WASHINGTON – When driving home to see family, Rachel Pike bases the six-hour trip to Madison, Ohio, on which gas station convenience stores have single-stall restrooms with doors facing the outside of the building. That way, Pike can avoid uncomfortable glances and tense encounters with people who think they're in the wrong bathroom.
“It is shocking to people who don’t live like this,” said Pike, who is genderqueer and uses gender-neutral pronouns. “Using a restroom shouldn’t have to be so scary.”
President Joe Biden vowed that enacting the Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in public accommodations such as stores and restaurants, would be a top priority in his first 100 days in the White House. That deadline is long gone, and the Equality Act languishes in the Senate despite support from the majority of Americans. LGBTQ advocates said they don’t have a choice but to try to create safe places for their community on their own, without the help lawmakers promised.
Through community building and political organizing, LGBTQ advocates try to make public spaces, schools and federally funded programs, such as day care, safer and more accessible for their communities, which increasingly include people who are transgender or nonbinary.
This year, Pike became a leader among the country’s LGBTQ social activists, hosting live events on Instagram and collaborating with dozens of other queer and lesbian bar owners from around the USA to collectively raise money for business costs amid the pandemic.
Pike and their fiancée, Jo McDaniel, signed a lease this month for a new LGBTQ bar called As You Are in Washington. The couple said they want to create a place where no patron fears being treated differently because of their gender identity.
"We want to be able to hang out with people that are different from us and the same as us and just be safe," Pike, 36, said.
Even though there’s growing support for LGBTQ rights among Americans, conservative state lawmakers passed a record number of bills this year restricting the rights of transgender kids – which the Equality Act could overturn, if passed.
In the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, as conservatives rally their base by seizing on issues such as restricting athletes to sports corresponding to their assigned sex at birth, transgender Americans said they are increasingly becoming political pawns.
“We find ourselves in this game, this social game” said Professor Talia Bettcher, who teaches transgender studies at California State University, Los Angeles. “Our entire social life is subject to rules, and it's subject to rules that half the time we don't even think about.”
'At the whim of misinformation': New report calls out Southern media coverage of LGBTQ issues
LGBTQ, women voters see alignment in fight for gender equality
This spring, transgender activist Carmarion Anderson-Harvey spent hours on the floor of the Alabama Legislature speaking against two state bills that would restrict transgender kids’ access to school sports and health care.
Anderson-Harvey started her work advocating for LGBTQ rights during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She said seeing more than a generation's worth of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from elected officials motivates her to keep fighting on behalf of trans kids as the Alabama state director for the Human Rights Campaign.
"These lawmakers are finding ways as a political score to marginalize the most marginalized of the LGBTQ community, and now they went a step further into our youth community," said Anderson-Harvey, who is a grandmother.
In April, Alabama’s bill that would have banned best practice medical care for transgender youth died in the state Legislature after trans kids and their parents spoke to lawmakers about the medical treatments they needed.
Alabama's governor signed HB391 into law, banning transgender students from playing sports with students who share their gender identity.
“The female would not have a chance competing against a male athlete,” said the bill's primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Scott Stadthagen, when asked why he pushed for the legislation.
In March, during the first and most recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the Equality Act, which would expand Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LGBTQ people and women and create additional protections for people of color, immigrants and religious groups, lawmakers focused their arguments against the bill mainly on the issue of transgender girls in sports.
A USA TODAY investigation found proponents of banning transgender girls from sports enabled coaches and parents to more easily scrutinize and target all female athletes, including cisgender girls, based on their physical appearance alone.
'There's nothing to be fearful of': Parents and activists fight to keep transgender girls in school sports
Despite the political fight over transgender girls in sports, voting data shows women – more so than men – are more inclined to back political candidates who stand for LGBTQ rights.
Nearly 4 in 10 (37%) of general election voters in the 2020 presidential election prioritized LGBTQ issues at the ballot box, and the majority (60%) of those voters were women, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
"Those that are the least among us have come together, so we can actually build a greater army to produce change," Anderson-Harvey said. "When that change happens in the women community, it transfers over to the LGBTQ community."
Women are more likely than men to identify as LGBTQ: 6.4% of adult women identify with the acronym compared with 4.9% of men, according to a Gallup poll.
‘They can come and be safe’
Anderson-Harvey said she thinks all women and girls, both trans and cisgender, experience the outside world scrutinizing their bodies.
Camden Hargrove knows what that's like.
