Law school addresses gender dysphoria as free speech
By Erin Mansfield
cORRESPONDENT | April 05,2014
SOUTH ROYALTON — Vermont Law School students and professors have been celebrating the First Amendment with celebrations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture — and making just enough people uncomfortable in the process that they might spark a cultural revolution.
The project, inspired by a series of Evie Lovett photographs that take you backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co. in Dummerston to showcase drag queens, has caught the attention of hundreds of law students, social justice advocates and the governor.
Events so far have included a movie screening, an exhibition of Lovett’s photos, and Wednesday night, a panel discussion on the rights of transgender people — those who identify with the opposite gender.
“Transgender people are the most marginalized people in the community,” said panelist Jennifer Levi, a transgender rights attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
“People have been beaten to death,” she said. “People have been denied emergency medical care.”
In the cases she has litigated, Levi said, transgender children have been denied access to the bathroom of their choice because of the disconnect between the child’s sexual organs and the child’s gender identity, and some were banished to separate bathrooms in an effort to accommodate the them.
“It’s the next civil-rights issue,” said VLS professor Gregory Johnson.
Indeed, transgender people cannot openly serve in the U.S. military, and in all but 16 states can legally be discriminated against, he said.
Much like homosexuals once were, transgender people were until recently labeled as having a medical disorder and were given only mid-level scrutiny in the judicial system.
But the medical term for being transgender is now called gender dysphoria — the feeling of disconnect with one’s native gender — and in 2007 Vermont passed a law banning discrimination based on gender identity.
“We have made more progress on this critical civil-rights issue in the past 12 years than has been made in the past 100 years,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said in his keynote address.
Advocating that Vermonters make acceptance the norm, and demonstrating how the state sparked a movement to make marriage equality the status-quo across the country, the governor highlighted the vitriolic debate 15 years ago about civil unions.
“They realized they were their friends, and they didn’t have anything to fear,” he said. “I think marriage equality is the example for all equality.”
“What we need is a presence,” Johnson said. “Who are we talking about, and why does this matter?”
“There was a time when there were more transgenders than gays in the media,” Johnson said, showing pictures of pop culture icons who have experienced gender dysphoria.
Among them are Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel), of the punk band Against Me!; Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, formerly of the U.S. Army; and Jared Leto’s character in the Academy Award-winning movie, “Dallas Buyer’s Club.”
“It’s almost like Harvey Milk’s line,” Johnson said: “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!”
Levi said, “Typically, social conventions drive laws. The biggest challenge is getting relevant decision-makers to understand. ... A transgender girl is a girl. A transgender woman is a woman. A transgender boy is a boy. A transgender man is a man.”
Event attendee Brett Hubbard said, “I still don’t understand what the big deal is. If you call yourself a boy, I’ll call you a boy.”
Third-year law student Emma Hempstead said, “We accommodate disabilities; we should accommodate gender ambiguities as well. Of course they should be allowed to serve (in the military). I think it’s absurd. That’s not even a question.”
The final event next Thursday in South Royalton will feature a panel discussion addressing how the LGBT-rights movement will change since the Defense of Marriage Act was reversed in the 2013 court decision United States v. Windsor.