It’s easy to feel hopeful when the federal government, of all things, can move you to tears in the name of justice.
It’s pretty rare that a Department of Justice press conference will bring people to tears — today was a rare and historic exception.
Today, Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued a formal response to HB2, North Carolina’s anti-transgender law. In it, she said:
Lynch rightly called out that the sudden push in anti-trans legislation appears to be in response to the recent progress being made for LGBT rights, and she recalled other situations where backlash followed great progress.
Which brings us to today’s conflict, about North Carolina’s new discriminatory law aimed at trans people.
“This is not a time to act out of fear. This is a time to summon our national virtues of inclusivity, diversity, compassion and open-mindedness. What we must not do — what we must never do — is turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans, for something they cannot control, and deny what makes them human.”
“This is why none of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not, or invents a problem that doesn’t exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.”
She also urged the state not to repeat the mistakes of the past, pointing out that it wasn’t so long ago that restrooms were segregated on the basis of race.
The whole speech was a moving statement, with trans people receiving support from the federal government in a way that would would have seemed truly impossible just a few years ago.
Head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta added a touching quote of her own (emphasis mine).
“Calling H.B.2 a ‘bathroom bill’ trivializes what this is really about. H.B.2 translates into discrimination in the real world. The complaint we filed today speaks to public employees who feel afraid and stigmatized on the job. It speaks to students who feel like their campus treats them differently because of who they are. It speaks to sports fans who feel forced to choose between their gender identity and their identity as a Tar Heel. And it speaks to all of us who have ever been made to feel inferior — like somehow we just don’t belong in our community, like somehow we just don’t fit in. Let me reassure every transgender individual, right here in America, that you belong just as you are. You are supported. And you are protected.“
These statements from Lynch and from Gupta signal a remarkable moment in American history and are likely to go down as oratory highlights of their careers.
Announcing the filing of a lawsuit rarely moves people, but these were no ordinary speeches. These were speeches that should go down in history, reminiscent of those delivered by Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama.
In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy made the call for a more involved America.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. … My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
In Ronald Reagan’s farewell address, he offered hope and reaffirmed the ideals America was built on.
“The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’ … I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
In Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he rejected false dichotomies.
“There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
In all these calls, whether we stand by the deliverer’s politics or not, we have been inspired to be our best selves, to see others with value.
Today, Lynch wants us to find empathy for those who may be different from us. Obama urged compromise. Reagan wanted us to create a welcoming America. Kennedy pushed teamwork. The messages are abundantly clear.
Here’s hoping Lynch’s words made their way not just into the North Carolina statehouse but into our collective history, as the progress toward a more inclusive, just, and tolerant America marches on.
It was a good day.
Thumbnail photo photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.