As protesters continued to demonstrate outside the governor's mansion Tuesday, Gov. McCrory hand-delivered to them a plate-full of cookies—a gesture that many reproductive rights supporters have interpreted as condescending.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a long fought-over package of abortion restrictions Monday evening. As protesters continued to demonstrate outside the governor’s mansion the following day, McCrory hand-delivered to them a plate-full of cookies—a gesture that many reproductive rights supporters have interpreted as condescending.
The protesters at the governor’s mansion “came up with an off-the-cuff chant: ‘Hey Pat, that was rude. You wouldn’t give cookies to a dude,'” The News & Observer reported.
Irene Godinez, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund, called the gesture “incredibly bizarre,” a sentiment picked up by Planned Parenthood Action Fund. The group tweeted out an image of a plate of cookies with the words “Governor McCrory: I’ll take health care, you keep the cookies.”
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The reproductive rights advocates who began their “veto vigil” against SB 353 on Monday, changed gears—and decades—Tuesday, asking participants to don ’60s-era Mad Men-inspired costumes to evoke the days before Roe v. Wade. Advocates held a similar action early in the 2013 legislative session in protest of a bill that would have allowed employers to refuse coverage for birth control in their employees’ insurance plans.
As Paige Johnson, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Central North Carolina, said in a statement, “We will not go back to a time when access to safe and legal healthcare as well as basic voting rights were reserved for the privileged few.”
In what promises to be one of the most closely watched legal showdowns of the year, North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed dueling lawsuits against one another on Monday, each asking a federal court to determine the legality of the anti-trans bathroom discrimination provisions in the state’s recently enacted HB 2.
HB 2 is the grossly discriminatory law that overturns local anti-discrimination laws, bans cities or counties from setting a minimum wage for private employers, and mandates that access to restroom facilities in schools and publicly owned buildings be restricted to the gender on a person’s birth certificate.And even with the relative lack of legal precedent relating to trans people’s civil rights, if history is any indication, North Carolina very well may find itself on the losing end of this fight.
During a Monday press conference, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the DOJ would be filing a lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction to block the bathroom discrimination provision of HB 2 and accused North Carolina of creating “state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security—a right taken for granted by most of us.”
Speaking directly to the transgender community, Lynch said, “[N]o matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
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The DOJ had previously given North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) the opportunity to avoid the expense and hassle of defending a lawsuit against the United States. Principal Deputy Assistant Vanita Gupta gave McCrory an ultimatum in a letter last week: Confirm that the state of North Carolina would not“comply with or implement” HB 2, or risk a civil rights lawsuit and a curtailment of the nearly $861 million in federal funds North Carolina receives annually. Gupta gave the state until this last Monday to think about it and to notify employees that, consistent with federal law, they are permitted access to bathrooms and other facilities that align with their gender identity.
McCrory responded by filing an utterly pointless lawsuit. North Carolina could have easily saved itself thecost of filing, told the DOJ that it would move ahead with HB 2, and just waited to be slapped with a lawsuit. The cases are going to be consolidated anyway. But wasting taxpayer dollars in the persistent effort to oppress marginalized people seems to be a favorite tactic among states with nothing better to do.
Instead of confirming that he would stop the campaign against trans people, McCrory sued the Obama administration in federal court in North Carolina for its “radical reinterpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which would prevent plaintiffs from protecting the bodily privacy rights of state employees while accommodating the needs of transgendered [sic] state employees.”
Title VII prohibits sex-based employment discrimination, among a number of other protections. According to the tortured analysis in McCrory’s complaint, the DOJ is “ignoring the bodily privacy” of state employees, particularly women and girls who, as a result of bathroom equality, could be vulnerable to assault by any sexual predator claiming to be a woman in order to gain easier access to their prey, despite the fact that there is not a single reported incident of a trans person assaulting anyone in a bathroom.
McCrory’s complaint cites a handful of cases out of the Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal, all of which stand forthe proposition that Title VII doesn’t protect transgender people as transgender people per se, and that it doesn’t protect people with “sexual identity disorders.”And besides, McCrory argues, even if transgender employees are covered by Title VII, the statute doesn’t prohibit employers from balancing special circumstances they pose with “the right to bodily privacy held by non-transgender employees in the workplace.”
