White House Response to Non-Binary Gender Petition

10464169_10201853698937124_3923966816234564280_nDon’t get too excited, folks. The response was about as disappointing as you might expect.

Thank you for your petition requesting that the executive branch legally recognize genders outside of the male-female binary and provide an option for these genders on all legal documents and records.

We know how important this issue is, and we understand the profound impact, both symbolic and otherwise, of having official documents that accurately reflect an individual’s identity. These documents play an essential, functional role, but also demonstrate the measure of dignity and respect afforded to our nation’s citizens. We cannot overstate the care and seriousness that should be brought to bear on the issue.

We recognize the importance of gender identification in particular and the Obama Administration is working to modernize federal policies in this area. For example, in 2010, the U.S. Department of State made it easier for individuals to update the gender marker in their passports. And last year, the Social Security Administration followed suit by simplifying the process for individuals to change the gender marker on their social security cards to reflect their identity accurately.

As you can imagine, there is considerable variance across agencies and levels of government. And so while the Obama Administration wants to make sure that official documents reflect the identities of the Americans who hold them, we believe proposals to change when and how gender is listed on official documents should be considered on a case-by-case basis by the affected federal and state agencies. However, that consideration must be informed by best practices and a commitment to honoring individuality and ensuring fairness.

Thank you again for your petition. We appreciate your input and the opportunity to convey our shared commitment.

It really just strikes me that the person who wrote this response (Roy Austin, Deputy Assistant to the President for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice, and Opportunity in the Domestic Policy Council) doesn’t have an understanding of non-binary sex, much less gender. Like how babies are born with “ambiguous” genitalia and there’s no legal option for designating their sex as something other than strictly male or female. (Not to mention the many inherent problems with designating sex at birth anyway.)

The original petition wasn’t worded super well anyway.

Legal documents in the United States only recognize “male” and “female” as genders, leaving anyone who does not identify as one of these two genders with no option. Australia and New Zealand both allow an X in place of an M or an F on passports for this purpose and the UK recognizes ‘Mx’ (pronounced as Mix or sometimes Mux) as a gender-neutral title.

This petition asks the Obama Administration to legally recognize genders outside of the male-female binary (such as agender, pangender, genderfluid, and others) and provide an option for these genders on all legal documents and records.

So yeah, an expected disappointing response. I’m glad there’s a way for us to engage our government more directly and show our numbers, but I had hoped for more.

Disorganized thoughts on the Zimmerman trial from a white person to whom you should not be listening.

Guest post by Heather McNamara

I wish I had been surprised last night when the verdict came through Not Guilty, but I wasn’t. The last time I was surprised was 13 months ago, when I learned that not only had George Zimmerman not been arrested immediately, but he’d managed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from his supporters.

In the several days after Trayvon Martin was shot to death, several of my subordinates were late to work. At the office where I was working at the time, most of my subordinates were people of color. At my level, it was about half white, half PoC. All of my superiors were white. Most of my subordinates lived in Sanford. The protests were clogging up the streets and messing with the traffic and bus routes, and so they were having a hard time getting to work on time. The white people in the office were having a grand old time discussing their thoughts and opinions on the protests (everyone is too worked up!) and their various thoughts on possible terrible outcomes (what if this means no more stand your ground law?!). The people of color in the office said nothing. Their faces generally remained stony and quietly resentful as they worked hard for the pittance my superiors paid them. I stayed silent, embarrassed and afraid for my livelihood.

I lived in Simi Valley, California when the Rodney King verdict came through. Simi Valley is a primarily wasp/latin@ city about a fifty minute drive north of where the riots took place. In spite of the fact that the rioters were generally not chartering buses and driving up to our little town to mess things up, we had a curfew. Police enforced the in-at-dusk emergency rule. Our field trip was cancelled on account of several of the jurors had been from Simi Valley and the school decided that if we drove even a mile south with “SIMI VALLEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT” printed all over the side of our bus, we’d be moving targets. Nothing happened to Simi Valley. Nonetheless, several months later, there was a KKK protest against… what? I don’t know what. The existence of people who aren’t them, I suppose. They left advertising fliers at my daycare. My mom was disgusted when she saw them. We weren’t there for much longer.

As a child who had experienced a curfew following the Rodney King verdict, and the rage of the California black communities at the O.J. Simpson trial, I took righteous indignation for granted. I assumed that any time some blatant example of racism occurred, I could count on people of color to get pissed off and take to the streets. Of course I also took the existence of racist people for granted, but in my juvenile interpretation of things, I thought the sides seemed evenly matched.

