North Carolina governor's ignorance of trans identity
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North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has doubled down on his support for H.B. 2, the discriminatory bill requiring public school students to use restrooms for the gender they were assigned at birth. Recently, he filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice alleging gross overreach after Attorney General Loretta Lynch imposed a deadline for him to stop the implementation of the discriminatory bill. In response, the DOJ filed its own lawsuit against the state, alleging a “pattern or practice of employment discrimination on the basis of sex.”

But what’s worse than the discriminatory bill itself, and the millions in taxpayer dollars McCrory is wasting to defend it, is that the governor signed it after admitting he had never met a transgender person. Although McCrory later walked his statement back, the message he sent was clear: the actual experiences of transgender people have no place in a debate over their basic rights.

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It’s a message we hear far too often. This brand of ignorance deliberately shuts out the perspective of an already marginalized community. It’s dangerous, and it goes beyond bathrooms. As the father of two children, I would hope their world is free of discriminatory, hateful legislation like North Carolina’s.

Forcing transgender people to use the bathroom of a gender with which they don’t identify isn’t just inconvenient or impractical. For many, especially young students still grappling with their transition, it can be traumatic, and at worst, unsafe.

The failure of McCrory and other lawmakers to see this is a failure of compassion, a failure to recognize the difficult and frequently unwelcoming world transgender people must navigate every day, stigmatized by the fear and ignorance of others.

Fighting that stigma with love and empathy is at core of what we do at the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Our funding supports programs to fight AIDS by investing in resources for the most vulnerable populations because we recognize, no matter how many miracle drugs eventually appear, nothing will change until they can reach the people who need them most.

Transgender women are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population. That statistic on its face is startling, but when you consider the societal barriers these women face, it’s hardly surprising. Rampant employment discrimination pushing many into sex work as their only option for economic survival, lack of access to quality healthcare, constant discrimination — it all adds up to create these overwhelming odds. These are the issues McCrory and our other elected officials should focus on addressing. 

Similar failures of compassion work against the rest of the LGBT community, against racial minorities, and against anyone our society deems less than worthy because of their differences. All of them are people who need our compassion most.

The communities we support are vibrant and resilient. They persist in spite of the difficulties the world throws at them. They produce powerful networks and remarkable advocates, and EJAF’s goal is to support them. Casa Ruby, for example, is a drop-in community center offering a safe space, housing and housing referrals, legal services, counseling and more to empower trans people in Washington, D.C.

Our grantees, like Casa Ruby, are often led by people who come from the communities they serve, which means they are intimately familiar with the problems they’re trying to solve.

Shouldn’t our elected officials be able to say the same about the problems they’re trying to solve? Stigma and shame drive some of the biggest problems facing society’s most marginalized populations. An unacceptably high percentage of LGBT teens are severely bullied. Only 30 percent of Americans with HIV reach viral suppression, many too ashamed to seek appropriate care. The transgender homicide rate is at an all-time high, driven by fear and prejudice.

To address these problems, our leaders must first acknowledge their existence, as well as the existence of the people affected. And yes, that starts with bathrooms.

Just a few weeks before McCrory signed his discriminatory bill, similar legislation in South Dakota took a very different turn. Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who also admitted he’d never met a trans person, had a change of heart about a discriminatory bill he’d originally supported. Why? He agreed to meet with transgender activists. He credited those meetings with giving him a new perspective. “I heard their personal stories,” he said, “and I saw things through their eyes in that sense.” 

McCrory and others who support these discriminatory bathroom bills need to reverse course, but moreover, they need a lesson in compassion. They need to recognize the existence of trans people, and they need to acknowledge that all people have a fundamental desire — and a fundamental right — to be treated fairly.


Elton John is founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, a global leader in the fight to end AIDS.