(CNN) Several presidential candidates took to the stage on Thursday night at the CNN Equality Town Hall. However, no one shined brighter than the black trans folks in the audience who called attention to the violence against transgender people. They were the personification of democracy.

When California Sen. Kamala Harris graced the stage, an audience member asked, "How do we get those men to stop the killing of trans women of color? We are hunted." During Beto O'Rourke's segment, Los Angeles trans activist Blossom C. Brown grabbed the mic and demanded to be heard by saying, "Black trans women are dying, our lives matter! I am an extraordinary black trans woman, and I deserve to be here." She also called out the lack of black trans women and men asking questions. (They appeared later in the program.)

Black transgender people, who are among the most vulnerable in the LGBTQ community, are often erased or ignored -- even by others in the queer community. Despite being dismissed and used as punchlines for comedians, black trans folks are fighting for their right to exist.
 
Nineteen transgender women have been killed this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) -- the most recent being Itali Marlowe, a 29-year-old black trans woman who was reportedly shot and killed in Houston, Texas, this week. According to a report from HRC, at least 26 transgender people were killed in 2018, with black transgender women making up the majority. More than 100 transgender people were killed from 2013 to 2018, with people of color making up more than 80% of the victims, according to HRC.
 
The protesters at the town hall event exercised their freedom of speech at a crucial time when democracy itself is under threat. Their outrage is not a performance of so-called identity politics. It is more important than ever to call attention to marginalized groups who are under attack from this administration. From the ban on trans people in the military to the attempts to roll back protections against discrimination, the Trump administration is targeting this already vulnerable population.
 
That said, in 2019, the idea of an LGBTQ town hall on a major cable news network is still surprising. As someone who grew up during the height of the AIDS epidemic, I can recall that it took President Ronald Reagan until 1987 to deliver his first major speech on AIDS. By that time, more than 50,000 people -- mainly gay and trans people of all backgrounds -- had already died.
 
I remember the hypocrisy of President Bill Clinton giving historic amounts of funding to HIV/AIDS even though he proudly passed laws like the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell that inhibited the rights of taxpaying American citizens.
 
There was also George W. Bush, who peddled policies grounded in homophobia and theological hate to rouse his base for votes, specifically targeting African American churches.
We cannot forget that President Barack Obama once said that "marriage is between a man and a woman" and supported civil unions instead of same-sex marriage. While some people in the LGBTQ community were disappointed, he was a relief for many compared to Bush.
 
Obama went on to back the most impactful policies for LGBTQ folks: repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 2010, signing the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, releasing the first-ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy, and issuing a 2014 executive order to ensure equality in the workplace. The Trump administration has since rolled back policies protecting the LGBTQ community, eroding the civil rights of millions of Americans.
 
Obama understood that LGBTQ issues go beyond same-sex marriage. What good is marriage if your job is threatened? What good is a wedding if you are a trans woman who is attacked and killed in public?
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This week, the US Supreme Court struggled to decide whether a civil rights law would protect members of the LGBTQ community from job discrimination. Fifty years after Stonewall, it is embarrassing we are having the same arguments to convince people of our humanity. On top of all the issues the LGBTQ community endures under this administration, we have to worry about workplace discrimination in a slowing economy.
 
The Democratic candidates hit the right notes Thursday night. But platitudes will not save us -- enforceable policy will. We need more candidates who understand that liberation for LGBTQ folks is not just about love, rainbows and taglines about being your authentic self.
 
I am still looking to see which candidate best addresses the intersections of race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity to construct radical policies for the most vulnerable. The Democratic nominee for president should build on Obama's legacy to address the needs of the LGBTQ community and engage with those who are ignored.
 
Queer liberation is rooted in anti-establishment ideas, in words and ideologies politicians rarely use because they remind us that the system needs to be reinvented to make room for us. Black transgender women were our conscience Thursday night, reminding us they are here and will not be silenced. We have to honor these warriors because they have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement, despite the whitewashing of history.
 
As the trailblazing actress and LGBTQ advocate Laverne Cox once said, "It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist."

Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court probed arguments Tuesday from both sides of a Michigan case that could decide whether civil rights law shields transgender individuals from workplace discrimination or keeps intact the traditional meaning of sex bias. 

Attorneys for Aimee Stephens of Metro Detroit, who was fired from a Garden City funeral home in 2013 after informing her boss she was transitioning from male to female, argued that her termination violated the Civil Rights Act's prohibition on employment discrimination based on sex. 

Lawyers for Stephens' former employer, R.G. and G.B. Harris Funeral Homes Inc., countered the protections do not extend to gender identity or transgender status, arguing that Congress could not have anticipated the Stephens case when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. 

