We See You; We Stand with You: A Case Study in Connecting with Your Audience on its Terms
“This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy – but we will get there together.”
-United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch[i]
This statement from US Attorney General Loretta Lynch closed the press conference on May 9, 2016, when the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it is suing the state of North Carolina, its Governor Pat McCory, its Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina. The DOJ is suing in order to invalidate North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, also known as House Bill 2. The bill, in part, requires transgender people to use public bathrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms based their biological sex, rather than their gender identity.[ii]
House Bill 2, which was passed the North Carolina General Assembly on March 23, has received stark criticism from across the country and incited boycotts from celebrities and businesses planning to work in the state.[iii] In early May, the DOJ notified state officials that this law violated federal civil rights laws and asked the state to certify that it would not implement the bathroom restriction of the law.[iv] In response, North Carolina sued the Department of Justice, and the Department of Justice sued right back.
The legal arguments are significant in order to understand federal civil rights and how they affect LGBTQ Americans. But the focus of this case study is not the legal arguments, but rather how Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke directly to North Carolinians and transgender Americans in her announcement of the lawsuit. Lynch did not merely announce the DOJ’s legal action against the state, but practiced the principle of connecting with those audiences most directly impacted by this lawsuit on their terms.
Here is a breakdown how she did this.
Lynch began her speech by summarizing the context of what was happening and framed why the North Carolinian law violates federal civil rights law. “[T]he legislature and the governor placed North Carolina in direct opposition to federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity,” she stated. “More to the point, they created state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security – a right taken for granted by most of us.”
But after discussing what happened and what the DOJ planned to do about it, she spoke about the larger issue at play. “But this action is about a great deal more than bathrooms,” she explained. “This is about the dignity and the 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.”
She then cast why this was happening in the historical context of how some states have responded to civil rights victories in the past, such as the Jim Crow laws passed in reaction to ending slavery and the statewide bans against the freedom to marry for same-sex couples which only ended recently. And she identified that this, and similar state bills, have specifically targeted LGBT Americans in response to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the freedom to marry last June.
“Now some of these responses reflect a recognizably human fear of the unknown, and a discomfort with the uncertainty of change,” she recognized.
But then Lynch implored:
[T]his is not a time to act out of fear. This is a time to summon our national virtues of inclusivity, of diversity, of compassion and open-mindedness. What we must not do – what we must never do – is turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans, for something they cannot control, and deny what makes them human. And this is why none of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something or someone they are not, or invents a problem that doesn’t exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.
Not only is this a strong statement of support for the LGBT community, but a clear condemnation of not only North Carolina, but all states that have passed laws on false pretenses to discriminate against LGBTs.
“Let me speak now directly to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my home state of North Carolina,” Lynch continued. She again highlighted that this bill does not protect “vulnerable populations” but rather targets and victimizes another population.
She then reminded North Carolinian’s of a less than flattering part of the state’s history and encouraged them to learn from their past mistakes. She explains:
Instead of turning away from our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, let us instead learn from our history and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Let us reflect on the obvious but often neglected lesson that state-sanctioned discrimination never looks good and never works in hindsight. It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had other signs above restrooms, water fountains, and on public accommodations keeping people out based on a distinction without a difference. We’ve moved beyond those dark days, but not without a tremendous amount pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward.
Lynch’s naming and shaming of North Carolina’s past was not only a clear warning to the state to not repeat this same pattern of behavior of legalizing discrimination. It was also a clear parallel of America’s civil rights history to the current struggle within the LGBT community – a history in which those states that engaged in discrimination ended up on the wrong side of history.
She ended her plea to North Carolinians by reinforcing this message: “Let us write a different story this time. Let us not act out of fear and misunderstanding, but out of the values of inclusion, and diversity and regard for all that make our country great.”
She then continued with an unequivocal message of support to transgender Americans. She stated:
[L]et me speak also directly to the transgender community itself. Some of you have lived freely for decades. And others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated, no matter how afraid, and no matter how alone you may feel today, know this: the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration want you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.
She concluded her message by recognizing again that this struggle was one the United States has already gone through and one that, with hard work, will follow history’s path of making the United States a more free and perfect union. “Please know that history is on your side,” Lynch declared. “This country was founded on the promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that ideal, little by little, day by day. It may not be easy – but we’ll get there together.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch masterfully connected to her key audiences on their terms. To North Carolinians, she spoke as a native North Carolinian to remind them of a painful past and call on their American values of inclusion, equality and freedom for all people to write a different story this time on the right side of history.
To transgender Americans, she recognized them as they are and their struggle. “We see you,” she exclaimed. She made clear that the US government stood behind them and would fight for their rights – “We stand with you.” Lynch’s speech strategically placed the Department of Justice and the Obama Administration in support of LGBT rights. It was the most powerful message of support the US government has ever delivered to transgender Americans. And the fulfillment of that promise to support them has already begun to take shape.
Three days after Lynch’s powerful address, the Obama Administration walked their talk, and called on every public school to ensure that transgender students were not discriminated against in their schools. On May 12, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education sent a directive to every public school in the US calling for them to allow transgender students to restrooms based on their gender identity. The letter issuing this directive also included a 25-page long attachment subscribing ‘emerging practices’ in place already in schools across the country to create safe environments for LGBT students.[v]
“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” said Secretary of the Department of Education John B. King, Jr. “We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence.”[vi]
Both in word and in deed, the US government is supporting transgender Americans as they struggle to be recognized and treated equally under the law. And, as Lynch promised, little by little, day by day the Obama Administration will diligently work to ensure that they fulfill their promise to stand behind transgender Americans and live up to the values this country was founded upon.
This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.