By Mark Joseph Stern
On paper, the current conflict between the U.S. Department of Justice and North Carolina can seem dry, academic even. North Carolina passed a law forbidding trans people from using certain bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The Department of Justice notified the state that its measure violates several federal civil rights laws; North Carolina threw a tantrum, filing a lawsuit against the agency. Then, on Monday, the DOJ struck back, filing suit against North Carolina for infringing on trans residents’ federal civil rights.
The DOJ’s suit is a wonderfully tough, clear-headed document that carefully explains why “sex discrimination”—which is barred in employment and education under federal civil rights law— encompasses gender identity discrimination. Sex, the suit notes, is an incredibly complex concept: “An individual’s ‘sex’ consists of multiple factors, which may not always be in alignment,” including chromosomes, hormones, and gender identity. By distilling sex to the label a hospital put on one’s birth certificate—then restricting bathroom access based on that label—North Carolina “stigmatizes and singles out transgender employees, results in their isolation and exclusion, and perpetuates a sense that they are not worthy of equal treatment and respect.”
“Gender identity is innate,” the suit declares, “and external efforts to change a person’s gender identity can be harmful to a person’s health and well-being.” Then the lawsuit affirms a simple truth that North Carolina has spent months attempting to deny: “A transgender man’s sex is male and a transgender woman’s sex is female.”
That’s all strong and necessary stuff. But you can’t understand the full import of the DOJ’s actions until you watch Lynch’s astonishing speech announcing the lawsuit. Lynch is wry and unassuming in person; on Monday, she was as fierce and passionate as any member of the pantheon of American civil rights defenders. Lynch joined that pantheon on Monday. Her remarks are certainly the most important speech ever delivered on the topic of trans rights by any government official. They are a turning point in the history of LGBTQ rights in the United States, a resounding declaration of the equal dignity of trans Americans.
“This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms,” Lynch explained. “This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them—indeed, to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country—haltingly but inexorably—in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”
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