I was touring the Gettysburg National Park battlefields when I learned that Maine’s governor, Paul Lepage, had joined 10 other states in suing President Barack Obama’s administration over the new directive that says public schools should let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. At that moment I was standing five feet away from the Maine 20th Volunteers Civil War monument, which marks the ground where Maine hero Joshua Chamberlain won the Battle of Little Round Top.
Hearing that our governor was joining this protest made me sick to my stomach. My family’s battles for equality are still too fresh. In 2014 my family won a case in the Maine Supreme Court against our school district for preventing my transgender daughter, Nicole, from using her school’s student restrooms. Stories of other families suffering because people are afraid of transgender people across the nation haunt me. When Nicole and her twin brother, Jonas, were 10-years-old, I had to sit down at our breakfast table to talk to them about hate, fear, freedom of speech and equality.
Freedom and equality are strong words, but at the time I did not understand their true meaning. As I watched Nicole be denied an equal education and the same common privileges as her classmates, I started to understand their power. As we moved to a new town to live in hiding, and I worried whether my daughter would be safe, I came to understand why we must fight to make sure that they are more than just words. The strength and wisdom needed to make them come true requires courage and action.
My children learned the power of these words at an early age. They often faced bullying, harassment and discrimination, but like Chamberlain, they stood firm. Chamberlain never wavered or retreated. He instilled in his men a strong sense of loyalty, duty and honor. His men followed him because he was a true leader. I have tried to teach my children the same. They believed that our state leaders would do the same. But some are not prepared to do so.
Over the past seven years my family has asked our state and national leaders to guarantee equality for every American no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. I was so pleased to see that President Obama, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice understood the needs of the transgender community. I am proud of them for having the courage to make stand for comprehensive equality, and I am disappointed that others are now taking wrong turn, and that transgender Americans could be placed in harm’s way.
It is disheartening that these governors have not become more knowledgable, that they are listening to false truths. If they were true leaders, they would seek out the truth and see that their fears are unwarranted.
At Gettysburg, looking down at the once blood-stained fields with names like Devil’s Den and Cemetery Ridge, I was reminded that families and friends killed each other here. They did so because their definitions of freedom were different. Yet President Abraham Lincoln set a clear vision for us all to follow:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. “
Every governor in America needs to visit Gettysburg and walk the property with a qualified historian and listen closely to learn from our past. There is so much to learn about life, death, honor and leadership from those who fought and died on our own soil. Listening to our guide describe how the 20th Maine Volunteers advanced without ammunition, fixing their bayonet’s for a charge knowing that they were sacrificing their lives to protect others was almost unimaginable. They were not running to die; they ran forward to bring freedom to people they did not know.
As I walked the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg, imagining each intricate decision of battle, I continued to look to back at Little Round Top. I thought about my own battles, battles against good Americans who cannot or will not try to conquer their fears. I thought about my own failures as a young leader and father. My fears kept me from accepting that my son was in fact my daughter. With time I gained the courage and strength to change. It required a strong loving heart and an open mind, and with new knowledge I mustered the courage to admit I was wrong and discard my fears.
Leaders do more than lead us in battles; they are role models, mentors and advocates for change. The governor of Maine has a right to his own opinion—freedom of speech must not be denied—but it is unfortunate that he is using the power of his position to promote policies that do not reflect the will of the people of Maine. Time and time again the citizens of Maine, the majority of our elected officials and our state’s highest court have had the foresight and courage to protect and serve all Mainers. I would hope that he and every state governor would do the same.
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