End-of-Year Spotlight: 10 Heroes Who Advocated for Equal Treatment for LGBTQ Americans in 2017

By Shane Stahl • December 27, 2017 • 5:36 pm

Every year the Freedom for All Americans team is awed by the thousands of people nationwide who step up and give everything they can to ending the all-too-common discrimination that LGBTQ people face every day in so many states.

From elected officials sticking their necks out on behalf of their constituents to parents who will do anything to protect their children to LGBTQ people themselves, there are so many heroes in the movement for LGBTQ nondiscrimination. As we gear up for a new year full of opportunities and challenges for the movement, we’re counting down ten standout heroes who advocated for equal treatment for LGBTQ people in 2017. Take a look!

Gavin Grimm – and all transgender students who fought for basic dignity in the courts:

This year we saw a national conversation ignite about basic dignity for transgender people – and in March, it reached the U.S. Supreme Court. While the nine Justices ultimately did not resolve his legal case, brought by the ACLU, Gavin Grimm brought his story forward in an unprecedented way, welcoming into his life millions of Americans who may have never before known a transgender person. His courage was appropriately heralded in a legal document from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in which Judge Andre Davis wrote, “Our country has a long and ignominious history of discriminating against our most vulnerable and powerless. We have an equally long history, however, of brave individuals—Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, Mildred and Richard Loving, Edie Windsor, and Jim Obergefell, to name just a few—who refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them. … Today, G.G. adds his name to the list of plaintiffs whose struggle for justice has been delayed and rebuffed; as Dr. King reminded us, however, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ G.G.’s journey is delayed but not finished.”

We see that same heroism in the many transgender students who took their fights to the courtroom this year. Ash Whitaker, whose Transgender Law Center case could face consideration from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, was the catalyst for a historic ruling from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. Juliet Evancho, Elissa Ridenour and A.S. in Pennsylvania teamed up with Lambda Legal to ensure that their school allowed them access to the proper restroom. And Aidan DeStefano worked with the ACLU of Pennsylvania to provide a voice for transgender kids in Boyertown High School during an ugly case brought by non-transgender students advocating in favor of discriminatory restroom restrictions.

No teenager should have to shoulder the burden of fighting for basic dignity – but these students did, and we are grateful for their bravery.

Non-LGBTQ Elected Officials Who Defended Equal Treatment

While there were many legislative battles in 2017 regarding non-discrimination protections, there were also elected leaders who stood up for the LGBTQ community and endorsed the principles of non-discrimination — among them, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.

Governor Baker’s state will be going to the polls in November 2018 to decide to fate of the comprehensive non-discrimination protections already on the books. Baker, a Republican, has publicly stated that he would vote no on repealing the existing protections. Meanwhile, Texas Speaker Straus blocked several anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation from proceeding during two Texas legislative sessions this year.

Both of these elected officials saw discrimination and the effect it would have on their state – and refused to allow it to happen. Freedom For All Americans thanks both men in their efforts to speak against discrimination.

LGBT University apprentices who leveraged their education for good

In the more than two years since Freedom for All Americans’ launch, more than 50 people have graduated from our LGBT University apprenticeship program. The program’s goal is to train the next wave of activists for LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination – and already we are seeing dozens of graduates applying their skills and working toward change.

Glenna DeJong testified in favor of LGBTQ nondiscrimination in Michigan, and Jackie Ryan continues to lead the conversation within Massachusetts as an elected official. Freedom for All Americans was proud to welcome two LGBT-U graduates – Shane Stahl and Hannah Willard – as full time staff members, as the Digital Specialist and the Associate Director of Campaign Communications, respectively. We’re also proud of David Topping, Field Director at Freedom for All Massachusetts, the campaign to defend transgender-inclusive non-discrimination protections in the Bay State.

Other full-time workers in the LGBTQ movement who graduated from LGBT University include Reg Calcagno, full time at American Civil Liberties Union, Bren Pantilione at SAVE, and Allison Van Kuiken, formerly at Equality California and now at the Human Rights Campaign, and Sissi Yado, now at the Human Rights Campaign in Texas.

Kim Hively – and two other game-changers for Title VII legal precedent

In April 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit delivered a lightning bolt of justice when the en banc court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is the first time a federal appeals court has ever ruled against discrimination based on sexual orientation under Title VII.

The woman at the center of the case, filed by Lambda Legal, was Kim Hively, a professor at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana who was denied promotions and eventually forced out because she is a lesbian. Her bravery in bringing the case forward to the EEOC and eventually with Lambda Legal brought tangible change for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people – not only in Indiana but also Wisconsin and Illinois.

Several other Americans who experienced anti-gay harassment and discrimination also bravely brought their stories and cases forward, too. Jameka Evans, also represented by Lambda Legal, was fired from her job in Georgia, and while her case was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, her courage in being vocal about her experience has undoubtedly and immeasurably helped others come forward with their own experiences, too.

