Harleigh Walker never expected the President of the United States to speak directly to her community.
The 14-year-old from Alabama said she felt recognized when President Joe Biden called transgender youth “courageous” in urging Congress on Wednesday to pass the equality law in his first speech at a joint session of Congress.
“Especially with the recent anti-trans legislation,” Harleigh said. “For the president to recognize us in this way and tell us that he was on our side, it was so great. It was empowering. It gave us hope.”
His father said he felt relief upon hearing Biden. “Seeing this federally, my daughter has this support, was so encouraging,” said Jeff Walker.
“I just hope this reverberates and affects lawmakers at the state level,” he said. “This is just the start of the road.”
Supporters say Biden’s recognition of trans people, especially amid recent anti-trans legislation across the country, is a big step forward for visibility and acceptance.
“To all the transgender Americans who are watching at home, especially the young people who are so brave, I want you to know that your president is supporting you,” Biden said Wednesday.
In his speech, Biden said he hopes Congress passes the Equality Act “to protect the rights of LGBTQ Americans.”
The landmark legislation would expand federal civil rights to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity, protections many Americans believe have already been enshrined in law, according to lawmakers.
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Serena Sonoma, communications coordinator for national advocacy group GLAAD, said it was still legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in nearly 30 states.
“The Equality Act would guarantee these core values of equal treatment in law,” she told USA TODAY.
Sonoma said she hopes Biden’s words will lead to greater security and acceptance for trans people.
“I hope transgender people, and especially transgender children, will see and hear that they are welcome and belong as they are,” Sonoma said.
The Equality Act is the next step in making “significant progress in building a more inclusive world,” said Karen Graci, chairman of the LGBTQ advocacy association PFLAG’s Charlotte chapter, in North Carolina.
Biden’s remarks could help the country reach that milestone faster, she said.
Biden broke his promise to sign the Equality Act in his first 100 days in office, which would be Thursday. The House passed the bill in February, but faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which is split 50 to 50 between Republican and Democratic members with Vice President Kamala Harris in a tiebreaker role. .
The House passed a similar version of the bill in 2019, but died in the then Republican-controlled Senate.
Biden’s comments come at a time when transgender Americans have been targeted by bills aimed at preventing them from accessing sex-affirming health care or participating in sports under their gender identity.
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Her speech also follows a year of violence for many trans Americans with at least 44 known transgender people killed in the United States in 2020, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking this data since 2013.
Just four months into 2021, at least 17 transgender people were killed. Both figures are expected to be underestimated, because “too often these stories go unreported or misreported,” according to the Human Rights Campaign.
The HRC noted that LGBTQ people continue to face violence as well as discrimination in healthcare, housing and education.
“It has been a very difficult year for trans people, especially trans children and their parents,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told USA TODAY.
“State lawmakers attack and intimidate trans children for political gain. It is shameful, disgusting and unacceptable, and it has a psychological impact on these children, ”she continued. “But you know what helps cheat that? The president tells them he’s backing them.”
After Wednesday’s speech, the Campaign for Human Rights praised Biden’s support for the equality law.
“Equality and justice are not partisan goals – they are the foundation on which our country was founded,” HRC President Alphonso David said in a statement.
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PFLAG, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy organization, said Biden’s support for transgender youth means a lot to their families.
“We are also touched by her vocal support for our trans children, whose rights and very lives have been threatened by hundreds of dangerous and damaging bills,” said Brian K. Bond, National Executive Director of PFLAG, in a statement.
One of Biden’s first acts in favor of the transgender community was the lifting of President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender troops. On the first day of his tenure, he signed an executive order implementing a Supreme Court ruling declaring anti-LGBTQ occupational discrimination illegal as a form of sex discrimination.
Last year, Biden appointed Rachel Levine as Assistant Secretary of Health, making her the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by Congress.
First Lady Jill Biden also invited Stella Keating, a 16-year-old transgender teenager who testified against anti-trans bills in the US Senate, as a virtual guest at Wednesday’s address.
On Transgender Visibility Day in March, Biden acknowledged in a statement “the generations of struggle, activism and courage that have brought our country closer to full equality for transgender and non-binary gender people in the United States. United and in the world “.
Keisling, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she appreciates Biden for listening to trans people.
“I’ve spent the past eight years saying that President Obama is the best president for trans people and that no one is even second,” she said. “And I have to say President Biden got off to a faster start.”
But while the equality law is important, it is far from the last step, she said. Next, she wants to see a “comprehensive plan to end violence against black trans women.”
The Human Rights Campaign’s analysis of deadly violence against trans women in 2020 found “that it is clear that deadly violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color – particularly black transgender women.”
“There is a long history of violence against black trans women in this country,” Keisling said. “These women deserve better protection.”
For resources for transgender people, visit GLAAD has compiled a list here.
Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.
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