This year high-profile transgender stars Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox are blazing civil rights trails in the hearts and minds of the country.
Still, people transitioning to the other gender without the help of a national media campaign continue to struggle for basic rights, like using the bathroom appropriate for their chosen gender.
Leading the way to equality, one of the biggest transgender civil rights groups is right here in the Bay Area’s backyard — and now it will be honored here too.
The Oakland-based Transgender Law Center was voted community grand marshal of San Francisco’s 2015 Pride Parade, a recognition coming after 13 years of groundbreaking litigation that continues to pave the way for transgender people and people who are gender nonconforming.
The San Francisco Examiner talked to two of the center’s staffers, executive director Kris Hayashi and staff attorney Sasha Buchert, to highlight the organization’s recent legal wins in the transgender community.
“Growing up as a young, very gender nonconforming child, and an Asian kid in Seattle, I faced ongoing harassment,” Hayashi said.
That harassment came from teachers and fellow students, and even in unexpected places.
“At different points in my life I’ve been told I’m in the wrong bathroom, threatened and told I need to leave,” he said.
Hayashi parlayed that harrowing experience into professionally defending other transgender people. Hayashi took the reins of the Transgender Law
Center earlier this year, after serving various roles at the nonprofit. He’s a newly christened executive director at a unique time, he said, as many high-profile transgender people garner newfound fame.
And being recognized by San Francisco Pride as organizational grand marshal raises the bar for transgender people.
“For the Transgender Law Center to be honored this year is really making a really clear statement because we’re so clearly at a critical moment as a community,” Hayashi said.
That moment also comes on the heels of decisive wins for the nonprofit. In 2012, the group successfully argued to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that discrimination based on transgender identity falls under the federal sexual discrimination law.
In a historic ruling, the EEOC agreed, opening a floodgate for the law center to defend transgender people through further litigation in other successive cases. That ruling centered around the case of a woman discriminated against while employed in Walnut Creek, but the law center will soon defend people in new, far-flung locales.
“Just a few months ago we announced our expansion into the South,” Hayashi said.
Hayashi himself faced discrimination just this year, as he negotiated new health care options. At 40 years old and having transitioned long ago, many now see him as “just a guy,” Hayashi said. That is, until the law intersects with his identity. It’s a reminder that despite high-profile recognition of transgender and gender nonconforming people’s rights, legal victories are more important than ever, Hayashi said.
In many of these legal tangles, Hayashi said, lives hang in the balance.
There’s been an “incredible amount of violence” and harassment this year in the transgender community, he said. In 2015, eight transgender women of color were killed in the U.S. And “we continue to see bills across the country seeking to criminalize transgender people simply for using the bathroom,” Hayashi said.
“There’s incredible visibility,” he said, “but we continue to face this struggle.”
Like some of her colleagues, Buchert was inspired to defend the transgender community because of her own experience. After finishing law school, she began her journey to realizing her true gender identity as a woman. One by one, legal obstacles dropped in front of her.
“Just to get a name change you need to fill out as many as eight different forms,” Buchert said. “Whether to open a bank account, or get on a plane, or get a job, you need to have accurate identification. It takes money and time.”
And many prejudiced people are gatekeepers along those steps to legal personhood. By the time she finished, only one word could summate her experience, she said.
But she didn’t stay that way for long.
Now a staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, Buchert turned that anger into passion. Recently she and other attorneys won a case defending a transgender woman who was discriminated against by the Army in Alabama. After transitioning to her true gender identity as a woman in 2010, Tamra Lusardi, a software quality assurance specialist, was harassed and ridiculed.
“She was required to use a gender-neutral restroom, which is stigmatizing, and outs her every time she uses the bathroom,” Buchert said. Explaining the impact to Lusardi’s mental health, Burchert said of the stigma, “It brands her.”
“Her employer mocked her in front of her peers,” she said. It was “extremely pervasive” harassment.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed with that assessment. As a result of litigation brought by the Transgender Law Center, and argued by Buchert, in April the EEOC ruled the Army had deprived Lusardi of “equal status, respect, and dignity in the workplace.”
Buchert prevailed on behalf of her client, which was built on the legal precedent from the EEOC’s earlier ruling on transgender discrimination won by the Transgender Law Center in 2012. Reflecting on the victory, she said, “This is my dream job; I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.”
But Buchert’s joy didn’t only stem from the legal win. Along the way, she and Lusardi formed a bond. The pair learned from one another.
Now, Buchert said, “I’m not angry anymore. I’m confident. I’m encouraged. I’m still driven by the passion of wanting to win equality.”
Anger is no longer her guiding emotion, she said. Instead, it’s hope.