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It was March 3, 1901, when George Henry White left office. After serving two terms in the House of Representatives, the North Carolinian saw the writing on the wall shortly after the Wilmington riots and opted not to run for a third term. It would be nearly 30 years before another Black person would be elected to Congress.
One of White’s last acts in office was the introduction of an anti-lynching bill that would make that act a federal crime. It didn’t make it out of the Judiciary Committee. Another attempt to make lynching a hate crime, the Dyer anti-lynching bill, was blocked by filibuster in 1922 with the New York Times providing this glimpse into the victors’ corner courtesy of Sen. Lee Slater Overman (D-N.C.): “the good negroes of the South … do not need it.”
There have always been men like Lee Slater Overman. Weaselly elected officials who help destroy the lives of those most in need of a champion. Sometimes their motive is political. Sometimes it’s personal bias. Regardless of why they do it, the how is the same: dehumanization.
That process was on full display last week during both the House hearing on the Equality Act — in which Republicans repeatedly vilified the T in LGBTQ — as well as in the Senate confirmation hearing for Rachel Levine, President Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of Health, who would become the first openly transgender official confirmed by the Senate.
This does not bode well for the Equality Act, which offers new protections from discrimination for LGBTQ people. It needs support from 10 Republican senators in addition to every Democrat in order to reach President Biden’s desk. So far, no Republican senator has expressed support, which probably explains why Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has not set a timetable for a vote.
Unless he is willing to reform the filibuster rule, it is unlikely that Congress — which last year wasn’t even able to pass legislation to outlaw something as universally condemned as lynchings — will agree to protect the lives of transgender Americans.
And be not mistaken, that is what’s at stake here.
Republicans now recognize that Americans are far more accepting of differences in sexual orientation than they were 10 years ago. You know — back when members of Congress insisted that repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would destroy our military or argued that a lesbian couple getting married in San Diego would somehow devalue a heterosexual marriage in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Of course, this is not to say that lesbians, queer and gay people are not subject to discrimination — we absolutely are in 27 states that don’t offer legal protections — but the attack on transgender people in the legislative debate has been particularly venomous. The Lee Slater Overmans of today have decided to prey on people’s fears about gender identity as a sure way to block the Equality Act.
In some ways, this reflects politics across the spectrum until fairly recently. In the past, the transgender community struggled even to gain full support from gays and lesbians. But seeing members of Congress go after the trans community, the most vulnerable population, as a tactic to deny rights to all is just reprehensible.
It’s even more outrageous when you watch opponents of the Equality Act try to hide their bigotry behind religious freedom — the very same people who were silent about religious freedom when Donald Trump imposed a Muslim travel ban or said nothing when he called anti-Semites marching in Charlottesville, Va., “very fine people.” These opponents talked about protecting religious freedom as if LGBTQ people were godless.
Or consider this: Many of the lawmakers, who are taking aim at transgender women, claim they are standing up to support female athletes. Yet the same people — now supposedly defenders of women’s rights — have year after year blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would address the country’s gender pay gap, or want Roe vs. Wade overturned. They spoke of keeping women safe, as if lesbians were not women worthy of protection.
Give me a break.
The pattern is always the same. Scare the majority by dehumanizing the minority — in this case, transgender Americans.
“Hearing elected officials denigrate and disparage trans athletes often through the absence of facts, or, worse, the perpetuation of incorrect 'science' is exhausting and infuriating,” said Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender athlete to complete in NCAA Division I men’s athletics. “Trans folks rarely get the space to just be. That is, my identity should not be political. But until we are allowed our rights and are respected for who we are, simply living as a transgender person is a political statement.”
During last week’s confirmation hearing for Levine, who was previously Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) did not ask about pandemic health policy at a time when COVID-19 has killed more than 500,000 Americans. Instead, he focused his time on the genitalia of trans minors. Paul was also the main figure holding up the anti-lynching bill last year.
In a sick and twisted way, one has to appreciate these bigots’ commitment to the process. No matter how despicable the remarks, no matter how history will judge them, the Lee Slater Overmans will not budge.
And honestly, why should they? White introduced the first anti-lynching bill 120 years ago and Congress still has not passed one.
Admittedly, I still foolishly believe the role of Congress is to help people realize the American dream, not offer more nightmares. My fear is the Senate will prove me wrong — again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.