A Full* Win
Gwen Stembridge is Statewide Civic Engagement Director with Equality Ohio and a IFYC Fellows Alum ’05 claiming roots in Metro Atlanta, though she has called Cleveland, OH home for almost 9 years now. Reared in a LGBTQ-affirming United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta, she will always feel at home among pews, rainbows, and old hymns where she can loudly sing feminine pronouns over the tired male pronouns describing the divine. She never imagined being a “Career Queer” but has fallen deeply for the opportunity to meet powerholders where they are at and show them the beautiful possibilities that exist when you listen to and take direction from those with the most at stake.
“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
Majority Opinion Bostock v. Clayton County
June 15th was a big day. Suddenly, with just an announcement from the Supreme Court, firing someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity became illegal. Millions of people can now be out at work and in their personal lives without fear of losing their jobs. The LGBTQ advocates I organize with at my dining room table home office this week are celebrating in our little zoom boxes on my computer, and yet something other than our physical distance still feels off.
When LGBTQ advocates see SCOTUS cases like this, we spend months preparing for the decision. We have contingency plans for full win, full loss, and everything in between. For this one, it has always been clear that the scope of this case was limited to employment, which means it will continue to be legal to kick someone out of housing and deny them access to public goods and services, including restrooms and baked cakes, because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This case did not touch those areas of law that impact housing and public accommodations.
Though there are religious exemptions in current civil rights law and this case does not override religious liberty guaranteed by the first amendment, we will continue to see people and institutions of faith as the lead opposition to this decision. This is deeply disappointing to me as a person who grew up in a predominately LGBTQ faith community because I know it very possible to be both faithful and queer. It is incredibly disappointing that my United Methodist denomination is now a step behind the conservative Supreme Court of the United States.
I am torn because intellectually, I know how big it is that we got a full win. I know what this decision means for my friend who is working at a daycare with a fundamentalist Christian boss who has to hide not only her tattoo but also her fiancé. I know what this decision means for a family member who is still in the closet and has chosen a career path largely based on where they think they will be able to be out and transition. The attorneys and experts tell us this is as much a full win as it could be. So, cue the parades and rainbows and glitter, right? It’s Pride Month! We have to celebrate!
It is not just the gaping holes in legal protections that bother me. I think of the bright, glittered, corporatized pride parades of years past which stand in stark contrast to the marches we have seen the past few weeks. I was able to march alongside my friend, drag performer Kimmy Katarja (Under the Wig Podcast), at Pride in Cleveland the past few years. You can see us in the featured photo, her in gold glitz and me in my rainbow suspenders. This year, we did not meet up at Pride but instead at a Black Lives Matter march at the end of May. We both showed up intending to just join a car protest, in order to socially distance and protect out immunocompromised loved ones. We ended upright in the middle of things as police escalated violence, threw pepper spray bombs into the crowd, and we tried to transport supplies from cars and medic stations to the peaceful protesters in areas that were being hit the hardest by police wooden bullets and mace. Pride is supposed to be honoring and continuing the legacy of the black and brown Trans women who fought police brutality in the 60’s. Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera throwing bricks at police who raided their community space kickstarted a movement that led to so many of the wins we have today, including the recent SCOTUS Bostock decision. So why is it that the only way we’ve been celebrating Pride for years is with glitter corporate rainbow swag and not protesting in the damn streets!?
We white LGBTQ folks owe it to the Black Lives Matter movement for reminding us not only of the roots of pride but also why we get to be out as engineers, CEOs, and surgeons. We often gain those positions more because corporations steeped in white supremacy culture find it easier or “more of a fit” to hire someone white and gay than someone black and female. We have that privilege because black and brown leaders risked and lost and are still risking and losing their lives standing up to police violence and racism.
The attorneys and experts tell us this SCOTUS case is a full win. But it does not feel like a full win until Rayshard Brooks can sleep off a long day in the parking lot of a Wendy’s, wake up, and go back to his family. It does not feel like a full win until Brian Powers can live his full and authentic life and be celebrated in Akron, Ohio. Skye Mockabee and Brandi Bledsoe, Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem'Mie” Fells, Tony McDade, Brionna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many more certainly do not get to feel this “full” win. We need to celebrate Kimmy and other Black trans folks while they are alive. It is a celebration with an asterisk; a celebration with recognition that this is not a full win until it is a full win for everyone.