Hargrove, who was assigned female at birth and grew up as a girl, remembers getting cat-called in middle school by men speeding by, yelling out of car windows.
“It obviously doesn’t happen to me now,” said Hargrove, who is a trans man.
Throughout his adolescence in Racine, Wisconsin, Hargrove said, he didn’t have a choice but to see the world around him through different, often contrasting perspectives.
Growing up in a mixed-race family, he said, he wondered why his white grandparents owned their home while his Black relatives rented government subsidized apartments in over-policed neighborhoods.
Because of his biracial and transgender identities, Hargrove, 31, said he’s been forced to think about how people are treated differently because of how they look – either because of their race, gender or both.
“I have experienced the world in two different ways,” he said.
SUBSCRIBE: Help support quality journalism like this.
Hargrove said that after he medically transitioned in his early 20s, he started noticing men use more derogatory language to describe women in all-male social settings.
“It’s just like how trolls online would never say that stuff to people in person,” he said. “Dudes say a bunch of things together, alone, that they don't say out loud to females because they know it's disrespectful.”
In Hargrove’s family home in Menomonie, Wisconsin, children's books are scattered about the bedroom floors, including "Happy to Be Nappy" by bell hooks and "The Colors of Us" by Karen Katz. Hargrove said the books help him teach his two daughters, Joella, 13, and Marietta, 6, to be proud of who they are.
"It is very important for me to make sure they feel proud of being brown, they feel very proud and confident of being female, because I know how hard that struggle can be,” he said.
This fall, Hargrove became the national organizing manager for the National Black Justice Coalition, one of the country’s leading civil rights groups for Black LGBTQ people.
As part of his role, he worked with two lesbian parents who said their family was discriminated against while trying to enroll their child in day care. They said their application was accepted, then rejected when they presented themselves as a couple.
Hargrove said that without sexual orientation and gender identity included in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there's "no deterrent" for what happened.
The parents were connected with the Department of Education, which, under Biden, has said Title IX prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ students.
'Thank you for seeing me': For trans patients, inclusive health care is essential – and can bring joy.
For LGBTQ Americans to have lasting federal discrimination protections, Hargrove said, they need the security only the Equality Act can provide.
“Not all people currently have all of the rights,” he said. “It’s something that could create immediate, lasting change for an entire community of people and all of their family and loved ones.”
In Hargrove's neighborhood in Menomonie, Joella follows in her dad's footsteps by acting as a support system for her transgender classmates.
Four teenagers from Joella’s school come over to Hargrove’s house on a weekly basis seeking solace, sometimes because people "deadname" or misgender them, referring to them using incorrect names and genders. The kids can stay for dinner or spend the night if they need to, Hargrove said.
“We can always be the place where people feel like they can come and be safe,” Hargrove said. “We will always find a way to take care of those kids.”
Gender can influence many of our everyday interactions
When Pike asks for the single-stall restroom key at gas stations along their driving route, they are given either the men’s or women’s restroom key by the person standing behind the cash register.
“Whichever they gave me based on their assumption of my gender, I’d use it,” Pike said.
At restaurants, Pike's teenage kid helps scope out the restroom situation ahead of time and often accompanies Pike to the bathroom, so they don't face any unwanted tension alone.
Bettcher said that because gender is “written onto" people's bodies and the clothes they wear, gender can determine how they interact with each other.
“Sometimes people think of gender as specifically concerning the atomic individual. But to me, the key is to think of gender as relational. It’s about how we interact with each other,” said Bettcher, who created and helped implement policies for how the Los Angeles Police Department should interact with transgender people.
At their new bar in Washington's Barracks Row, Pike and McDaniel said they’ll have a zero-tolerance policy for disrespecting someone’s identity or behaving nonconsensually.
McDaniel, who has worked in the bar and restaurant industry for 16 years, said she’s seen all too many times how anyone – regardless of their gender – can behave inappropriately toward other patrons on a night out.
“The thing about toxic masculinity is you don't have to be a man to exhibit it,” McDaniel, 40, said.
Even though As You Are will be mainly for queer Washingtonians, McDaniel said the relevance of people’s LGBTQ identity will be secondary to their ability to do right by the people around them.
"It's not who you are or how you present," McDaniel said. "It's your behavior that will determine whether or not this place is for you.”
Transgender Awareness Week
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trans Awareness Week: Equality Act delay puts LGBTQ rights at risk