As Lynch announced that the Justice Department was countersuing North Carolina to stop its bathroom law from going into effect, she gave a passionate and direct defense of transgender and gay rights that in no uncertain terms put their battle in the context of a decades-long civil rights debate.
She drew on the ghost of Jim Crow and separate-but-equal bathrooms for black and white Americans to make parallels to today's bathroom battles. And she delivered her defense in soaring words not normally used in the ho-hum, legalese-heavy news conferences typical at the Justice Department:
This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed, to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably – in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.
Themes of equality, civil rights and progress – all being tied to their cause by the highest levels of government. The moment brought some LGBT advocates to tears.
"She is saying that these are Americans who are facing the very same struggles that other Americans have faced," said Bob Witeck, a Washington-based LGBT advocate and a consultant to businesses and nonprofit organizations on LGBT issues. "What makes us human, that's what she spoke to."
Witeck added that LGBT Americans are used to living invisibly and that Lynch – along with other Justice Department officials – went out of her way to tell them she sees them, that they are not invisible.
Lynch also said Monday: "But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward."
For Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the appeal of Lynch's speech was something simple: "All she said was that we're people."
And to many transgender people, especially those in North Carolina, that acknowledgment felt good after spending the past month or so feeling like they were being compared to – or at least mentioned in the same sentence with – sexual predators.
"The relief is just almost overwhelming," Keisling said. "To just be so dehumanized by [North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory] for six weeks now and then to be so humanized by the attorney general – it's just amazing."
(McCrory and the law's defenders say they are trying to balance equality with North Carolinians' right to privacy to shower and disrobe only among people of their own biological gender.)
The messenger was just as important as the message. Witeck said Lynch was the best person in the Obama administration – perhaps even more than the president himself – to make the powerful link between gay rights and civil rights.
"She's an African American woman from the South," he said. (Lynch is from North Carolina.) "There's nobody better who would identify all of these threads and tie them together."
In other words, Lynch made clear to LGBT advocates that their fight is her fight.
And perhaps most important, Lynch backed up her words with actions. With its lawsuit against North Carolina, the government is digging in its heels to get this law off the books – and stop other bathroom bills that are percolating in state legislatures across the country. It is bold attempt to try to prove that closing bathrooms to transgender people is illegal discrimination. (The courts are undecided on whether civil rights law includes protections for gender identity.)
There are still a lot of ifs left in the bathroom debate. The courts may not go the government's way. And in eight months, we'll have a new president. If it's a Republican, the federal government's approach to these issues could change drastically.
But at the very least, transgender advocates say they will have this moment to keep forever: Their government, at the highest levels and in the clearest terms possible, acknowledged them and defended them. They say they won't forget it.