SheGives members and supporters gathered on Tuesday for discussion with Jason Wu, Executive Director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD). After some brief refreshments, members heard heartbreaking stories of members of the LGBTQ community facing prejudice, and learned how GLAD is working hard to ensure that people of all orientations feel safe and are celebrated, rather than denigrated, for their differences.
Wu began with the story of Leila, a transgender teenager who committed suicide after being rejected by her family. Before her death, Leila wrote on her Tumblr page that she had no hope for the future. Leila is one example, Wu says, of the 50% of young people face repudiation from their families when they come out as LGBTQ. For this reason, a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth are homeless or in the criminal justice system. They are also twice as likely to attempt suicide as their non-LGBTQ peers.
Wu then spoke about Nicole Maines, an 18-year-old transgender girl from Maine who had two advantages over Leila: a supportive family and GLAD’s legal advocates. Nicole’s parents, Wayne and Kelly Maines, knew early on that one of their identical twin sons was actually their daughter. Kelly decided to learn as much as she could about transgenderism, while Wayne learned to put aside his own reservations to accept his daughter.
By the fifth grade, Nicole was wearing girls’ clothing to school, and her parents had her name legally changed from Wyatt. Nicole had permission from the school to use the girls’ bathroom, and her peers, for the most part, accepted her as a girl. When the grandfather of one of Nicole’s fellow students found out that Nicole was using the girls’ bathroom, however, he encouraged his grandson to bully Nicole at school. Instead of punishing the bully, Wu says, the school punished Nicole, by singling her out. They made her use the nurse’s bathroom and assigned an adult to follow her throughout the school to ensure her safety.
The Maines family decided to sue the school, and enlisted the help of Jennifer Levi, who leads the Transgender Rights Project for GLAD. At that time, Wu says, no transgender person had ever won a court case for access to facilities. Another hurdle came when a Maine legislature passed a bill that would require everyone to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate–a law that is very similar to the one recently passed in North Carolina.
However, because of GLAD’s efforts, and because of Nicole and her family’s willingness to tell their story, the bill was defeated with bipartisan support, and the family won their lawsuit against the school district. Wu applauded the Maines’ courage in telling their story, and that they were able to convince the legislature of “how baseless the fears were about trans people living their lives and using the facilities.” The family’s testimony was important because “we can’t win in the court of law unless we win in the court of public opinion.” Nicole and her family still advocate for transgender rights, and Nicole was recently named one of Glamour’s “50 Phenomenal Women of the Year who are Making a Difference.”
This victory, like many GLAD has had in New England, has set a precedent for legislation in the rest of the country: “The playbook we created in Maine is now being used across the country to fight anti-trans legislation,” says Wu; and for all of GLAD’s cases, “the progress and precedents that we set here in New England lays foundation for progress across the country.” This is clear from GLAD’s ability to take their victory for gay marriage in Massachusetts to lay down a path for the rest of the country with the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling for marriage equality in all fifty states.
The long-term goal for GLAD is not just to ensure rights, however; Wu discussed how GLAD’s overall mission is to change society by educating people and changing mindsets. “We don’t just change laws, we also open hearts and minds,” Wu said. In Nicole’s case, they did this by showing pictures of her in court to give a face to the issue. They will not be satisfied, Wu says, just with laws. Instead, they need to focus on making society better: “We can change and transform the way people understand and treat differences in gender and sexuality.”
GLAD will continue their work in 2016 by petitioning the Massachusetts state legislature to pass a bill to help HIV patients get coverage for lipodystrophy, a side effect of some HIV medications. They will also work toward creating policy to protect LGBTQ youth in foster care and the criminal justice system, and they are currently in the news for fighting to protect the rights of gay parents. Wu explained that GLAD hopes to expand the GLAD Answers service, a free legal information and resource service for LGBTQ and HIV communities. Overall, he is confident that “Through the power of litigation…we can educate society about accepting all differences.”
You can learn more about Nicole Maines’ story in the book Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family (Random House), by Amy Ellis Nutt. Nicole and her twin brother Jonas will also be speaking at the Museum of Science in Boston on Wednesday, May 11.
Be sure to also follow GLAD on Twitter and Facebook for updates on their work.
Check out even more photos from the evening by scrolling through the gallery below.