For LGBT people outside U.S. Supreme Court, cases have a familiar ring

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For many of the activists who demonstrated outside the U.S. Supreme Court during arguments in major gay and transgender rights cases on Tuesday, the story told inside about plaintiffs Gerald Bostock and Aimee Stephens sounded all too familiar.

LGBTQ activists and supporters hold a rally near the steps of the Supreme Court as it hears major LGBT rights case on whether federal employment law that outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex covers sexual orientation and gender identity in Washington, U.S., October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

Bostock is a former county child welfare services coordinator in Georgia who was fired after joining a gay-friendly softball league. Stephens is a transgender woman who was fired as a funeral director in Michigan after revealing plans to transition from male to female.

The nine justices weighed whether a landmark federal law that bars employment discrimination on the basis of sex should apply to gay and transgender people.

Some of the hundreds of demonstrators explained why they need protection.

“These cases are so important to me because I’m a person who has experienced job discrimination because of who I am,” said LaLa Zannell, who said her supervisor at a former job would not accept her as a transgender woman.

“My manager would tell my customers, ‘You know that’s a man, that’s not a woman,’” said Zannell, now a transgender justice campaign manager at the American Civil Liberties Union.

For others, the consequences have been drastic.

“I was discriminated against in my job, I was fired, I became homeless, I had to engage in survival sex work. I became a drug addict because I didn’t know how to navigate survival on the streets,” said Ashlee Marie Preston, an African American transgender woman who is a journalist and activist.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in three separate related cases, those of Bostock and Stephens as well as the late Donald Zarda, a former New York skydiving instructor whose claim is being pursued by his estate.

“I hope - no matter what our justices decide - that Americans know that it should not be OK to discriminate against someone simply for being who they are,” transgender actress Laverne Cox, a three-time Emmy award nominee for her role in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” said outside the courthouse.

President Donald Trump’s administration has argued that the law at issue does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I’m worried about my job security. I am a server and a bartender so I come out 10 to 20 to 30 times a day to guests as my physical appearance starts to change more like my heart and my mind,” said Sharen Sonntag, 37, a transgender woman.

Outside the white marble neoclassical Supreme Court building, some of the demonstrators discussed the dangers of being transgender. At least 18 transgender people have been homicide victims in the United States this year, most of them black women, according to the Human Rights Campaign advocacy group.

A small group of demonstrators opposing LGBT rights held signs such as “Fear God” and “Sin and shame, not pride.”

“This has to stop. The more and more we give to the homosexual community, the more and more this nation is going to be destroyed,” said Jacob Phelps, 36, from Topeka, Kansas, who held a sign that read, “Jesus will return in wrath.” “It’s very easy in the workplace, shut your mouth, do what you’re supposed to do.”

More than half of U.S. states lack explicit LGBT anti-discrimination protections. The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives in May passed legislation that would provide anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people in a wide rage of areas including employment. The Senate, controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, has not acted on the bill.

Preston Allen, a 26-year-old writer and transgender man, said he felt compelled to be present at a historic moment, taking a predawn bus from New York City for the occasion.

“I’ve always been very lucky, my family fully supports me, I’m very embraced by my community,” Allen said. “I felt guilty about that in the past because I understand that’s not the experience everyone has, but instead of feeling guilty I want to shine that forward.”

Reporting by Maria Caspani; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Will Dunham