Even setting aside McCrory’s problematic intimation that transgender employees don’t have the same “right to bodily privacy” that cisgender employees do, McCrory’s complaint misses the point.
The issue is not discrimination against transgender people for being transgender people, but rather, as the DOJ pointed out in its letter to Gov. McCrory, the issue is that discrimination against transgender people is discrimination based upon sex, and discrimination based on sex is a violation of Title VII.
Citing the landmark decision Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Supreme Court made it clear that discrimination on the basis of “sex” includes differential treatment based on any “sex-based consideration,” the DOJ noted that federal courts and administrative agencies have applied Title VII to discrimination against transgender individuals based on sex, including gender identity.
In Hopkins, plaintiff Ann Hopkins said she had been denied a promotion at work because she was “too macho.” Her employer told her that she should wear makeup, style her hair, and act more feminine. Six members of the Supreme Court agreed that such comments were indicative of gender discrimination, and held that Title VII barred discrimination because of biological sex, but also barred gender stereotyping—discrimination based on someone failing to act and appear according to expectations defined by gender.
It makes sense that the same principle would apply to transgender people. Ann Hopkins was treated differently at work because she expressed her gender in a manner that did not conform to arbitrary societal standards. Similarly, transgender people who are prohibited from using the bathroom that conforms to their identity are being treated differently than cisgender people, because transgender people, as far as some of the courts are concerned, are not expressing their gender in a manner that parts of society deem suitable.
As the 11th Circuit noted in the 2011 case Glenn v. Brumby, “[a] person is defined as transgender precisely because of the perception that his or her behavior transgresses gender stereotypes. The very acts that define transgender people as transgender are those that contradict stereotypes of gender-appropriate appearance and behavior.”
If cisgender people can use facilities for people who share the biological gender with which they identify, then it is discriminatory to deny transgender people that same personal dignity. Full stop.
McCrory doesn’t seem to understand this and is stuck on the notion of “biological sex”: In his complaint, he protests that “North Carolina does not treat transgender employees differently from non-transgender employees. All state employees are required to use the bathroom and changing facilities assigned to persons of their same biological sex, regardless of gender identity, or transgender status.”
One can imagine making the same argument with respect to, say, racially segregated bathrooms: “All state employees are required to use the bathroom and changing facilities assigned to persons of their same race.”
And one hopes McCrory would agree that such an argument would fall flat on its face.
Ultimately, the fight between the United States and North Carolina is about more than just bathrooms. It’s also about conservative panic about the seeming cultural lawlessness of the Obama administration.
Conservative commentators are caterwauling that the Obama administration is rewriting Title VII and its sister act, Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972—which prohibits discrimination in schools—to advance a transgender agenda. They complain that transgender people are not a protected class under Title VII or Title IX, and that extending the anti-discrimination protections found in those statutes to transgender people requires Congress’ stamp of approval.
Notably, McCrory’s complaint is silent on Title IX, presumably because the Fourth Circuit (which is where North Carolina sits) announced last month that it would defer to the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines, which require schools that receive public funding to permit transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The Obama administration reaffirmed this guidance in a letter to public schools on Friday.
The primary complaint of McCrory and his cronies is that the Obama administration is redefining “sex,” and that the new definition far exceeds anything that Congress could have contemplated when it enacted the twin statutes in 1964 and 1972. McCrory’s complaint about the “radical reinterpretation” of Title VII underscores that point.
But that’s not necessarily true. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing Title VII under the Obama administration, isn’t redefining “sex” for purposes of the prohibition against sex discrimination in Title VII. Not really. Rather, the EEOC has given the term some context in light of Hopkinsand similar cases, in which courts have recognized that sex discrimination includes gender stereotyping.
And the EEOC is well within its right to do so. In 1997’s Auer v. Robbins, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal agencies are entitled to interpret their own regulations as they see fit, as long as their interpretation isn’t erroneous and doesn’t conflict with the plain language of the statute or regulation.
