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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

ACLU attorney and trans activist Chase Strangio ’04 visits campus

Strangio+04+battles+transphobia.+Photo+contributed.
Molly Kaplan
Strangio ’04 battles transphobia. Photo contributed.

This Friday evening, ACLU staff attorney and Grinnell alum Chase Strangio ’04 will present a talk called “We Just Need to Pee: Situating Trans Bodies in Public and Legal Discourse.” Strangio fought for trans rights across the country, serving as legal reference for Chelsea Manning, a trans woman currently serving a 35-year jail term for leaking information to WikiLeaks. This week, The S&B’s Abe Golden ’20 conducted an email interview with Strangio to talk about his work fighting for trans rights.

The S&B: What do you do for a living, and how does it make the world a better place?

Chase Strangio: I work as a staff attorney at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union in the LGBT & HIV Project. In that capacity, I litigate cases on behalf of LGBT people and people living with HIV and do legislative work and public education to expand legal protections for the LGBT community and end systemic violence and discrimination that most acutely impacts LGBT people of color. I have worked on cases related to the police profiling of trans women of color, bans on access to healthcare for trans prisoners, bans on trans people using appropriate restroom and changing facilities, bans on marriage for same-sex couples and restrictions on trans people updating the gender marker on their identification, among other things. I also started a bail fund that provides direct cash bail and bond assistance to LGBT people facing criminal charges or removal proceedings.

Strangio '04 battles transphobia. Photo contributed.
Strangio ’04 battles transphobia. Photo contributed.

What brought the battle over trans bathroom rights to your attention?

The attack over restroom access has long been a battleground and a focus of our opponents. For years they have used fear of trans people to roll back protections for LGBT people at the local level. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, opponents of LGBT people doubled down on their efforts to expel trans people from public life and to roll back all legal protections for people based on sexual orientation and trans status. In November of 2015, anti-LGBT organizations successfully mobilized fear of trans people to repeal a local ordinance, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance — HERO — that would have extended non-discrimination protections to many classes of people. Success at the ballot in Houston invigorated our opposition and they invested significant time and resources into moving anti-trans bills in state legislatures across the country. With the passage of North Carolina’s anti-trans law, House Bill 2 (HB2), we are seeing a deepening investment in attempts by state lawmakers to erode federal legal protections for trans people through legislation and litigation.

How did you get involved?

As a lawyer for trans rights and a trans person myself, it felt important to centrally engage in the conversations that were happening in state legislatures this past session. The heightening rhetoric that sought to demonize trans people and distort who we are compelled me to not only engage in advocacy but to use my personal voice and story in the work. In terms of litigation, this is absolutely one of the most critical fights happening in the LGBT legal space with implications for all our other work so our entire movement of litigators is engaged and fighting.

What defeats and setbacks have you faced?

Unfortunately there have been and there will continue to be setbacks. The passage of HB2 was devastating, particularly after we successfully defeated an anti-trans law in South Dakota. The law has devastated the trans community in North Carolina and across the country where bills like it continue to be proposed. The rhetoric surrounding trans people has also contributed to a climate of fear and violence against the community. We have also experienced some significant setbacks — hopefully only temporary — in court. A federal court in Texas issued a nationwide injunction attempting to put a stop to the Department of Education’s enforcement of Title IX to protect trans students. The Supreme Court also issued an emergency stay blocking our client, a boy in Virginia who has been fighting for years to use the boy’s restroom, from using the restroom that all other boys used after he successfully challenged his school’s policy in court.

What about victories you’ve won?

I have witnessed and been a part of countless successes — large and small. I have worked with trans people in prison to successfully fight for their health care despite relentless and systemic obstacles. Most recently my client, Chelsea Manning, was approved to undergo surgery while serving her prison sentence after a long fight for her health care. There is still so much work to be done, but it is especially important to honor the advocacy and achievements of those fighting for justice behind bars. We successfully stopped almost 200 anti-LGBT bills proposed by state legislatures last session and greatly shifted the public conversation about and media representation of trans people. Two weeks ago, a court blocked key provisions of North Carolina’s anti-trans law as they applied to our client, hopefully paving the way for the ultimate fall of that horrible law. I have worked to bail people out of jail and fight their criminal cases, seen organizers win incredible campaigns and watched the many caretakers in our community help each other survive. In the face of so much hostility and violence, our community is powerful and resilient, and we will continue to see many successes and victories in the coming days and months.

Do you think that Congressional action on trans rights is something we’ll see anytime soon?

Congressional action seems far off, but there are administrative wins happening every day, and we continue to fight for comprehensive legal protections from Congress, state legislatures and the courts. Federal legislation is an important goal, but there are many other things that can and must be done to ensure the survival and legal protection of trans people.

What advice do you have for people who want to help fight for the causes you fight for?

There is so much to be done to organize and challenge the powerful forces that have long worked to systemically disenfranchise and harm people of color, people living in poverty, people with disabilities, immigrants, LGBT people and so many others. Our entire legal system was founded and organized around an investment in maintaining chattel slavery and the economy it supported. Working within that system can be compromising, but it can also be transformative, and there are ways to tear down these mechanisms of violence through legal work. But it is by no means the only way, and I just encourage folks to find their path that gives them joy and sustains them and work within that path to redistribute resources — financial, emotional, logistical — and work towards a more just world.

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