After decades of fighting her family, her community and herself over her gender identity, Kendall Balentine finally made peace with it. She became content to live out her retirement quietly, for the first time in her life as a woman, with her wife and dogs in the relative isolation of Deadwood, S.D.
That is, until February. The South Dakota legislature advanced a bill requiring transgender students to use the bathroom matching the sex on their birth certificates. When an organizer with a national gay rights group called to see if she would come forward to call for the governor to veto the bill, requiring her to push herself into the limelight in a way she never imagined, she didn’t hesitate.
“All my life, I put myself in harm’s way because I couldn’t be who I was,” said Balentine, 49, a retired Marine and deputy sheriff who fully transitioned from living as a man to a woman last year. “I decided now I was willing to die for who I am and fight for those who didn’t have a voice.”
Balentine is part of a new wave of transgender people stepping out of the shadows to fight a surge in state bills requiring people to use the bathrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms that differ from their gender identity — measures they consider unnecessary, dangerous and rooted in offensive stereotypes.
Many, like Balentine, have been recruited for the spotlight by national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups, scrambling to address a critical weak spot in their broader fight for rights: the country’s unfamiliarity with transgender people.
This small but visible group has emerged as the newest target, say gay rights activists, of conservatives who want to slow the momentum of last year, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry.
After that landmark victory, activists moved to expand LGBT rights by pushing for local and state protections against discrimination. Their opponents seized on one singular outcome of the proposed expansion: the bathroom issue.
By arguing that nondiscrimination measures will permit biological males to enter women’s bathrooms, they have found a message that resonates with a broader cross-section of voters than measures that target same-sex marriage, which more than half of Americans now support.
The most stark example of that resonance came last fall, when Houston, a diverse and Democratic-leaning city that, at that time, was led by a gay mayor, voted overwhelmingly to repeal a nondiscrimination ordinance that opponents said would lead to male sexual predators gaining access to sex-segregated spaces.
“I think it makes common sense to voters that they don’t want men to use women’s locker, shower or bathroom facilities,” said Mat Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel, which has endorsed the bathroom bills. “The transgender agenda could be, and I think is becoming, the Achilles’ heel of the gay and lesbian movement.”
Cognizant that bathroom bills imperil broader rights for all LGBT people, the gay rights movement is shifting much of its formidable organizational machinery to focus on transgender issues. Groups are rallying large companies and celebrities who long ago signed on to gay rights to vocally oppose laws that they view as targeting transgender people. They are diverting millions of dollars to campaigns that depict transgender people as ordinary Americans deserving of dignity and legal protections.
They are combing states for transgender people they can groom to lobby lawmakers and speak to media representatives, much as they identified gay men and lesbians with compelling personal stories to become faces of the movement and plaintiffs in lawsuits. And they are recruiting parents of transgender children to speak out on their kids’ behalf.
The “movement-wide focus” now centers on “how to crack the code on figuring out how to introduce transgender people to America,” said Kasey Suffredini, chief program officer for Freedom for All Americans, a group founded last year to prod cities, states and Congress to expand minority civil rights protections to gay and transgender people.
In a way, the task of introducing the public to transgender people has never been so easy. High-profile figures such as Caitlyn Jenner and actress Laverne Cox have put an attractive public face on the community. The Emmy-winning television series “Transparent” has delved deeply and frankly into one family’s dynamics after the father transitions to a woman. Transgender youths are increasingly making their presence known in schools.
The movement has logged some significant wins — including last week before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, which sided with a transgender teenager who sued his school district for forbidding him to use the boys’ restroom.
But challenges remain. The transgender population is tiny, about 700,000 adults, according to the most recent serious effort to count the population, a 2011 study by the Williams Institute (the study’s author, Gary J. Gates, said in an interview that he thinks the number is an undercount). There exist only two major national advocacy groups dedicated exclusively to transgender issues, advocates say, and their combined budget is about $5 million. Just this week, the small town of Oxford, Ala., passed a harsh new ordinance that could result in jail time for people caught in a public restroom different from their gender at birth.
It’s not just Southern states that have balked at extending civil rights laws to transgender people. New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin all bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but not gender identity, according to Freedom for All Americans.
