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When it comes to attacks from the extremes of the conservative movement, I thought I’d seen it all: I’m a gay, liberal California state senator representing San Francisco, who pushes progressive policies on issues including LGBT rights. The blasts from right-wing media come often — and I often blast back.
But even I was surprised when a fairly innocuous bill I authored became the latest fodder for an anti-gay, anti-trans freakout on the right. Somehow, a commonsense push to protect frail LGBT seniors in long-term care facilities became yet another “bathroom bill,” seized upon by a movement that is unusually obsessed with what goes on in bathrooms.
The panic began on fringe blogs and worked its way up to primetime Fox News programming. The fearmongers managed to portray some of the most sympathetic folks around — senior citizens — as dangerous predators. The episode serves as a shining example of how willfully dishonest the right-wing media can be, especially when attacking the LGBT community.
Let's start with the basics. We're talking about LGBT senior citizens, whether a 75-year-old lesbian widow, an 80-year-old gay man who's lived with HIV for 35 years, or an 85-year-old transgender woman who's put up with a lot of shit over the years. These seniors — who are just regular people experiencing old age and many health needs — are more likely to be poor than other seniors. They're less likely to have adult children to advocate for them.
They're also more likely to experience discrimination in long-term care facilities, with some going back into the closet, transgender people being forced to reidentify as their birth gender, and people with HIV receiving inadequate health care. We're talking about some of the most marginalized members of society, and studies have shown they need legal protection to ensure they're able to age with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Earlier this year, I introduced a bill to protect these people. Senate Bill 219 protects LGBT seniors from discrimination, such as denying admission to a long-term care facility, transferring a resident within a facility or to another facility based on anti-LGBT attitudes of other residents, or refusing to use a resident’s preferred pronoun.
The rule prevents facilities from evicting or involuntarily discharging a resident on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression, or HIV status.
The bill is important, and I'm personally passionate about protecting our elders — the people who built the modern LGBT community and allowed people like me to be out and open. But it’s not necessarily a headline grabber, at least here in California. It's sort of mom-and-apple-pie. I figured the bill would move quietly through the legislature, that we would work to iron out any issues with departments and long-term care facility operators, and that we would take another important step forward for the LGBT community in our long march toward equality.
Then the other shoe dropped.
It started with a fringe group called the Pacific Justice Institute, who said the bill would turn Catholic nursing homes into places that “resemble a bordello more than a religious healthcare facility.” The Daily Caller quickly followed, saying it “forces transgender bathrooms into nursing homes.” Another right-wing publication warned in a headline that the bill “could force grandma to share a room with a gender-confused man” and referred to me as a “California homosexual senator” and “an openly homosexual Democrat."
After these specious attacks floundered — understandably, given the backlash against the same arguments behind the North Carolina trans bathroom law — these opponents of LGBT civil rights came up with a new argument: that people could be criminally prosecuted and jailed if they use the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgender senior citizen in a long-term care facility.
The claim is absurd because the bill doesn't create any new criminal penalties. Instead, under *already existing* law governing residential care facilities, violations can be charged as misdemeanors — but only if patients are exposed to the risk of death, serious physical harm, or other similarly serious factors. No one is going to jail for using the wrong pronoun, just as nobody goes to jail for violating other provisions, like failing to provide an interpreter or not observing a smoking ban.
Not that the opponents care about these details. Their attacks, no matter how wrong, grant them the delusion that they are the great protectors of free speech, which I guess makes them feel better about themselves than what they are actually doing: denying LGBT seniors basic rights and dignity.
The attacks against the bill show two things. First, anti-trans campaigns aren't just about children’s bathrooms — they can be used against anyone, even the elderly. The second is that the conservative media has no shame or concern for reality when choosing how to attack transgender and other LGBT people. Its goal, pure and simple, is to create fear and stir controversy. A headline that you will go jail for using an incorrect pronoun is absurd. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again.
The far-right movement has a long history of attacking LGBT people with dishonest and offensive arguments, including when those opposed to marriage equality claimed that allowing people of the same gender to marry would lead to bestiality. We have persevered in the face of these attacks, and we will continue to do so. The bill was passed by the Legislature last week, and sent to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature.
In the meantime, let's protect the little old trans lady who just wants to have a comfortable old age. Let's not demonize and slander her.
Scott Wiener is a California state senator. A Democrat, he represents District 11, which includes San Francisco, Broadmoor, Colma, Daly City, and portions of South San Francisco.