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Could Milwaukee County become a sanctuary for LGBTQ people?

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Could Milwaukee County become a sanctuary for LGBTQ people?

Sep 13, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Isiah Holmes
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Could Milwaukee County become a sanctuary for LGBTQ people?
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People gather for a March 31 event in New Orleans for Transgender Day of Visibility. (Greg LaRose | Louisiana Illuminator)

A resolution declaring Milwaukee County’s support for transgender people passed the County Board’s Committee on Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and General Services on Monday. With pressure bearing down upon LGBTQ communities across the nation, the resolution aims to establish that Milwaukee County is a safe, welcoming community for LGBTQ people, including transgender residents. The meeting attracted a wide subset of Milwaukee County with some residents agreeing that there is a need for such a resolution on one side, and religious Christians arguing on the other side against the acceptance of transgender people.

The resolution passed 3-2, and will now move to the County Board for consideration. At the beginning of the meeting, Sup. Juan Miguel Martinez explained his support for the resolution, telling the committee about a young member of his family who recently came out as gender non-binary. Martinez said the community should “protect people like her and people that are living these experiences.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 15: Joseph Fons holding a Pride Flag, stands in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building after the court ruled that LGBTQ people can not be disciplined or fired based on their sexual orientation June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. With Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch joining the Democratic appointees, the court ruled 6-3 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC – US Supreme Court (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“It’s also about not tolerating bigotry,” Martinez added, “and everybody’s got a right to an opinion but that’s simply not something that I would tolerate — bigotry towards anyone else.”

County residents attended the meeting to speak both in favor and against the resolution. Among those who supported the measure were local activists, transgender residents, other members of the LGBTQ+ community and their neighbors. Yante Turner, an organizer with the group Sun-Seeker Milwaukee, said making the county a sanctuary for transgender and non-binary people “is a wish, it’s a dream, it’s something we’ve been talking about in our internal communities for decades — or longer than I’ve been alive, and even longer than that.” Turner stressed that people with “lived experiences” need to be invited to the table. “Trans people will be here regardless of if this is a sanctuary county or not,” said Turner. “We will exist without the laws, without the restrictions, with the restrictions, and with the laws. Our lives are being taken every second, across the country.”

Last year, a $28,000 award was offered by Milwaukee Crime Stoppers for information that would lead to an arrest in the murder of a 28-year-old transgender woman named Brazil Johnson.

The resolution makes a case for why creating a sanctuary environment for transgender people is important for Milwaukee. Across the country, states have considered nearly 500 bills focused on restricting or eliminating gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender people, eliminating references to LGBTQ+ issues in schools and limiting the free expression of LGBTQ+ people.

Could Milwaukee County become a sanctuary for LGBTQ people?
LGBTQ+ Pride flags | Susan J. Demas/Michigan Advance

Legislative efforts in this area range from creating strict guidelines on gender information on ID’s and other records, allowing employees or businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ+ people, restricting gender-affirming medical access and imposing criminal penalties for seeking or performing such procedures, laws restricting bathroom usage for transgender people and preventing LGBTQ+ students from participating in school activities or otherwise removing their presence, and discussion of it, from the classroom.

A survey by the Trevor Project, an anti-suicide group focused on LGBTQ+ youth, found that 86% of trans or non-binary youth reported negative mental health consequences as a result of the current political discourse over their bodies and community. The project’s 2023 national survey found that 46% of LGBTQ+ youth who were between the ages of 13 and 17 considered suicide over the last year, and another 17% actually attempted it. For those 18-24, the statistics were 34% for those who considered suicide, and 9% for those who attempted it.

“All across the world, trans people are under attack,” said Ron Jansen, a resident who is running for Milwaukee County board. He called the resolution “the absolute smallest possible step to committing to protecting people who are being pushed off into the fringes of society.”

Rainbow LGBTQ heart on hands, Getty Images
Rainbow LGBTQ heart on hands, Getty Images

Jansen and others who testified at the meeting used the word “fascist” to describe attacks on LGBTQ people. Several people who spoke out against the bill, however, took issue with being called fascists. Instead, they said, their actions are in line with their religious values. The movement to suppress or contain LGBTQ people and  especially youth draws on the fears of parents that their kids are being exposed to indecent material, or being conditioned into an LGBTQ lifestyle. Opponents of the resolution cited religious objections as well as studies they said prove that gender-affirming care is harmful.

One woman who introduced herself as Karen said that in her eyes, the law wasn’t about “safety and laws,” but rather providing health care in the county. “I would like everyone to know that I am against this, but first and foremost I’m a Christian,” she said. “I am about love. We show love to everyone. And we want all these people to be loved. And so I’m going to tell you, and then urge you, that you need to vote ‘no’ for this resolution #23-694. God tells us in his word that there are only two genders, male and female. Genesis 127: ‘So God created man in his own image, and the image of God created he/him. Male and female created he/them. Science and research proves this to be 100% true through analyzing our human DNA. Follow the science please. No amount of hormonal drugs, or mutilating surgeries to remove breasts or genitalia, is going to change a person’s gender male or female. This is a proven fact. Please follow the science.”

Several other people who said their Christian values led them to speak out against the resolution made similar arguments. Referencing both Genesis and science, they argued that transgender people are experiencing mental and emotional disorders which may be worsened by gender-affirming treatments. A recurring theme of protecting children emerged, with several people stating that if children can’t get tattoos until they are 18, they should also have to wait to seek gender-affirming care. In the meantime, opponents to to resolution argued, families and communities should make efforts to steer their children away from an LGBTQ lifestyle. Others framed gender-affirming care as simply the mutilation of children.

Rainbow raised hands diversity LGBTQ school questions answers
Illustration by mustafahacalaki | Getty Images

One transgender woman who spoke shared that she was born inter-sex, with  a complete set of both male and female genitalia. She described moving to Milwaukee from a small town on the Missouri-Arkansas border where hardline religious beliefs were common. Milwaukee is a far more welcoming city for her, she said, and could be even more so if the resolution passed.  To a question from board members about the law regarding establishing sanctuary cities, the county’s corporation counsel Margaret Daun referenced a federal lawsuit which found that transgender and non-binary youth may not be forced to use separate bathrooms or barred from participating in school activities. In July, a federal judge ruled in favor of a transgender student who was prevented from participating in  school activities and using the bathroom.

Daun said federal courts have found, in a majority of cases, that such policies violate the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. “Separate is not equal,” she added.