And even Massachusetts, the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, lacks protections for transgender people in public accommodations. The gap is at least in part the result of bathroom concerns. Lawmakers are trying to remedy that with legislation this year.
A recent report from the Center for American Progress and the Human Rights Campaign found that transgender workers experience twice the rate of unemployment as that of the population as a whole and are four times as likely to have an income of $10,000 or less. Also, 1 in 5 transgender people has experienced homelessness at some point, according to the Center for Transgender Equality.
With the marriage question settled, opponents of same-sex marriage are instead “going after an extra-vulnerable component of our community, the transgender community,” said Marc Solomon, formerly the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry. The advocacy group, devoted to advancing same-sex marriage, closed shop after the Supreme Court decision.
Several major efforts are underway to counter that push.
The Gill Foundation, a leading philanthropy supporting pro-
LGBT causes, recently funded a $400,000 study looking at ways to change voters’ minds about transgender people through door-to-door canvassing. Freedom for All Americans recently began its Transgender Freedom Project, a $1 million public education initiative focused on building support for transgender people and nondiscrimination laws that protect them.
Groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the organization that initially reached out to Balentine, have begun holding training sessions and collecting stories of transgender people to use as part of media campaigns and to rally at statehouses. And two foundations that support LGBT causes, the Arcus Foundation and the NoVo Foundation, have begun a multiyear $20 million project to increase visibility as well as the quality of life for transgender people globally.
A key goal of many of these projects will be to get more policymakers to meet transgender people in person. The power of such meetings, they say, was evident in South Dakota, where Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) vetoed the bathroom bill after meeting with a group of transgender youths on Feb. 23.
In explaining his veto, Daugaard said school districts were best equipped to address bathroom and locker room accommodations, not the state government. But activists are convinced that the meeting played a part.
Balentine was not part of the group that formally met Daugaard. But as she snapped pictures at the state Capitol in Pierre that afternoon in her “No Hate In Our State” T-shirt, she thought to see if Daugaard might see her for a few minutes. To her surprise, his secretary invited her right in.
One week later, Daugaard vetoed the bill.
Daugaard mostly listened as Balentine told parts of her life story, she recalls. In an interview, she said she knew at a very young age that she was a girl but was told by her disciplinarian, Vietnam-veteran dad that such feelings were unwelcome and unnatural.
She compensated for her feminine feelings by becoming an “uber male,” she said, dating lots of women and immersing herself in athletics. She chose as her role model a figure who at the time seemed the very epitome of masculinity — Olympian Bruce Jenner, now better known as Caitlyn. She joined the military and then law enforcement, where she routinely volunteered for the most risky assignments, she said.
“I built this wall of lies around me,” she said, “and it made me want to die.”
At one point, she enrolled in cosmetology school. But she endured ridicule as a male makeup artist, she said, and eventually abandoned the trade to return to the military.
A few years ago, Balentine retired. She and her wife, Pam, moved to an isolated, seven-acre property surrounded by lush national forest near Mount Rushmore and far from their closest neighbors. When she resolved to transition, to her disbelief and gratitude, her father came around, embracing her for the first time in her life. Pam stayed and even chose Balentine’s new middle name, Nichole.
But the challenges continued to pile up for Balentine, as they do for so many transgender people. All but one of her kids stopped talking to her the day she underwent gender-reassignment surgery. She struggled to find a community of transgender people for support.
Last week, on the first anniversary of her surgery, Balentine’s wife left her. But on Tuesday, Balentine said, Pam flew back, pledging to remain for the long haul.
“She thinks it’s going to be so easy for me to meet someone or have friends,” Balentine said a few hours after Pam had boarded her plane. “But she doesn’t understand. Transgender people don’t have it easy. Who would choose this? Who would want to lose their family and now their wife?”
A bright spot has been her newfound activism, Balentine said. The Human Rights Campaign has asked her to travel to North Carolina or Mississippi to help rally against recently passed legislation there. She’s helping to start a nonprofit organization, called TransAction South Dakota, which is focused on building up transgender advocacy within the state.
“I’ve just found a whole new career I absolutely love,” she said. “The first one I’ve liked since cosmetology.”