Justices debated how far the High Court could bend the 55-year-old law to apply to the 58-year-old Stephens, who had worked as a man at the funeral home for years while privately living as a woman outside of work. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority but it ruled 5-4 in 2015 that all 50 states must recognize same-sex marriages.

The arguments broke down along philosophical lines, as Democratic-appointed justices argued forcefully for extending sex discrimination protection to Stephens and other transgender individuals. Republican-appointed justices questioned stretching the original definition of the 1964 law.
 
"You are making Title VII into a statute about groups, but Title VII is not a statute about groups," Justice Elena Kagan, appointed by President Barack Obama, said to John Bursch, attorney for Harris Funeral Homes. 

"...Title VII is a statute about individuals and whether individuals are being treated differently because of his or her sex. It's a statute that uses the word 'individual' twice and says is a particular person being treated differently because of her sex? And here, Ms. Stephens, was being treated differently because of her sex." 

Michigan is among 29 states without discrimination protections for transgender individuals.

But Bursch argued the funeral home was within its rights to insist that Stephens adhere to its dress code for male employees during work hours. 

"Treating women and men equally does not mean employers have to treat men as women," said Bursch, the former Michigan solicitor general who lost his defense of Michigan's gay marriage ban in 2015. "That is because sex and transgender status are independent concepts." 

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit last year ruled against Harris Homes, saying discrimination on the basis of transgender status is "necessarily" discrimination on the basis of sex.

"It is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee's status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee's sex," the unanimous three-judge panel wrote.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump, argued for judicial restraint, citing the potential for civic unrest if the High Court further expands protections against discrimination on the basis of sex to include cases like Stephens'. 

The "textual evidence" for extending gender discrimination protection to Stephens is "really close," Gorsuch said.

But he worried the court might be usurping legislative authority by veering from the traditional interpretation of sex discrimination and setting off "massive social upheaval."

"It's a question of judicial modesty," Gorsuch said.

But the justices quickly steered the arguments into other controversies involving transgender individuals but not connected to the funeral home case. 

Chief Justice John Roberts, a swing vote in recent high-profile cases and an appointee of President George W. Bush, zeroed in on how the arguments of Stephens' attorney would apply to legal cases that have arisen about transgender bathroom access. 

Other areas of federal law prohibit transgender people from participating in athletic competitions based on gender, said Justice Samuel Alito, a Bush appointee. 

"A transgender woman is not permitted to compete on a woman's college sports team," he said. "Is that discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX?"

Stephens' attorney David Cole of the American Civil Liberties Union countered that he was not asking the Supreme Court to redefine the legal definition of sex even as he sought to convince the justices that Stephens' civil rights were violated.

"We're not asking that you update the statute," Cole said. "We're not asking that you redefine sex. We are accepting ... for purposes of this case, the narrowest definition of sex and arguing that you can't understand what Harris Homes did here without it treating her differently because of her sex assigned at birth." 

"The purpose of Title VII as this Court defined it was to make sex irrelevant to people's ability to succeed at work," Cole added. "When Harris Homes fired Aimee Stephens because it learned about her sex assigned at birth being different from her gender identity, it did not make sex irrelevant to her ability to succeed at work. It made it determinative."

All the liberal justices seemed to agree.

It is inevitable that the court will have to weigh in on a broader transgender case said Justice Stephen Breyer, a President Bill Clinton appointee, citing controversies over bills passed in several states to prohibit transgender individuals from using public restrooms for their self-identified genders.

Stephens' lawyers have argued a ruling for the funeral home could potentially upend case law that has prohibited firing anyone — including straight people — for not adhering to sex-based stereotypes. 

Breyer also accused attorneys for the funeral home of raising unnecessary fears about the court perhaps recognizing the civil rights of transgender people. 

"You have made the argument as I call it the parade of horribles," he said. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by Clinton, drew parallels to the evolution of the definition of discrimination to include sexual harassment in recent years. 

"No one ever thought sexual harassment was encompassed by discrimination on the basis of sex back in '64," Ginsburg said. "It wasn't until a book was written in the middle '70s bringing that out. And now we say, of course, harassing someone, subjecting her to terms and conditions of employment she would not encounter if she were a male, that is sex discrimination but it wasn't recognized." 

Discrimination against homosexual and transgender people is too prevalent in modern society, said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an Obama appointee. 

"We can't deny that homosexuals are being fired merely for being who they are and not because of religious reasons, not because they are performing their jobs poorly, not because they can't do whatever is required of a position, but merely because they're a suspect class to some people," Sotomayor said.

