“Repent! He needs to repent!”
These words echoed around the halls of Cleveland City Council as a man began yelling dramatically at a woman who got up to go to the bathroom.
Why was he yelling at this woman? Because she was a transgender woman.
This was the scene at a meeting of the Cleveland City Council on whether the city would repeal parts of city law that allow businesses to discriminate against transgender people. The meeting was standing room only, with well over a hundred supporters of equal rights there, but also a vocal opposition.
In most cases, Cleveland’s city laws protect people from discrimination based on gender identity and expression. However, when the non-discrimination laws were passed in 2009 they included a provision that said businesses could still discriminate against transgender people by prohibiting them from using bathrooms, showers, or locker rooms.
For many of us, the bathroom may seem like a trivial part of our daily life, but for transgender people, this license to discriminate has become endemic of the barriers they face on a daily basis.
During the hearing, advocates and members of the transgender community spoke about how their lives are affected by discrimination every day. Many of them have faced being fired, loss of housing, verbal harassment, and even physical violence. Many people mentioned that in the past year, three transgender women were killed in Cleveland. Only a week ago, another transgender woman was brutally attacked in Toledo and hospitalized. This is the daily reality for these people.
The bathroom is one part of the full picture needed to make transgender people feel safe and equal in our communities. If there is any law that allows discrimination against a group of people, how can we expect those individuals to feel respected and protected here?
Cleveland needs to change its laws, but much more needs to happen. As the community has begun to discuss the changes in the law, some of the same hurtful, wrong stereotypes and fears about transgender people have permeated the debate, fueled by sensationalized media. We must begin to change the dialogue around transgender rights to ensure that every person is given the basic human respect they deserve, and not allow misinformation and prejudices to guide us.
This has been an historic year for LGBT rights with marriage equality now recognized in more than 30 states. But we must remember that in Ohio any person may be fired or lose their housing for simply being who they are, and transgender people are particularly vulnerable.