine that discrimination – which at least results in denial of services and often leads to humiliation, harassment, arrest, assault, disenfranchisement, medical negligence, and even death – enters the picture.
When authority figures in public spaces have legal power to discriminate against anyone whom they judge to be expressing their gender in a questionable or incorrect manner, we are all at risk. It does not matter if you traveled the average path from girl to woman. If you have short hair, or don’t shave your legs, or prefer pants to skirts, or forego wearing make-up, or assert yourself boldly, there is someone waiting to tell you that your expression of womanhood does not match up to their standards or their dress code, and that you have to leave. You can bring out a photo album and show evidence of your lifetime membership in the masculinity club from blue bunting to boy scouts, but if someone in charge thinks long hair doesn’t belong on a man, or that men shouldn’t wear pastels, or that men ought not to dance so flamboyantly, or they draw the line at any other arbitrary gender marker they deem inappropriate, you are out of luck and out on the street, without legal recourse.
There is a lot of attention in these debates given to public bathrooms, with fans of discrimination theorizing endlessly and histrionically about all of the terrible things that will happen if everyone is allowed to choose for themselves the most comfortable and appropriate restroom without fear of harassment or arrest. They assert that illegal behavior such as stalking, spying, or sexual assault will somehow magically become legal. They fear that no one will think of the children, dismissing the lives of trans and genderqueer youth – kids I think about every day. They ignore the fact that everyone needs to relieve themselves, even if their gender identity doesn’t match the accepted definition of normal. They pretend that, when one of my friends goes into a public restroom, others in that restroom are somehow in danger. The sickening, infuriating, sorrowful truth is, due to the discrimination enshrined in our culture and supported by current law, the only person in potential danger is the one judged to not belong. That judgment, though most often and most devastatingly aimed at trans* people, can be brought down on anyone.
With the passage of this law, Massachusetts would send a clear message to its citizens that all people are entitled to feel safe in their communities and to be offered the full protection of the law, regardless of their gender identity or expression.
By offering protection in places of public accommodation where people experience harassment and discrimination, this law would increase productivity, freedom, and safety for employees, customers, residents, and students.
If we are to keep our commonwealth’s reputation as a leader in civil rights, we need to join the many communities – including the states of Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine – that already provide protection in places of public accommodation on the basis of gender identity and/or expression.
We are all diminished by discrimination, and we are all at risk.
This post was written by Arjuna Greist, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and member of the UU Society of Northampton and Florence in Northampton, Massachusetts. Arjuna is also on the steering committee of the People’s Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle. You can find more of Arjuna’s work at www.facebook.com/arjunamusic.