When I was 28 years old, I realized I was gay. It was then that my eyes were opened to complacency – not just my complacency, but the complacency of all marginalized groups. I was very suddenly aware of the ways that people delude themselves into thinking they’re not bigoted, that they just hold some justifiable opinion or another about this or that marginalized group. It was impossible for me to ignore the incredibly sad fact that sometimes marginalized people believe those opinions, and that sometimes they’ll be so desperate for approval that they’ll assist in justifying them. It took more introspection and bravery than I’d ever before mustered to overcome my tendency to do the exact same thing. I’d been proud of blending in with straight people. I’d been uncomfortable in women’s locker rooms or bathrooms because I thought if they knew about me, they’d rightfully want me out of there. I’d been afraid to tell anyone that their intolerance of me was not the same as my intolerance of their intolerance.

A lot of my black facebook/twitter friends are saying things about how they hate white people, or white people suck, or they need to shut the fuck up. Part of me is uncomfortable when I see this. I think no, please, the hateful cannot hate on my behalf any more than I can refuse to hate on their behalf. I want to tell them how much I wish I had the power to fix this. But I know it isn’t about me. So, I tell my white facebook/twitter friends who are saying stupid bullshit about how the witnesses were inarticulate or about how they’d be afraid if they saw Trayvon in their neighborhood to shut the fuck up. I delete them. And once I dropped my knee-jerk defensiveness in response to my black friends’ rage, I realized that I took comfort in it. I was empowered by their lack of complacency. Somehow, the world seems to make more sense.

The prosecution claimed that this crime wasn’t about race. It was. But even if it wasn’t, even if we could prove conclusively somehow that George Zimmerman really was only afraid of hoodies or there’d been a rash of Skittles-wielding burglars in his town, the outcome of this trial was about race. The defense team was funded by thousands upon thousands of people who could easily imagine themselves in the same position – so afraid of a black teenager that they would do the unthinkable and end his life. It was funded by people who imagine their fear as so justifiable, so logical, so worthy of respect that literally any heinous response to this worry is okay. It was funded by gun nuts who don’t give a shit how scared anyone else is when they wear their guns in plain sight at the grocery store, but truly believe that anyone who scares them deserves to die. George Zimmerman is free because he had their money.

Some people who read this are going to consider their racism more seriously than they had before. They’re going to do so because they’ll see my picture and notice that my skin is fairly pale and that I therefore have nothing to gain by speaking out against racism. They’ll think that I am therefore unbiased. They will dismiss similar words from people of color because they’ll see bias the same way the anti-gay bigots saw bias when Prop 8 was declared unconstitutional by a gay judge. I don’t know what it’s like to experience racism, but I know a little bit about bigots. I know they’re not creative. I know they have self-centered morality. I know they think they’re good people. I know they have warped definitions of what it means to be a good person. And I know that when they do the unthinkable, they will have the support of thousands upon thousands of bigots who will spend any amount of money to prove to themselves that they’re not bigots. I know that they will look at the money they spent and imagine it’s proof that they’re really the victims. And I hate them.


Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.

Being on the Supreme Court is not supposed to be easy

Justice Scalia offers up some of his usual legal wisdom:

“The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state,” Scalia said at the American Enterprise Institute.

Yes, I’m sure deciding on this sort of thing is a breeze when the extent of your reasoning is “it’s illegal, therefore it should be illegal – QED.” The Supreme Court is the end of the line. It’s where cases go when all of the formalized decision processes at the lower levels of the judiciary have failed to resolve them adequately. These questions are not sent to the highest court in the land just so that they can benefit from the previously unknown perspective of “well, the founders would have meant for it to be illegal, problem solved!” – something which obviously no one else could have come up with, without deferring to the brilliant reasoning of Scalia.

The Supreme Court is not there to fire off “easy”, ill-considered, poorly-thought-out conclusions like this. It’s there to reach carefully developed and well-supported conclusions which are not always readily apparent. So don’t pretend that all nine of you could just as easily be replaced by the average gay-bashin’ clinic-protestin’ yokel, when you really only mean yourself.

