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  • Samira Burnside

As Anti LGBTQ+ Policy Rises, Representatives meet with the families affected.

In Washington D.C, on June 6th, at 2:00 PM, the Equality Caucus and the Democratic Caucus of the United States Congress hosted a joint roundtable where they listened to the parents and Children affected by the wave of anti-trans legislation sweeping the country. Among the crowd were 3 students and 3 parents. The meeting was meant to go from 2 to 3, but this issue could never be contained to such a time frame. Despite the representatives busy schedules, they ended up staying until almost 4 PM, listening to the stories of the students and parents.


What is the Equality Caucus?


Congresspeople are busy, and they can’t research every issue all the time. So, the Equality Caucus was formed. The Equality Caucus is something of a resource for the members of congress, an aid in helping them to extend equal rights policies to all. Its goals, as stated on its website are “the extension of equal rights, the repeal of discriminatory laws, the elimination of hate-motivated violence, and the improved health and well-being for all regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or sex characteristics (including intersex traits).” Created by Tammy Baldwin and Barney Frank, two representatives who were among the first openly gay people in the house of representatives, the caucus has spent the last 15 years striving towards equal rights for all. It’s even the largest Caucus in congress, with 190 members, not counting the Democratic and the Republican caucus.


Part of striving towards equality is arming the representatives who are part of the Caucus with the stories, facts and information that can be used to create legislation that will create pro-equality policies, such as The Equality Act. This is where the roundtable mentioned earlier comes in. The roundtable was designed to arm the representatives who came with the stories and trials of the trans parents and students who attended so that they could fight for pro-equality policies with a better understanding of the people being affected. In attendance were many members of the House, such as Florida’s own Rep. Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, as well as the Democratic Leader of the House, Hakeem Jeffries.


(Florida's own U.S House of Representatives Rep. Wasserman-Schultz)


As the panel, which was organized by Executive Director Jordan Dashow, began, the representatives and organizers made a note to call out the importance of Hakeem Jefferies’s contributions to the Equality Caucus. They cited all House Democrats (and one republican) holding the line against the federal ban on trans sports and voting against it as being due to Jefferies’s active and engaged leadership. Midway through the panel, Jefferies and several other representatives had to leave due to a crisis on the floor of the house as Republicans flipped and began voting with democrats as a protest to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s debt ceiling proposal. But, none of the parents and children knew about what was happening on the floor of the house at that moment, none of them particularly cared about the political games being played just outside the doors of that committee room: This was a crisis of its own kind, and it needed just as much attention. Rep. Wasserman Schultz said “I would rather be in here right now.”

 

The panel opened with opening statements from the parents and children. First was Harleigh Walker and Jeff Walker, a father and daughter activist duo from Auburn Alabama. They have protested against laws like HB 266, a law in Alabama which would have effectively banned gender affirming care for trans minors, such as Harleigh herself. Harleigh is only 16 years old, but has been thrust into the fight for her own rights from a young age due to the actions of her legislature. In an interview with WRBL.com Harleigh says this about her identity: “I would not choose to be worried about how politicians can affect my health care or choose my bathroom, or being bullied at school. This is who I am. I am proud of who I am. I am glad to share my story and worries with others and hopefully make a change.”.


(Jeff Walker, Left and Harleigh Walker, Right)


At the panel, she talked about the importance of educating local legislators and communities on the nature of trans care, because there are so many misconceptions. Her father, Jeff Walker, spoke after her, noting that this conflict was personal for him. “When you hear a (legislator) say “we need to stop Harleigh Walker”, when they say the- can you imagine, them saying the name of your child? When that happens it becomes personal.” Said Walker in his opening statements. There was a palpable feeling of frustration and protection from each of the three fathers at the conference, Walker included. It was a feeling of “If you want to get to my kid, you have to get through me.”.


I know this because I was one of the students in the room. I, Samira Burnside, spoke next, followed by my father, Muti Sekhem. I spoke about the need for a standardization of trans health care and my experience as a transgender youth in Florida (more on that in my Op-Ed, which you can find here). Muti spoke about how this fight has become personal for him as well and the ways in which the defensive maneuvers surrounding the response to these anti-trans bills needs to be altered to be more personal and tactical. He was loud with conviction, watching him speak was seeing months of frustration with a legislature that wants your child taken from you given voice to the people whom it mattered most.


(Muti Sekhem, second from the left, and Samira Burnside, Third from the left, attending a joint panel between Equality Florida and HRC after the expansion of the Don't say gay policy.)


