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Essay

Backstory: Log Cabin

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director

MYNA: Maybe you cared about something at some point, when you were struggling, but as soon as you got a foothold in society, as soon as your own rights were taken care of, you just (making a ‘shwoomp’ sound and gesture) — out the window.
– Jordan Harrison, Log Cabin

In the landmark case of Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke (1977), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of affirmative action policies in the college admission process — policies that were advanced after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and, at the forefront of the opposition, surprisingly, stood several major American Jewish organizations. Twice denied admission to UC Davis’s medical school, Bakke, a white student with strong credentials, filed suit claiming that the program’s policies, which included a quota that called for a minimum of 8% black students, were in violation of the rights of white students. Seeing that the same systemic racism that pervaded college admissions had, just a few decades prior, prohibited so many Jews from attending college, it’s counter-intuitive that the Jewish community wouldn’t fight unequivocally for the cause of those experiencing the same obstacles they’d so recently encountered themselves; but not only did they vocally support Bakke’s case, many liberal Jewish groups even aligned themselves with right-wing conservative groups like Young Americans For Freedom. “We feared that our hard-earned right to be admitted on the merits would be taken away,” wrote ubiquitous lawyer/celebrity Alan Dershowitz, who assisted the American Jewish Committee on their pro-Bakke brief. “The WASP quotient would be held constant, and the Jews and African Americans would be left to fight over the crumbs.”

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Rewind to 1880, by which point millions of Irish refugees, having fled their home country in the dismal wake of the Great Hunger only to encounter horrific poverty and prejudice on the shores of America, were beginning to establish an economic footing and social status in American cities. That year, New York City elected William R. Grace, an Irish immigrant, as its first Roman Catholic mayor. But when massive numbers of Italian immigrants began to arrive in America later this same decade, facing the same poverty and prejudice, the Irish resented their intrusion, getting in line to condemn the Italians as an inferior people. Despite every apparent commonality between these two stigmatized groups — not the least of which, their Catholicism — they clashed bitterly, violently in the new world, such that the Brooklyn Eagle finally asked in an editorial, “Can’t They Be Separated?” One account from 1896, from an unemployed Italian shoe-shop worker in Boston: “It got so that an Italian couldn’t walk along the street without getting beat up. It got so that an Italian would never walk down the street alone.”

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Rewind 20 years. In 1866, a year after slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, the short-lived American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was founded to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex” and led by a diverse roster of the most prominent reform activists of that time, including Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, and Susan B. Anthony. While some of these reformers saw the political upheaval post-Civil War as an opportunity to radically redefine American citizenship along gender as well as racial lines, others worried that the issue of women’s suffrage would distract from the cause of black rights — totally dismissing, of course, the cause of black women’s rights — and that the enfranchisement of black men was an achievable first step toward universal suffrage. This schism, initially drawn along gender lines, destroyed the antebellum alliance of the AERA progressives and eventually divided the movement along racial lines; Anthony and Stanton, once leaders of the abolitionist movement, ultimately found themselves in coalition with Southern racists like Belle Kearney, a renowned white supremacist who led the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in their pursuit of the vote.

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Fast forward to a 2016 study published by the Association for Psychological Science (“Stigma Based Solidarity”), in which two social psychologists try to take stock of patterns of derogation between stigmatized groups, presumably in hopes of prompting a stronger spirit of commonality. “Perceptions of contexts as zero-sum or otherwise competitive may shape the emergence of coalitions,” they muse (in a chapter titled “Caveats”). “For example, perceiving that a similarly low-status out-group is increasing in status or resources tends to evoke more negative attitudes toward the ‘progressing’ group. Conversely, shared economic concerns (e.g. poverty) positively predict support for coalitions among stigmatized groups. Overall, intraminority coalitions are more likely if both groups can attain better outcomes together (i.e. they have common goals) compared to if only one group can attain a valued goal.”

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Back to 2007 when, looking to secure passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), those leading the charge for lesbian and gay rights were willing to sacrifice protections for their transgender comrades: the crucial “T” in our movement’s namesake, who fought beside us at the Stonewall rebellion. The LGBT movement has historically framed its struggle as a fight for basic human rights; our most powerful lobby is notably called the Human Rights Campaign, not the Gay Rights Campaign. The last decade has seen an astonishing enfranchisement and mainstream acceptance for homosexuals, but the transgender community continues to face acute marginalization and antipathy. “There is little to no discussion in mainstream media about what’s at stake in the fight for basic transgender rights,” Meredith Talusan argues in The American Prospect, “which is that trans people are dying at alarming rates both of their own and in others’ hands, because they are constantly subjected to transphobia — often brutally exercised. Now that many media outlets have gays and lesbians in positions of power, but far fewer trans people in comparable positions, the representational gap between gay and trans people has become increasingly glaring.”

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Somewhere in Brooklyn, in a posh apartment with a rooftop deck, in Jordan Harrison’s newest play, a group of friends is trying really hard to understand each other while, as Dershowitz bleakly put it, fighting over crumbs. How nice that we can learn from the struggles of our predecessors. 

LGB[T] Civil Rights Timeline 

We’ve compiled a brief timeline of LGBT civil rights in the United States that foregrounds the long-underrepresented “T” in that iconic acronym. Of course, this reflects just some of the many milestones that comprise a rich history of transgender activism and visibility. 

1952 Christine Jorgensen becomes one of the first transgender Americans to publicly undergo gender affirmation surgery.
1961 Illinois is the first state to decriminalize homosexuality.
1966 Trans women push back against police harassment at a California diner during the Compton Cafeteria Riots.
1969 Facing harassment and discrimination, trans women, gay men, and myriad other members of the LGBT community clash with the police at the Stonewall Inn. This is widely considered to be the birth of the modern LGBT rights movement.
1973 The American Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in the DSM-II.
1975 Minneapolis is the first US city to pass a law prohibiting discrimination against trans people.
1982 Wisconsin is the first state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
1993 Minnesota is the first state to extend legal protections against discrimination to trans people.
1993 President Clinton signs “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law, prohibiting openly queer Americans from military service.
1996 President Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act into law, banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
2000 Vermont is the first state to legalize civil unions between same-sex couples.
2001 Rhode Island is the second state to extend legal protections against discrimination to trans people. (Only 20 states now do so.)
2010 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.
2014 The Department of Health and Human Services mandates that Medicare cover gender affirmation surgery.
2014 The Department of Justice rules that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to claims of workplace discrimination based on gender identity.
2015 The Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide.
2016 The Secretary of Defense announces intentions to lift the ban on trans people from military service.
2016 North Carolina’s HB2 law is passed, compelling people to use public toilets that correspond with their gender assigned at birth.
2017 The District of Columbia includes a gender-neutral option on driver licenses.
2017 President Trump rescinds guidelines allowing trans public school students to use toilets and locker rooms corresponding with their gender identity.
2017 President Trump announces that trans people will be prohibited from enlisting in the military. Two federal judges rule against this prohibition.
2017 North Carolina’s HB2 “Bathroom Bill” is overturned.
2018 The Pentagon confirms that the first openly trans person has signed a contract to join the US military.
2018 The Trump administration issued a memo that would bar transgender people from serving in the military, while giving the Pentagon some discretion over how the policy is carried out. As of the bulletin’s print date, the Pentagon has not publicly responded.