Assuming the North Carolina federalcourt follows the Auer rule, McCrory won’t have a legal leg to stand on.
McCrory will likely argue that Congress did not intend the term “sex” to mean anything other than “biological male” or “biological female.” But certainly the EEOC’s more expansive interpretation—that sex includes gender identity—is not contradicted by Title VII or by congressional intent. Indeed, the legislative history regarding Title VII is rather sparse because the prohibition against sex discrimination was a last-minute addition to its protections.
Title VII initially was conceived to prohibit racial discrimination in the workplace. Rep. Howard Smith (D-VA) introduced an amendment to add sex discrimination protections to Title VII a mere two days before the House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on it. Smith, who was a vocal opponent of civil rights for Black people, was considered a staunch supporter of women’s rights. (How he felt about Black women—or whether he even knew that they existed—is anyone’s guess.) So any discussion of congressional intent with respect to sex discrimination and Title VII is going to be short-lived.
An argument could certainly be made that Congress was not contemplating that “sex” would mean anything other than “male or female” and that it didn’t intend sex discrimination to encompass gender identity when it passed the statute, but if there’s nothing in the legislative history, then who can tell?
Besides, as a wise man once said, “Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”
That’s Justice Antonin Scalia writing the majority opinion in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, a case involving male-on-male sexual harassment. Scalia noted that “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII.”
Almost assuredly, neither was transgender bathroom access, but that doesn’t mean denying transgender people the dignity of using a bathroom aligned with their gender identity is not a “principal evil” prime for redress under Title VII.
After all, if it’s good enough for Scalia, it should be good enough for Gov. McCrory.
A recent lawsuit filed by two transgender North Carolinians may offer an opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to expand the reach of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to include transgender people. In the lawsuit, Carcaño v. McCrory, Joaquín Carcañoand Payton McGarryhavechallenged the constitutionality of the bathroom provisions of HB 2, North Carolina’s newly passed law that, among other things, prohibits transgender people from using public restroom facilities that align with their gender identity.
The law singles out transgender people and denies them a benefit that cisgender people enjoy—the ability to use public restrooms consistent with their gender identity—and so it seems to be a fairly straightforward violation of the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits singling out a specific group of people for mistreatment under the law. That said, the Court has not yet weighed in as to where gender identity discrimination fits into the Equal Protection Clause. The speed with which state legislatures are passing bathroom discrimination bills, however, suggests that it won’t be long before the Court is asked to do so. Without constitutional protection, more of these policies targeting transgender people will continue to be implemented throughout the country.
Despite a long history of unjust discrimination against transgender people, lower courts have time and again refused to deem them a protected class because, in their estimation, transgender people—or “transsexuals,” as much of the case law describes them—are not a “discrete and insular minority.”
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Since the Court first articulated the concept in the 1930s,it has developed hallmark characteristics to determine which “discrete and insular minorities”—otherwise known as “suspect classes”—require special assistance from courts when it comes to laws that discriminate against them, and how much assistance courts should render. These are groups that have historically been subjected to discrimination, groups that are a small percentage of the population and therefore in danger of tyranny by the majority, and groups with “immutable characteristics,” a term coined by the Court to describe things like race and gender.
Black people, for example, are a suspect class according to Supreme Court jurisprudence. Laws that target them for discrimination will rarely pass constitutional muster because the strict scrutiny standard, which requires that the law be narrowly tailored to promote a “compelling government interest,” is a difficult hurdle to surpass. In other words, if a law singles out Black people for different treatment, the government must have a damn good reason why, and the Court is going to start from the presumption that the government’s reason still isn’t good enough.
Women, on the other hand, are a “quasi-suspect class”: The Court has determined that laws targeting women for unequal treatment may pass constitutional muster, if the laws are substantially related to an “important government interest.”
But when it comes to transgender people, most courts have refused to call them a suspect or quasi-suspect class.
Determining that trans people should be protected by the courts does not require an academic discussion about the immutability of gender identity, however. All it requires is common sense.