 

Why “religious freedom” arguments about gay marriage fail

This November, Minnesota will vote on an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. Reverend Mark Kuether of the Congregational United Church of Christ recently wrote an opinion piece for the Detroit Lakes Tribune, arguing that religious freedom requires legal recognition of gay marriage. Kuether says:

This amendment would tell clergy who they can and cannot marry in their congregations. Some churches and religious organizations want to recognize the relationships of committed gay and lesbian couples. Some don’t. It should be their choice. However, this amendment does the opposite. It tells religious leaders they are not allowed to marry same-sex couples. Many faiths want to decide for themselves. This amendment represents a one-size fits all government mandate on our state’s churches.

It’s easy to see why this argument is appealing: it takes the usual religious objections to legal gay marriage, and turns them on their head. Instead of claiming that legalizing same-sex marriage would curtail religious freedom, it argues that a ban on same-sex marriage is the real infringement on religious freedom. And it also points out that “religion” is not a monolithic body that’s uniformly opposed to gay marriage, as many religious opponents of gay marriage often like to pretend.

But the religious freedom argument for marriage equality is just as flawed as the religious freedom argument against marriage equality, and for precisely the same reasons. Those who argue against gay marriage on the grounds of religious freedom make the mistake of conflating civil marriage law with religious marital practices. Out of willful or genuine ignorance, they claim that the legalization of same-sex marriage would mean all churches and other religious institutions are now required to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. This is simply contrary to fact, which is plain to see in every state where same-sex marriage is legal and intolerant religions are still free to conduct only the weddings they want.

Just as with opposite-sex marriage, same-sex marriages under civil law are the kind you get at the city hall or another government office. Its legal aspects are a purely secular matter, and that legal recognition does not oblige any religion to celebrate these marriages. The recognition of opposite-sex marriages in civil law has never meant that a Catholic church is required to let just anyone get married in a cathedral, and same-sex marriage is no different. The people who make this argument don’t seem to understand that you can’t just go to any church, synagogue, mosque or temple, and demand to get married there. In other countries with official state churches whose doctrines are decided by legislators, those churches may be required to solemnize same-sex marriages, but in the United States, the government is entirely unable to tell a religion which marriages and relationships it can and cannot celebrate.

For that reason, the claim that a ban on gay marriage “tells religious leaders they are not allowed to marry same-sex couples” is likewise false. Various religious bodies, including the United Church of Christ, already choose to recognize same-sex marriages and perform same-sex wedding ceremonies as part of their faith. And if they only wanted gay, queer, and otherwise extraordinary couples to get married at their churches, they would be fully within their rights, too. Because civil marriage and religious marriage are completely separate practices, a civil ban on same-sex marriage does not prevent them from doing this.

Conversely, a certain religion’s marital practices are not and should not be used to define the civil marriage laws which apply to everyone. The Catholic church may choose to recognize as valid only those marriages which abide by their specific religious requirements, but that doesn’t mean these are the only marriages that are recognized under civil law. No religion gets to dictate our nation’s civil, secular laws, and they can’t demand that everyone be forced to live under a particular religious doctrine that they may not even believe in. Even if no religion in history approved of same-sex marriages or wanted to perform them, this would be no argument against recognizing same-sex marriages under civil law. And just as we wouldn’t let an anti-gay church define what marriage is for everyone, we also shouldn’t let a pro-gay church define what marriage is for everyone.

Respect for religious freedom does not demand that our civil law must ban all the marriages a religion bans, and allow all the marriages a religion allows. The scope of religious freedom does not extend that far. There are certain faiths that approve of many different kinds of marriages which are not recognized under civil law. Does this mean the state is required to recognize child marriages or multiple marriages just because someone’s religion does? No, just as a racist church that disapproves of interracial marriage cannot impose this rule upon the populace at large. But all of these groups already have the freedom to practice their religious marriages in accordance with their beliefs. And just as the legalization of same-sex marriage does not burden that freedom, neither does banning same-sex marriage.

The claim that legal gay marriage limits religious freedom is a complete non-starter. But so is the idea that its absence poses a similar restriction. There are already plenty of excellent points in favor of same-sex marriage, and no good ones against it so far. We don’t need to rely on arguments that proceed from the same faulty premises, so why pretend religious freedom has anything to do with it?

Which is more respectful of religious freedom?

A. Allowing military chaplains the option to perform, or refuse to perform, same-sex wedding ceremonies or any other wedding ceremonies on military bases.

B. Banning all military chaplains from performing any same-sex wedding ceremonies on bases, regardless of their beliefs or whether they may actually want to perform such ceremonies.

If you answered B, congratulations! You’re Senator Jim Inhofe:

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe hasn’t given up his resistance to the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the military or same-sex marriage.

