Folks in the New York City transgender and broader LGBTQ activist communities are familiar with transgender mavericks Cecilia Gentili and Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker. They’ve both long been fighting against violence toward trans people—and for their legal rights. Recently, they took another bold step—serving as plaintiffs in a case brought by the Human Rights Campaign against the Trump administration, which tried to roll back protections built into the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare) against discriminating against trans people in health care settings.
Guess what? They won—for now, and likely for good. In August, a federal judge put a temporary block—in fact, the judge’s actual last name was Block!—on the rollback of the protections. That means, as a law professor said in the above-linked New York Times story, that “Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act now means that you can’t discriminate against transgender people.”
In the case, Gentili and Walker evoked as their argument their own personal multiple instances of being discriminated against—things like being denied care because they were trans, called by names or pronouns assigned at birth rather than of their choosing (in other words, being misgendered), and enduring being openly mocked.
The Trump administration has until the end of October to either keep pushing their attempt to strip protections or to let it go. But legal experts generally feel—given that the Supreme Court in June ruled in favor of broad protections for all LGBTQ folks—that the Trump administration, which has also tried to strip protections from trans folks in the military, doesn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on at this point.
TheBody caught up with Gentili, now the principal consultant and founder of Trans Equity Consulting, and Walker, a cofounder of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG), about the historic case, why it’s painful to have to relive occasions of being mistreated even for a good cause, and how they’re decompressing in this stressful COVID era leading up to the nail-biter of the November elections. (Hint: In ways not as relaxing-sounding as you might think!) Also on our call was their lawyer on the case, Jason Starr from Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Tim Murphy: Hey, Cecilia and Tanya! Thanks for making time. How are you both?
Cecilia Gentili: Tired as fuck! I had my first meeting at 10 a.m., and I’ve been in Zoom meetings all day. After this call, I’m going to lie on my couch and do nothing.
Murphy: Netflix time?
Gentili: Yeah. I’m watching Capital in the 21st Century [based on Thomas Piketty’s bestselling book]. It’s very much about how capitalism has oppressed people through the whole last century.
Murphy: That’s your idea of decompressing?
Gentili: Absolutely. I get totally enraged to the point where all my muscles are really contracted, and when I finish, I go to bed and everything’s good.
Murphy: Tanya, what about you?
Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker: Well, my day today has been trying to make a video of myself for a class on de-escalation that one of the board members of Equality New York will be teaching in the near future. I’m also preparing to facilitate a Zoom group of trans women tonight for SAGE [support and service group for LGBTQ seniors]. I have to support these women during COVID. It’s stressful, but it’s something I have to do.
Murphy: What do the trans women say about how COVID has been affecting them?
Walker: The number-one thing is isolation. Aging, not being able to travel, to socialize. The isolation brings on more depression and anxiety. So these Zoom groups are essential, even though everyone would prefer to meet in person.
Murphy: How will you decompress after that?
Walker: I’ll probably go back to reading Mary L. Trump’s book.
Murphy: Wow, you two really do not turn to light fare to decompress.
Gentili: I guess when you’re used to stress all the time, it becomes normal.
Murphy: Indeed. So—how did this case against Trump come about? How did you get involved?
Gentili: Well, I understood this administration’s trying to take away protections for trans people under ACA before it was ever mentioned for me to be one of the plaintiffs. So when Jason [Starr, from HRC] called me, when I saw his caller ID, I knew he was going to ask me. Jason, Tanya, and I go back years, working in New York State around GENDA [the law, passed last year, that protects trans people broadly in the state]. Jason also helped me a lot with putting sex work on the table [in negotiations]. So to be invited to be a plaintiff was, for me, not only an honor but fun, because it was with friends whom I’ve worked with before.
Murphy: And for you, Tanya?
Walker: Yes, Jason used to work for the [New York] governor’s office, so we had lots of stakeholder meetings monthly when I was with NYTAG. And I knew Jason had transitioned from there to HRC—
Gentili: Wait! I didn’t know that Jason was transitioning!
Murphy: Rimshot, Cecilia. Ba-dum-bum.
Walker: So, in the past, Jason and I had talked about my bad experiences in health care. I guess he remembered, because when he called me, I also got the feeling it was about something to do with health care. And it was this case against the Trump administration, and I was very excited.
Murphy: Jason, in your words, why did you reach out to Cecilia and Tanya?
Jason Starr: So, this was our first litigation effort at HRC. I had a mentor once tell me that facts give life to the law. We wanted the litigation in this case to reflect the lived experiences of the people who would be most affected. I’ve learned so much from Tanya and Cecilia about the realities of what it means to be trans and try to exist in the world. I wanted to make sure that we [reflected that in the case] in a very robust and powerful way. I had to ask Tanya and Cecilia to share with me very intimate details about their lives. I did not see myself as the only problem-solver here just because I’m a lawyer. Tanya and Cecilia have been solving problems their entire lives. They’re both people I’ve learned from, who I respect and admire.
Murphy: And in the COVID era, was the case all done remotely?
Starr: All virtual. The judge was actually in Greece during the hearing, because he’s married to a Greek woman, so they left the U.S. to ride out COVID there.