Donald Zarda’s case is currently before the en banc 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. His case dates back several years now – and tragically, he passed away in 2014, before his case could be resolved. Now his former partner and longtime friend Bill Moore and sister Melissa Zarda are carrying on the case – which could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Roswell, GA Student Bennett: Mobilizing Allies to Support Transgender Youth

This year saw the launch of a unique initiative in the state of Georgia designed to bring allies together in support of their transgender youth — Bennett’s Project. Started as an offline letter writing campaign created by a Roswell, GA student named Bennett, the project is now digitally based, allowing allies of young transgender Georgians to show their acceptance, love and support. Several of the letters have been shared at community events from across the state, and are being used to help explain to people why supporting transgender youth is important. Visit the project and share your support here.

Kelly Herron – and other safety advocates who pushed against anti-transgender lies

In March, Kelly Herron, an avid runner, was training for a marathon and stopped to use a restroom in Golden Gardens Park in Seattle when she was attacked by a man. She fought him off, yelled, “Not today, motherf****er,” and locked the man in the restroom until authorities arrived. Shortly after, opponents of transgender equality used Kelly’s story to raise money for I-1552, a ballot initiative in Washington that sought to restrict restroom access for transgender people

Kelly was livid that her story of being attacked would be used to attack transgender Washingtonians, and she teamed up with Washington Won’t Discriminate to send a message that anti-transgender scare tactics are simply untrue – and that no one should use her name to push discrimination.

Her message is also in line with an overwhelming number of public safety advocates. In April 2017 a coalition of more than 250 organizations committed to ending sexual assault and domestic violence across the country released a new, first-of-its-kind national statement urging lawmakers in many states to stop pushing legislation that harms transgender Americans by restricting their access to restrooms and locker rooms. And an amicus brief filed in the Gavin Grimm case to the U.S. Supreme Court featured dozens of police officers and police chiefs declaring that protecting transgender people from discrimination in no way compromises the safety or privacy of anyone else.

Transgender service members and veterans who spoke out against Trump’s ban

Transgender Americans found themselves forced into the center of a national debate when President Donald Trump tweeted out a blanket “ban” on transgender people from serving in the United States military “in any capacity.” The unprecedented policy-making-via-Twitter decision, one of the most visible and far-reaching instances of anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination in recent memory, threw thousands of transgender people into legal limbo.

Rather than force transgender people into hiding, transgender servicemembers courageously came out, shared their stories, and explained why their love for their country compelled them to serve in the United States military. Kristin Beck, a Navy SEAL who served for more than 20 years, immediately slammed the policy, and more than a half dozen transgender soldiers or people hoping to enlist joined lawsuits challenging the ban. Freedom for All Americans shared the stories of a dozen transgender veterans and servicemembers, including Kimberly Acoff, who lives in Indiana and has spoken widely about the need to protect all people from discrimination. Read her story here.

Danica Roem – and the many out LGBTQ people who made history at the polls

In November 2017, many openly LGBTQ candidates ran for public office, and their success was astounding. In Virginia, Danica Roem’s historic win made her the first openly transgender person to be elected as a state legislator. Other victories included Andrea Jenkins and Philippe Cunningham of Minneapolis, the first two openly transgender people of color to be elected to public office (Minneapolis City Council), openly transgender woman Gerri Cannon who won a school board seat in Somerville, New Hampshire, and Lisa Middleton, an openly transgender woman who won a council seat in Palm Springs. With the victories of Lisa Middleton and Christy Holstege, an openly bisexual woman, Palm Springs became the first city in the nation to have a city council made up entirely of LGBTQ officials. In addition, openly lesbian Jenny Durkan won a highly contested race for Mayor of Seattle.

Mayor Ed Lee – and 250+ mayors who took action for LGBTQ equality

In January we publicly launched Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination, a coalition that now features the voices of 250+ mayors who support LGBTQ equality. Since then members of the coalition have come together to urge the Supreme Court to rule in favor of LGBTQ equality, have raised their voices in newspaper articles and editorials, and have spoken out against anti-LGBTQ actions from states and cities.

Several weeks ago the coalition endured a tragic blow when San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee unexpectedly passed away. Mayor Lee founded the coalition and has been a stalwart force for LGBTQ equality, and just weeks before his death, he appointed a Senior Adviser for Transgender Initiatives, showing a foresight for representation and inclusion for LGBTQ people throughout the city. We are so grateful for Mayor Lee’s leadership, and we continue to mourn his death and send our condolences to his loved ones and everyone improved by his passion.  

Faith Leaders Around the Country Who Supported Non-Discrimination

One of the most vocal communities in the fight for comprehensive non-discrimination protections this year was people of faith, who banded together in incredible numbers to say that they support fairness and equality for LGBTQ people. Of particular note were Pastor J.L. Gundy Florida and Reverend Jay McLeod in New Hampshire. Pastor Gundy, a former opponent of non-discrimination legislation in his city of Jacksonville, was swayed to become a vocal supporter after serving as a state director for African American Ministers in Action. In February this year, Reverend McLeod provided emotional testimony to the New Hampshire legislature in support of adding non-discrimination protections for transgender people to state law citing his transgender granddaughter as his inspiration.

In addition to leaders speaking out on various ordinances, thousands of faith leaders representing millions of congregants signed friend-of-the-court briefs in both the Gavin Grimm and Masterpiece Cakeshop cases, which Freedom For All Americans managed and put forth.

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