On Tuesday, Inhofe and fellow Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi introduced a measure that would ban same-sex marriages on military bases and protect military chaplains from “pressure” to perform such ceremonies.

The two senators described the Military Religious Freedom Act as an effort to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, on the Defense Department in the wake of the December 2010 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which ended the official ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. …

A Defense Department directive issued last year says: “A military chaplain may participate in or officiate any private ceremony, whether on or off a military installation.”

For all of their concern about non-existent “pressure” to perform same-sex weddings, the authors of this “religious freedom” measure certainly don’t seem to mind when homophobic lawmakers legally pressure LGBT-accepting chaplains to stop doing the ceremonies they themselves wish to perform. What about their religious freedom? Or do anti-gay politicians only subscribe to the “you are free to do as we tell you” theory of freedom?

This is an important step

A judge has ruled that Massachusetts prison officials must provide genital surgery for a transgender inmate, Michelle Kosilek, currently serving life in prison for murder. This is an entirely logical conclusion. Prisoners are entitled to health care, the established standards of care for trans people indicate that genital surgery is appropriate for those who need it, therefore trans prisoners who require genital surgery should have access to it. But this obvious answer has evaded many, like Senator Scott Brown:

“We have many big challenges facing us as a nation, but nowhere among those issues would I include providing sex change surgery to convicted murderers,” Brown said in a statement. “I look forward to common sense prevailing and the ruling being overturned.”

Denying that prisoners should receive any kind of health care quickly becomes untenable – physically preventing a group of people from even attempting to access the medical treatment they require, and simply leaving them to suffer or die, is clearly inhumane. The fact of them having been convicted of murder or other crimes is irrelevant to this; sentencing someone to imprisonment is not equivalent to sentencing them to medical neglect and the consequences thereof.

After denying this first point, those who reject this conclusion move on to denying the next one: that genital surgery and other transsexual treatments are indeed medically necessary. Instead, these are often trivialized as merely cosmetic and not essential to one’s health. This attitude has cropped up elsewhere, such as in the FRC’s contention that trans people detained by ICE should be denied access to their prescribed hormone therapy. The ruling in the Kosilek case explicitly refutes this, finding that surgical treatment is a “serious medical need”. It correctly concludes that the medical needs of trans people are no less crucial, important and valid than the medical needs of everyone else. Would Scott Brown, and others who deny this, pretend that they’re just as qualified as medical experts to decide which treatments someone should receive for cancer, heart disease or any other condition? So why do they think they know better when it comes to transitioning?

We must protect the sanctity of civil unions!

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, a notary has approved a civil union between one man and two women, to the outrage of religious groups:

Public Notary Claudia do Nascimento Domingues has said the man and two women should be entitled to family rights.

She says there is nothing in law to prevent such an arrangement. …

But lawyer Regina Beatriz Tavares da Silva told the BBC it was “absurd and totally illegal”, and “something completely unacceptable which goes against Brazilian values and morals”.

Ms da Silva, who is president of the Commission for the Rights of the Family within the Institute of Lawyers, says the union will not be allowed to remain in place.

Some religious groups have also voiced criticism of the move.

It’s amusing to see people rushing to the defense of a certain narrow interpretation of civil unions, much like how they’ve tried to “defend” marriage from LGBT people who want to get married. The key difference, which makes such efforts even more absurd, is that civil unions are a completely new legal invention intended to keep gay people out of the institution of marriage. There is no tradition or history behind them, so there’s no traditional or historical concept of “civil unions” for people to defend. They’ve only been available in Brazil for 8 years. Is that really long enough for Brazilians to have developed lasting, concrete and coherent “values and morals” pertaining to civil unions, values and morals which must be protected and upheld? I highly doubt it. Civil unions do not come with the same esteem and universal recognition as marriage, precisely because of their recent creation in what was purely an act of discrimination.

Really, if you’re going to create a new legal category to segregate families which don’t consist of one (legally recognized) man and one (legally recognized) woman, how can you be surprised when that category includes families that don’t consist of one man and one woman? If you didn’t want these commitments to be recognized as marriages, then why insist they must maintain some degree of resemblance to your ideal of marriage? By all means, keep pretending that secular, legal marriage is the exclusive property of your religion and must be protected by ensuring that it exactly matches your particular faith’s concept of marriage. Such a claim can be handily dispatched on its own. But if that’s the line of argument you choose to pursue, you don’t get to pretend that your religion also owns the new “marriage-lite” that was created to divert the unworthy from your precious institution.