"They may have power in some regions, but they are still being beaten, they are still being ostracized from certain things," she continued. "At what point does a court say, Congress spoke about this...? ... And regardless of what others may have thought over time, it's very clear that what's happening fits those words. At what point do we say we have to step in?" she said.

Advocates cry Stephens' name

Gay and transgender advocates rallying outside the court chanted Stephens’ name as she left the building following the arguments.

“It’s very positive, very uplifting to know that all these people are behind me,” Stephens said in a brief interview.

We're just trying to make right wrongs done to us — not only just to me but to a lot of the people you see standing here today,” Stephens added.

She described being inside the courtroom Tuesday as “different.”

“We just hope for the best and see what they come down with,” she said. “I'm optimistic.”

The "family's livelihood and legacy hang in the balance," funeral home owner Tom Rost said following the arguments.

While Rost said he worried about Stephens after she told him she planned to begin presenting as a woman at work, he said firing her "was a difficult choice" that was "in the best interest of the grieving families our business serves.”

Rost blasted the ACLU for trying to “punish” his family business, using it “as a pawn to achieve a larger political goal that it has been unable to achieve in Congress, where this issue belongs.” 

“We’re hopeful the Supreme Court won’t impose such unjust punishment on us,” he said. 

Justices “across the bench” were “troubled” by how the ACLU’s argument would eliminate all sex-specific policies in the workplace, whether they be sex-specific showers, dress codes, restrooms or sports teams, said Bursch, the attorney representing Rost.

“Every single one of those things would have to go,” he said.  

“Justice Ginsburg observed that, unlike other classifications, certain distinctions require treating men and women differently. That should be patently obvious to all of us.” 

Bursch highlighted comments from Roberts and Alito questioning whether courts should be in the business of what he called “rewriting the law.”  

Asked about Gorsuch's comment that the text is a “close" call, Bursch said he disagreed. 

“Title VII prohibits discrimination because of sex," he said. "... When you apply that test, no one could say the employee here was treated worse than a similarly situated woman because women were not allowed to dress as men when meeting with grieving clients, any more than Stephens was allowed to dress as a woman when meeting with grieving clients.”

Asked about the justices’ veering into discussions of bathrooms and “societal upheaval,” Cole was dismissive. 

“There were transgender lawyers in the courtroom today, and the transgender men were following the men’s dress code and using the men’s restroom, and the transgender women were following the women’s dress code and using the women’s restroom," he said. "The sky did not fall.” 

 

— After working for more than a decade as an advocate for at-risk children in Clayton County, Georgia, outside Atlanta, Gerald Bostock was fired when he joined a gay softball league.

On Tuesday, in one of the most important cases of its new term, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether existing federal law forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

"I was fired for being gay. I lost everything. I lost my livelihood. I lost my source of income, I lost my medical insurance," Bostock said. "I was devastated."

A provision of federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, makes it illegal for employers to discriminate because of, among other factors, a person's sex. But the lower federal courts are divided on whether that language also covers sexual orientation.

Brian Sutherland, an Atlanta lawyer representing Bostock, said it does. "One simply cannot consider an individual's sexual orientation without first considering his sex. A gay man is only a gay man if he's attracted to other men." It cannot be the law "that a gay man or lesbian woman can be married to their partner on Sunday and legally fired for it on Monday," Sutherland argued.

In response, the state of Georgia says Congress never intended to include sexual orientation when passing the law more than half a century ago. More than 50 efforts have failed since then to change the law and make that coverage explicit. The U.S. Justice Department agrees with the state, in a reversal from the position it took during the Obama administration.

"The ordinary meaning of 'sex' is biologically male or female; it does not include sexual orientation," the government said in its written brief. "An employer who discriminates against employees in same-sex relationships thus does not violate Title VII as long as it treats men in same-sex relationships the same as women in same-sex relationships."

The case comes to the Supreme Court that no longer includes Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote all of the court's significant gay rights decisions. He was succeeded by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who has no record of ruling on the issue but who is generally more conservative than Kennedy.

A companion case involves a New York skydiving instructor, Donald Zarda, who was fired after he told a female client, who wondered about being strapped so tightly to him during a jump, not to worry because he is "100 percent gay."

The court will also consider whether Title VII outlaws discrimination against transgender employees. A federal appeals court ruled that Aimee Stephens was impermissibly fired from her job at a Michigan funeral home two weeks after she told her boss she is transgender. The company said she failed to follow the dress code.

"The funeral home would have treated a woman who wanted to dress and present as a man, with grieving family members and clients of the funeral home, exactly the same way that Stephens was treated," said John Bursch of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group representing her former employer.

