RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The civil rights standoff that emerged this week between the Obama administration and the state of North Carolina is putting a new focus on transgender rights. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following this story and joins us now. Good morning.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: You know, let's remind listeners that the Justice Department is suing the state of North Carolina for what it deems state-sponsored sex discrimination. And at issue is a law that restricts transgender people from using public bathrooms in schools and state offices, bathrooms that don't match the gender on their birth certificate. And, Debbie, you were out yesterday talking to advocates as part of a story that we're going to hear in a moment. How were they reacting to how this is playing out on the national stage?
ELLIOTT: You know, transgender activists have been a part of the movement to make same-sex marriage the law of the land. And they've long been trying to get people to understand just who they are. I went to Mobile, Ala., to hear more from a transgender man that I had met during the marriage debate.
LANE GALBRAITH: I am Lane Galbraith, advocate in lower Alabama for the LGBT community on any issues that come up that have to do with, more specifically, antidiscrimination. So - and I'm busy (laughter).
ELLIOTT: Galbraith is a design engineer in Mobile's shipbuilding industry, and I met him during his lunch break outside a restaurant on Mobile Bay. You can see the shipyards in the distance.
GALBRAITH: I'm 52 years old. And I've dealt with oppression and discrimination my entire life.
ELLIOTT: He was born Robin Galbraith, the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister. He recalls an uncomfortable coming-of-age attracted to females.
GALBRAITH: I couldn't define who I was and what was internally happening. How was I going to explain it to anybody else - you know? There was nothing. There wasn't even a word.
ELLIOTT: Just having the word transgender is empowering to him today. A Navy veteran, Galbraith started his transition to a man two years ago. He's got short, cropped hair graying at the temples, a mustache and a sparse beard. His calling now, he says, is to put a face on being transgender.
GALBRAITH: The way people change their hearts and minds is to have a human being that's dealing with these issues right in front of them.
ELLIOTT: The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that in 2011, some 700,000 U.S. adults identified as transgender. Twenty states and Washington, D.C. have employment nondiscrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Alabama is not one of them, but Galbraith works for a global company that offers broad workplace protections and also provides health coverage for the unique care he needs, such as hormone therapy. So the bathroom question, it's always been an issue for Galbraith, even before his transition.
GALBRAITH: You know, I wore my Harley shirts and my short hair. And I like to wear boots. And, you know, I'd go into the restroom, and a mother with their child next to me and the child's going, Mommy, there's a man in the stall next to me. Yeah.
ELLIOTT: He's got a bit of a system now - finding appropriate, single unisex restrooms for privacy. Sometimes that means a porta-potty. He's floored that his bathroom habits are now the subject of national news. But he welcomes the focus on transgender rights.
GALBRAITH: Even some people would try and say, well, the T doesn't belong with the LGB. And it's like, well, wait a minute. We're kind of - the diversity is different, but we're kind of fighting for the same civil rights.
ELLIOTT: Not everyone sees this as a new civil rights battlefront.
TRAVIS WEBER: Individuals using the restroom of their biological sex is not racial discrimination.
ELLIOTT: Travis Weber directs the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.
WEBER: We don't think that the law, as a legal matter alone, supports any sort of class protection, class distinction for sexual orientation and gender identity.
ELLIOTT: He says states like North Carolina should be able to decide this question as a matter of public safety without being, quote, "bullied by the Obama administration."
WEBER: What's underlying this is people whose views of society really break down any distinction between male and female. And you end up in a world where these distinctions don't matter.
ELLIOTT: LGBT issues divide the country in similar ways as other culture wars have - abortion rights, for instance. As courts expand rights, some states push back with new laws. Now that the Supreme Court has taken same-sex marriage off the table, opponents are moving to a new target, says Josh Block with the ACLU.
JOSH BLOCK: Plan B is attacks on transgender people and attacks on the entire LGBT community by codifying a right to discriminate on religious grounds.
ELLIOTT: The ACLU is suing Mississippi over a law that offers legal protection to public officials and private businesses that refuse to serve gay, lesbian or transgender customers because of religious objections.
BLOCK: And religious freedom doesn't give people a right to discriminate against others.
ELLIOTT: For Lane Galbraith, seeing these laws pop up around the country is a letdown, coming so soon after feeling like the ground had shifted after last year's legalization of same-sex marriage.
GALBRAITH: You know, right now I kind of feel like I'm back in the valley to where you've got to find the edge of the mountain to start going back up. I think we will overcome. I'm a true believer. I believe all things are possible. But at the same token, being honest, you understand my internal struggle of this environment.
ELLIOTT: So Renee, you can really hear the frustration in his voice there.
MONTAGNE: Yes, indeed. Where does this issue go from here?
ELLIOTT: You know, watch two fronts, I think - number one, the courts as this standoff between North Carolina and the federal government plays out, and then state and local governments that are grappling with these issues.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks very much.
ELLIOTT: Thank you, Renee.
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