The suicide attempt rate for transgender or gender-nonconforming people in the United States is 41 percent, compared to 4.6 percent among the overall population. The unemployment rate in the trans community is double what it is for the country as a whole. Violence against trans people, trans women of color in particular, is staggering, as are poverty levels. Transgender people aren’t adequately represented in government bodies, and due in partto their small numbers, they lack the political power to prevent laws that discriminate against them from being passed.
Just look at the way HB 2 was rushed through the North Carolina legislature: On February 22, the Charlotte City Council approved an ordinance that would amend existing public accommodations policies to include protection from discrimination based on “gender identity,” “gender expression,” and “sexual orientation.” A month later, after a quasi-emergency legislative session, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) was already signing a law stripping away those protections and preventing any other cities from enacting similar ordinances at a cost of approximately $42,000 to North Carolina taxpayers. The law is so apparently unconstitutional that Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, refuses to defend it, calling it a “national embarrassment.”
This rush to strip LGBTQ people of rights is a case study in the rule of a tyrannical majority over a “discrete and insular minority.” Indeed, it is difficult to think of a group of people more deserving of the “suspect class” label than transgender people.
But for reasons that no court has been able to articulate satisfactorily, laws that discriminate against transgender people—some of the most vulnerable members of our society—have generally not warranted a stricter examination than rational basis review, which rarely results in legislation being struck down.
In 1977, for example, in a case called Holloway v. Arthur Andersen & Co., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that “transsexuality” did not meet the indicia of a suspect classification because transsexuals are not a “discrete and insular minority” and because the plaintiff in that case did not establish that “transsexuality is an immutable characteristic determined solely by the accident of birth, like race, or national origin.”
Occasionally, lower courts have lumped gender identity in with biological sex, although trans and cis women can face different kinds of oppression.In a 2011 case, Glenn v. Brumby, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that “discriminating against someone on the basis of his or her gender non-conformity constitutes sex-based discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause.” The terms “protected class,” “suspect class,” or “quasi-suspect class” are not found anywhere in the opinion.
Because of all that uncertainty, transgender people have often turned to suing under claims of employment discrimination in violation of Title VII, or education-based discrimination in violation of Title IX. And they’ve found success, even as the courts sidestep the protected class issue.
This is because a 1989 Supreme Court case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, recognized a Title VII cause of action for discrimination based on an employee’s failure to conform to stereotypical gender norms. (Title VII and Title IX cases are often analyzed using the same set of legal principles.)
In 2004, in a case called Smith v. City of Salem, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the Price Waterhouse theory to “transsexuals”: “[d]iscrimination against a plaintiff who is a transsexual—and therefore fails to act and/or identify with his or her gender—is no different from the discrimination directed against Ann Hopkins in Price Waterhouse, who in sex-stereotypical terms, did not act like a woman.”
However, this tactic is not always successful. In Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh, a transgender man was repeatedly sanctioned for using the men’s bathroom and locker room after being told that he was no longer permitted to use those facilities. He sued the university claiming discrimination under Title IX. The district court rejected his claim in March of last year, stating that the university’s policy refusing a transgender man access to the men’s locker room was based on the need to ensure the privacy of its students to disrobe and shower outside of the presence of members of the opposite sex. The court went on to note “[t]his justification has been repeatedly upheld by courts.”
As Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality and Professor Jennifer L. Levi of Western New England University School of Law pointed out in a 2013 law review article, however, “No court has ever held that there is any legal right to privacy that would be violated simply by permitting a transgender person to access a gender-specific facility that corresponds to his or her gender identity.”
For the past decade, there has been a movement toward recognizing transgender people as a protected class without any court having to actually say the words. This string of successes is partially due to the Obama administration’s federal agencies, which have implemented forward-thinking policies that apply to Title VII and Title IX claims. Without explicitconstitutional protection, trans rights are relegated to the whims of the legislative and executive branches. It’s as if courts recognize that transgender people are getting the short end of the equal protection stick, but have yet to follow that recognition to the next logical step.