Murphy: Cecilia and Tanya, I’m not going to ask you to retell the details of the mistreatment you had to share for the case. They can be read in the actual case document. But I did want to ask if it is retraumatizing for you, and for trans folks in general, to have to recount these tales of being mistreated for legal or journalistic purposes.
Gentili: Thank you so much for asking that. I’m glad that you, as a journalist, see that as an actual thing. I went through an asylum case [in 2009 and 2010] where a lawyer from the government was speaking against me, so I’ve had to reexperience my whole childhood and then years as a sex worker. So I know how much the legal process can retraumatize you, as can doing press where every time, they are asking you to disclose personal information. So this time around, I was prepared that it wasn’t going to affect me in a negative way. And Jason and the other lawyers were extremely sensitive.
Murphy: What about you, Tanya?
Walker: I actually feel like telling these stories over and over helps me, even if it gives me some anxiety and a feeling of being retraumatized. I feel like I have great people behind me who are going to help me help the trans community and the LGBTQ community. That’s what makes me feel a whole lot better after telling my story. The lawyers were very kind, caring, and patient.
Murphy: What do you both think is the right way for a journalist, advocate, lawyer, etc. to ask someone to tell their story when it’s painful?
Gentili: I wish I could give you a perfect answer. When I was telling the paralegals my story for my asylum case, I would say, “I was raped,” and they would say, “How many times?” Just state that I was raped! Because of going through the process, I started going to therapy in order to get through the challenge of reliving my history. Then I always knew that I could call her if I was going through feelings. I think it’s good to guide someone into disclosing their story instead of asking questions that can be too direct.
Murphy: What about you, Tanya?
Walker: Definitely respect my gender pronouns, which are she and her. And I really don’t like to discuss my genitalia with a reporter. Sometimes they ask if I’m pre-op[eration] or post-op. They can ask questions without empathy. How many hormone shots do you take? Who pays for them? Or when they call me an “MTF” [male-to-female] trans. I don’t like that MTF stuff. Gender is between your ears.
Gentili: I think it’s important, as the one asking questions, to be very clear about what you’re doing and the whole process. Jason told us that we’d be asked questions that would make us uncomfortable. Part of the trauma is when we lack clarity about what we’re going to be asked.
Murphy: Thank you both for that. I hope that’s instructive for people reading this. So, Jason, the judge has put a temporary ban on rolling back the protections. Great. When might the final word come?
Starr: The government has been given till the end of October to answer our complaint, either deny our allegations of harm or attempt to dismiss the case. Our final objective is to get this preliminary injunction [temporary ban] into a permanent one. The final determination is likely months away. And it also may be determined by the outcome of the presidential election. For now, we have a preservation of the status quo [of anti-trans discrimination being illegal under the ACA].
Murphy: Have any of you heard reports of health providers violating the ACA rule?
Gentili: Many providers don’t even know what the rule means. Some of the mistreatment I disclosed in the lawsuit happened last year, when the rule was very much in effect. I went to Florida to have some surgery that I could only afford there because my insurance up here wouldn’t cover it, and the Cuban surgeon, before he worked on me, called me “papi.” My boyfriend wanted to go punch him in the face, but I said, “No, I need this surgery, he’s the cheapest thing I can get, so let me just get it done and not mention that he called me papi.” But it kills you internally.
Walker: Yes, providers have been breaking the [ACA] law ever since it’s been in effect. They’re still misgendering me without apologizing. We have to write letters to the insurance companies and beg for everything that’s transition-related. The man in the White House has set the stage for all of this. It’s not safe out there. Once he got in and started banning trans people from the military, and trans students from school bathrooms and locker rooms, people became emboldened. “Oh, if President Trump says it’s OK to discriminate against trans people, then it’s OK, regardless of anything Obama put in place.”
Murphy: It’s true, a lot for trans folks and for all sorts of folks is at stake in the coming elections. So, how are you finding comfort, support, and even joy in the meantime?
Gentili: I have a garden, and I am expecting dahlias—and I cannot explain how much joy I get every morning going to see them become big flowers. They were my aunt’s favorite flowers. My garden is really saving my mental health. I also cook a lot, try to do yoga and meditate as much as I can, and stay connected with friends via Zoom.
Walker: My friends and I have birthday parties in the park, do that social-distance thing and have fun together. I also listen to a lot of house music, read a lot of Black and African history, and fight with Trump supporters.
Murphy: For fun?
Walker: I find them on Facebook. I give them links to sites with the truth. That’s how I fight them. When they post pictures of the American flag and say, “We love our president,” I tell them, “Guess what? If Trump gets reelected, there might not be an American flag. It could be a new flag under a dictatorship. How would you like to go to sleep at night while your loved one is snatched away, put in prison or in an unmarked van, and you don’t know why or what happened because you won’t have due process?”
Murphy: And this is a source of relaxation and fun for you?
Walker: Yes, because I’m trying to get the facts out for people who are following Q-Anon and other dangerous and radical conspiracy theories.
Murphy: So I guess that’s your version of dahlias?
Walker: Yes. Fact-checking is my dahlias.