The third and final family to speak was the Chukumba family. First was Hobbes Chukumba, a 16 year old highschool junior from Trenton, New Jersey. He’s also one of the organizers for the trans prom event which took Washington D.C by storm in march of 2023, a mix of political activism and the simple revolutionary act of queer joy in times like these. He spoke about the need for education, and his experience with trans healthcare as a transgender man. Then Stephen Chukumba, his father, spoke. Stephen is a member of PFLAG as well as the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council. Stephen is also a public speaker, as well as a producer and writer for films such as “The Manager and Black Market Green: The Whitewashing of the Marijuana Industry”. The man spoke about the personal nature of the conflict, as well as his reaction to his son coming out, and the way in which the political climate affected his fears for his son's future. This conflict was personal to every single parent at that table, and it showed in their impassioned testimonies.


(Hobbes Chukumba, second from the right at the trans prom event.)

"“This was certainly one of the most moving panels I’ve had the pleasure of listening to during my time here.”

After introductory statements came the question and answer period. The legislators were earnest and engaged, asking questions eagerly, listening intently and asking follow ups. I watched their faces as the parents and children gave their testimonies, I saw them wince and mutter as the children and parents explained their experiences with the anti-trans legislative attacks. This sense of passion carried from the panelists into the legislators. One representative, near the end of the panel, thanked the Equality Caucus and said “This was certainly one of the most moving panels I’ve had the pleasure of listening to during my time here.”.


Representative Wasserman-Schultz turned her attention to Florida, asking about what Trans Floridians needed as things continued to escalate. Meanwhile, other Representatives asked about the nature of Trans Care, allowing the different parents and children to tell their personal stories about what transgender healthcare actually looked like, effectively demystifying it. We talked about everything, from what democratic defense should look like, to what a standardized standard of care might look like (Aided by Olivia Hunt, the Public Policy Director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, who was also in attendance), to the ways in which the narrative of trans kids being inherently vulnerable and suicidal in a disproportionate manner was actually harming the cause. Muti Sekhem said at one point “Trans kids have depression because PEOPLE have depression, trans kids have mental illness because PEOPLE have mental illness, it has nothing to do with them being trans.” Other parents expressed that trans kids might have worse mental states BECAUSE of the actions of anti-transgender legislatures. I spoke about the ways in which the empathy-messaging around trans children had been co-opted by GOP members like Representative Randy Fine, and the ways in which we needed to change our messaging.


(Trans Rights protests in the Florida Congressional building.)


Every word, whether it came from a parent or a student, was listened to. The Legislators watched with attentive eyes and took notes in their notepads, engaged. They asked follow ups, answered questions, and most of all they listened. They listened to every word and weighed them with the importance they held. On the way out, each Legislator who was in the room shook the hands of each parent and child. Representative Wasserman Schultz thanked me for what I did and told me to reach out if ever I needed anything, and I thanked her in turn. There was a genuineness in the room, a feeling that these people, from their high seats of power in Washington, really cared, really wanted to improve, really wanted to help all of us. At one point, Jeff and Harleigh Walker mentioned that the Alabama Equality Caucus had been disassembled in a time where it was the most important, and while the panel was going one representative took out her phone and began messaging her colleagues in Alabama to remedy the situation.


There have been many times in this struggle for trans rights that I have felt outnumbered, or like my voice was washed out in a flood of other ones, but the panel, no matter how cliché it sounds, made me feel heard.


But it doesn’t stop there.



 

Being heard doesn’t matter if our words aren’t put into action. This was a great starting point, but I can’t wait to see where it goes. I want more trans people in panels speaking with legislators. I want an overwhelming diversity of opinion, I want to see our representatives using our stories, using our experiences, using all that we can give them up there on Congresses floor. I want to see them represent us and fight for us at a federal level. I want to see Harleigh Walker’s ideas around education trickle down into the local legislative bodies. I want to see panels like these in the most red of red states, I want to see federal legislation, I want to see more representatives like Wasserman Schultz, Hakeem Jeffries, and Sheila Jackson Lee and everyone else at the panel invested in listening to the trans community and wielding their stories as a weapon against these legislative attacks.


The panel was a great start, but now we need action, on levels both federal and state, local and national, political and not. And I trust that this was only the start of something much greater.

 

This article was written by Samira Burnside. You can contact her at sburnside@thequeernotion.com .

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