In November of last year, a judge in New York became the first federal judge to rule that transgender people are a protected class. In Adkins v. City of New York, plaintiff Justin Adkins alleged that he had been treated differently than other Occupy Wall Street protesters who were arrested during a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in 2011 because he is transgender. Adkins filed suit alleging equal protection violations.
The City of New York moved to dismiss the lawsuit: The City argued that transgender people are not a protected class under a 2009 case, Lopez v. City of New York, which held exactly that. Adkins’ equal protection claims, therefore, should be subject only to rational basis review, making it more likely that the lawsuit would be dismissed.
Adkins countered that the appropriate standard of review is intermediate scrutiny because discrimination against transgender people is a form of gender discrimination or, alternatively, because transgender people are a quasi-suspect class and his claims are subject to intermediate review on that basis.
The court sided with Adkins, but not on the basis—as with previous court rulings—that transgender discrimination is a form of gender discrimination. Instead, the court ruled that transgender people are a quasi-suspect class in light of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Windsor v. UnitedStates, the precursor to the national case eventually leading to the downfall of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In Windsor, the Second Circuit ruled that “homosexual people” were a quasi-suspect class on the basis of four factors: (1) gay people have suffered a history of persecution; (2) sexual orientation has no relation to ability to contribute to society; (3) gay people are a discernible group; and (4) gay people remain politically weakened.
In November of last year, the Department of Education issued a landmark decision for transgender rights in education, holding that an Illinois school district violated anti-discrimination laws when it did not allow a transgender girl student who participated on a girls’ sports team to change and shower in the girls’ locker room, as reported by my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo.
And just last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the lawsuit of a transgender high school student named Gavin Grimm challenging his school’s bathroom policy should move forward. The court did so after the Department of Education, under the Obama administration, released guidelines warning that school rules forcing transgender students into segregated bathrooms or bathrooms inconsistent with their gender identity would be considered a violation of Title IX. Because the federal appeals court depended on the agency guidance to make that ruling, Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit is an important step in firmly establishing statutory legal protections for transgender people while waiting for the Supreme Court to determine where they stand under the Equal Protection Clause.
Plenty of school districts across the country have followed the administration’s lead and created guidelines to ensure that transgender students can safely and peacefully use their preferred bathrooms. The federal government has adopted a policy that extends the Department of Education guidance and permits federal workers to access workplace facilities that align with their gender identity as a matter of “dignity and respect,” and to “provide a workplace that is free from discrimination whether that discrimination is based on race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity or pregnancy), national origin, disability, political affiliation, marital status, membership in an employee organization, age, sexual orientation, or other non-merit factors.”
Which brings us back to Carcaño and McGarry’s lawsuit challenging the bathroom provisions in North Carolina’s HB 2. When Windsor made its way to the Supreme Court, the Court, in an opinion authored by Anthony Kennedy, invalidated DOMA without saying whether gay people are a suspect class, and ignored the Second Circuit’s ruling that theyare a quasi-suspect class. Kennedy, as he is wont to do, framed the issue as one of “human dignity.”
It is no surprise, then, that the term “dignity” is peppered throughout Joaquin Carcaño and Payton McGarry’s complaint challenging HB 2 on equal protection grounds. Carcaño and McGarry are asking a district court in North Carolina to declare them members of a protected class entitled to heightened scrutiny. If the district court refuses, they will presumably ask the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. If that court also refuses, it will be up to the Supreme Court to explain how discrimination against transgender people as transgender people is no big deal and warrants only rational basis review, but discrimination against transgender people as a form of gender discrimination warrants heightened scrutiny.
In this case, there is another option for protecting LGBTQ people’s rights, though not one that may be useful for future assaults. If the Supreme Court continues to punt on whether LGBTQ people are a protected class or finds that permitting transgender people to use the appropriate restroom and locker room facilities somehow implicates a heretofore undiscovered legal right to privacy, then it is in this context that Anthony Kennedy’s dignity jurisprudence, which was also the linchpin of his majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, will do quite nicely: Where is the dignity in forcing transgender people to use a bathroom that doesn’t align with their gender identity?