But the American Civil Liberties Union said even if the meaning of Title VII is confined to biological sex, it still makes her firing illegal. If she had been "assigned a female rather than a male sex at birth," she would not have been fired for living openly as a woman.

The funeral home also fired her for failing to conform to its views of how men and women should dress and act, the group said, contrary to long-standing court rulings that forbid firing employees because of sex-based stereotypes.

Across the nation, 21 states have their own laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Seven more provide that protection only to public employees. Those laws would remain in force if the Supreme Court rules that Title VII does not apply in LGBTQ cases. But if the court rules that it does, then the protection would apply nationwide.

Channing Smith a 16-year-old junior at Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, Tennessee — killed himself after explicit chat messages between him and another boy were reposted by a classmate on Instagram and Snapchat, outing Smith as being sexually attracted to other boys, Buzzfeed News reports.

Smith’s parents have since called for an investigation into the social media posting and its role in Smith’s suicide.

The explicit chats were reportedly posted a by a female classmate who was angered at the text exchange with the other boy. A friend of Smith’s says she vindictively posted the messages online.

When Smith discovered the messages online, he frantically began calling friends at 10 p.m. Sunday night, wondering what to do. He then posted the following message on Instagram: “I’m gonna get off social media for a while. I really hate how I can’t trust anyone because those I did were so fake. BYE.”

His father discovered his body in his bedroom at 4 a.m. Monday morning.

Hailey Meister, the 17-year-old girl Smith had been dating for a month before his suicide, said, “He didn’t deserve that. He was kind and loving and a very good person… It made him feel and it was a mistake…. He was trying to find himself and people called him bisexual but he never classified specifically as that.” She adds that his explicit texts were months old.

Classmates say that months before his suicide, Smith was bullied with people “calling him names and saying that ‘no one liked him’ because he sometimes ‘talked in a girly voice and walked with sass,'” writes Buzzfeed News.

Smith’s older brother, 38-year-old Joshua Smith, says they grew up in a small, conservative southern town with an “ultra-conservative” father who would’ve had a hard time accepting his son’s sexuality. Joshua thinks being outed in an environment like that would be devastating for a young person.

Joshua says that he and his father feel like police have been dragging their feet on an investigation, not confiscating the phones of the involved teens. The county’s District Attorney Craig Northcott has previously that he doesn’t prosecute domestic violence cases involving same-sex couples because they don’t deserve civil protections. Northcott has since said that police are investigating and he can’t comment on it.

Joshua adds that the school hasn’t posted any messages recognizing his brother’s suicide, held any assemblies to denounce bullying or offered counseling to students affected by his death. Dozens of classmates held a “strike” at a recent homecoming rally with signs demanding “Justice for Channing.”

According to Buzzfeed News, “Channing, who would have turned 17 on Oct. 20, was smart, funny, a little goofy, and wanted to be an engineer. He rarely talked about his own feelings, but always made sure other people were OK, his friends said. He also loved riding his motorcycle, talking about cars he had worked on as a kid, and playing his guitar.”

Jacksonville police made an arrest in what they termed a “horrendous” incident Friday that saw a victim beaten, tied and dragged behind a minivan.

Eric Shaun Bridges, 34, was arrested Sunday evening on a charge of attempted murder, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Officers were called to Pearce Street near West 36th Street where a woman was found lying on the street suffering from life-threatening injuries. The Sheriff’s Office said the victim was a man, but LGBT activists report the victim was a transgender woman.

“The victim had been severely beaten and was dragged from a suspect’s minivan by his legs for about two blocks behind a Dodge Caravan with a male driver, Assistant Chief Brien Kee said Friday. Some of the attack was caught on a camera that is part of the Sheriff’s Office’s Real Time Crime Center.

“The video was so graphic we can’t release it. It’s horrendous,” Kee said.

Investigators found the minivan over the weekend and learned it had been reported stolen prior to the incident. Homicide detectives spoke to people in the area, tracked leads and analyzed evidence in and around the crime scene as well as in the vehicle, and tracked down Bridges midday Sunday, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Bridges has eight prior arrests in Jacksonville, mostly for grand theft, according to jail records.

Transgender Awareness Project leader Paige Mahogany Parks posted “Yes JSO keep them coming” on Facebook regarding the Sunday’s arrest.

Last week the Sheriff’s Office also announced an arrest involving another transgender victim. Sean Bernard Phoenix, 21, was charged in the Feb. 4, 2018, shooting death of 36-year-old Celine Walker at the Skinner Lake Drive Extended Stay America. The two had a previous relationship.

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