Guest blogger Cristina Spencer is an author, activist and certified Life Coach. She is a lifelong advocate for gender equality and recently appeared on our Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour. Cristina joined Sara Cunningham and Kimberly Shappley on one of our most successful panels regarding parents of transgender children.
For years before she wrote to her employers to inform them that she was transgender, Aimee Stephens lived two separate lives. During the day, she dressed as a man and served grieving families as a funeral director. At home she dressed in alignment with her identity as a woman, a transgender woman. She wrote to her employers in July 2013 after surviving years of despair to inform them she could no longer endure the agony of appearing in the world as someone she was not. She had no idea this one simple action would be her first step toward transforming the rights of transgender Americans across the country.
I first became aware of Aimee Stephens in April of 2019 when my son had just turned thirteen and was one year away from taking his first testosterone shot. As a transgender boy his life had been relatively easy. He had a family that loved and supported him. He had access to gender affirming medical care. He did well in school and had a wide circle of friends who piled into our basement to eat chips and watch the New England Patriots crush the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl the previous January. In a time when 75% of trans kids report feeling unsafe at school, our family understands that our son is lucky.
Transgender Rights are Human Rights
But by April of 2019, public life was feeling increasingly uncertain for us. The rapid and aggressive erosion of my son’s rights under the Trump administration was undeniable. In February 2017, one of the first actions his administration took was to revoke legal guidance that protected trans students’ right to use the appropriate bathroom at school. In March, protections for trans, homeless people seeking refuge in emergency shelters was withdrawn. And in July, qualified transgender people were banned from serving in the American military. Shortly before the Supreme Court announced in April 2019 that they would hear Aimee Stephens’ case, Roger Severino, Director of the Office of Civil Rights in the Federal Health And Human Services Department, announced plans to roll back protections guaranteeing transgender individuals health care coverage in the ACA while also expanding the religious rights of healthcare organizations to deny care to transgender people.
A Visit to the Supreme Court
Our new reality forced me to contact my son’s school to insist that if he ever needed emergency medical attention he was not to be taken to the hospital closest to the school, which was affiliated with a Catholic healthcare company, but instead to a secular hospital 2 miles farther away. This was something I never imagined I’d need to do in my lifetime. So when I learned that the Supreme Court was going to hear Aimee Stephens case, I knew I had to go see for myself how the highest court in the land was going to shape my son’s future.
Fifty members of the general public are admitted to the Supreme Court everyday (when we are not in a pandemic!) to hear the day’s oral arguments. The line outside the court began to form two days before the case would be heard. The orange slip of paper I received from the court officer the morning of October 8th informed me that I would be the 40th member of the general public admitted to the court.
I was struck by how human the experience felt against the epic backdrop of the Supreme Court. My paper ticket, Justice Sotomayor's travel coffee mug up on the bench, RBG's chunky red necklace, Gorsuch's huge yawn and oversized mug. The way all of us who cued our way through the courthouse’s security check points became a society of sorts.
The hearing was anxiety provoking. The progressive side of the argument for once has a very simple straightforward logic--if you fire someone for being gay, you are firing them for failing to meet a stereotypical expectation about who men or women should love (same logic applies to gender identity--if you fire someone for being trans, you are firing them for being the "wrong kind of man or woman"). On the conservative side, the argument was that sexual orientation and gender identity were never intended to be a part of the 1964 Civil rights act (but nor was sexual harassment or inter racial marriage...other topics that the court has already interpreted to be covered by the law). Overall, the morning did not seem hopeful. Even Aimee Stephen’s lead counsel, from the ACLU, when I had a brief chance to meet him, told me he did not expect to win.
There's Always Hope
One ray of hope I did take away that day was that everyone there that day got along. I had a conversation with four homeschooled high school students who were attending court because they believed that "god made people male and female." The facts they had about trans people were completely contrary to mine and they had never spent time with any trans people. And yet I felt oddly maternal toward them (when we were rushed for time to stash our stuff in lockers before going into the courtroom one of them ended up putting her stuff in my locker). She thanked me for my help. Her friends thanked me for being civil with them, which told me they expected liberals like me to behave otherwise. I imagined these kids meeting my own son. I could see them all getting along just fine. I could envision a future in which meeting my son actually changed how they felt about trans people. And so even though winning seemed like a long shot that day, I left with the idea that person-to-person communities tended to find a way to get along, and that if I focused on participating in a person-to-person network that supported the trans community, my son’s would be able to travel to different states, work where he wanted to work, and find doctors who would care for him. I set an intention leaving the court that day to join a person-to-person network that supported the trans community. I did not know what that meant exactly, but I made a request to the universe to connect me to such a group.
Finding Free Mom Hugs
Whether it was supernatural or just the algorithm at Facebook, I stumbled across Sara Cunningham and Free Mom Hugs in my social media feed the following week. Sara’s mission matched my prayer precisely. A few weeks later I made a donation online, and lo and behold, can you imagine, my phone rang. And it was Sara. Free Mom Hugs has been a part of my life since then. It is the person-to-person network I envisioned. I have since met incredible physicians who support trans kids, moms across the country raising trans kids, mom advocates who are fighting and winning legal battles at the state level. There is a sense that we are all in this together. And more important, since Free Mom Hugs has chapters in each of our fifty states, I know that my son has a safe network that he can rely on in the future.
SCOTUS Victory June 15, 2020
As many of you probably know, Aimee Stephens won her case in the Supreme Court, but did not live to see her day of victory. Because of her authenticity, her bravery, and her willingness to let her story serve others, trans kids across the nation can grow up knowing they can’t be fired from a job for who they are. The fact that Aimee Stephens did not live to see this day is sad, of course, but is a lesson to all of us that justice for the LGBTQ+ community is a long, up and down road. It is right to work toward future victories, but more important than letting one victory or another change how we feel about the future, we can know there is power in joining a robust community of care and commitment like Free Mom Hugs. We can be there for each other and for each other’s families on the good days and the bad, we can encourage one another to continue the work, we can connect each other to the critical information we need to find work or healthcare or shelter. Together we can make sure Aimee Stephens’ victory in court becomes a victory in the day-to-day lives of the LGBTQ+ community.