Let’s support Alexander Aan

Alexander Aan of Indonesia has been sentenced to 30 months in prison for saying on Facebook that he doubted the existence of God and posting cartoons of Muhammad. Just for exercising the same freedom that we do every day, he was beaten by a mob and convicted of “deliberately spreading information inciting religious hatred and animosity”. I ask that you please take the time to sign and share a petition for the White House to call on the Indonesian government to free Aan and respect citizens’ right to freedom of belief and expression. The petition has less than a month to gather the 21,000 more signatures needed for an official response, so let’s work fast and do what we can to fight this injustice.

Governor Bryant, There Is No “Non-Denominational” School Prayer

Last week, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant spoke to a group of high school students at an American Legion Boys State program in Hattiesburg. After telling them that he believed his experience with school-sponsored prayer was beneficial, he explained to the media:

I know it’s difficult when you start talking about denominations and different beliefs, but I think there is a way for us to have a non-denominational opening prayer when the opportunity is available to let people know there is a God. Those children should know that he does care about them, particularly within their classroom.

He then speculated that the federal government might eventually find that school-sponsored prayer is legally permissible. While this may sound pleasantly ecumenical, it’s simply impossible for a prayer of the kind that he envisions to be described as “non-denominational”. Within only two sentences, he’s outlined a religious observance that’s entirely sectarian. The implications of his idea for school prayer make this unavoidable.

First, the statement that “there is a God” is a claim that at least one deity exists, that it’s probably the only deity, and that its name is capital-G God. Bryant further depicts it as an entity that can be described as “he” and takes an active interest in human affairs. His suggestion also implies that it’s appropriate to direct prayers to this god, and that it’s acceptable for the civil government to mandate this worship.

For such a structure of beliefs to be considered “non-denominational”, every religion would have to agree on these points, and every person would have to follow some version of religion. This is absolutely not the case, and anyone who believes that no faith group would take issue with any of these tenets obviously doesn’t have much experience with religion as a whole. Gov. Bryant seems to have forgotten that there are religions and beliefs other than Christianity.

Not everyone believes in just one god – billions of people believe in many gods, or none at all. And not every monotheist believes their god is a “he” or bears the name “God”. Some people don’t believe that a god would concern itself with human activities. Even Christians who share Bryant’s theology might still disagree with the exact text of the prayer or take issue with the government telling them when and how they should pray. Ultimately, Bryant’s outline for school prayer would be “non-denominational” only to those who completely agree with him.

If it were acceptable for the government to endorse and promote these specific religious beliefs, then it would be equally acceptable for public schools to institute daily Islamic prayers toward Mecca. Would it matter that not everyone is Muslim, or prays to Allah in the same way, or believes that the government should lead people in prayer? No. Such considerations would already have been ignored in order to allow the promotion of Christianity as Gov. Bryant sees it. Disregarding the Establishment Clause doesn’t just permit your favorite religion to insert itself into public schools. It permits all religions to do the same.

But when the civil government decides that a certain faith should be honored in schools and other public institutions, it positions itself as the arbiter of which religious beliefs are true or false. The state’s approval and promotion of Christianity necessarily means denying that promotion to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, Scientology, Satanism, Unitarian Universalism, the Jedi, atheism, and every other viewpoint pertaining to religion. It isn’t the job of judges, executives and lawmakers to decide whether a certain god exists or a religious belief is valid, and there are no grounds for imposing a particular religion upon the populace at large.

Whenever the government says that one person’s religious views are better than another’s, somebody always loses, and anyone who seeks state promotion of their faith will only avoid this as long as their religion is in vogue. The First Amendment doesn’t only protect the government from the influence of religion. It protects everyone, of any religion or no religion, from state interference in their personal beliefs.

Without school-sponsored prayer, students are still free to pray on their own while in school. But where school prayer is mandated, students from all walks of life have often been required to acknowledge an “Almighty God” or “Heavenly Father”, whether through regulation or just social pressure. Such an arrangement is clearly antithetical to genuine religious freedom in schools.

The only truly “non-denominational” prayer is the one that isn’t imposed upon everyone else. As the leader of an entire state, Gov. Bryant should understand this, and it’s disturbing that he either doesn’t know enough to keep his personal faith separate from the government, or he just doesn’t care. He may feel that school prayer is harmless, but the Bill of Rights would beg to differ.