By the time Jensen Matar moved to Mississippi, he had been identifying as a male for more than a year.

While living in Boston, he had come out as a transgender man, meaning that while he was “born female” his gender identity is male. Over the next six months, Matar slowly told his close friends, his family and then other people in his life.

But when he got to Mississippi, he introduced himself as a female. And prayed that people would believe him.

“I was afraid to move to Mississippi due to the reputation I had heard about,” said Matar, who came to Mississippi with his now ex-girlfriend. “I was so afraid to the point that I took a few steps backward in my ‘social’ transition … I was afraid that I might not find employment otherwise.”

Three years later Matar is now out, publicly. But Mississippi’s reputation as a state where discrimination is frequently “cloaked in religion,” as participant Kaylee Bradshaw said, took center stage Tuesday at the Capitol during a hearing on transgender rights.

The event, organized by the American Civil Liberties Union and Sens. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, and Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, featured more than a dozen speakers discussing work they said is needed to protect gay, lesbian, transgender and gender non-conforming Mississippians.

For the most part the speakers were preaching to the choir, so to speak. With the exception of a quick stop from Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, the only legislators who showed for the event were its organizers, Simmons and Dawkins.

Despite the lack of an audience, the well-organized slate of speakers soldiered on, arguing passionately for Mississippi to enact comprehensive civil rights legislation that would protect not just gays and lesbians but also transgender Mississippians.

Bradshaw, a transgender female, said that even though people outside of the state were often shocked that  she rarely felt discrimination from other Mississippians. It was the laws, she said, that needed to catch up with the citizens.

“People assume that I should always be afraid, that I should always take a gun with me,” Bradshaw said. “I don’t fear the backwoods. I grew up in Tylertown. I don’t fear the rednecks with the trucks. I date them.

“What I fear are the legislators, legislators who are supposed to represent the people of Mississippi, who are supposed to think for the people of Mississippi. … Not only do they not implement legislation that protects us. They do the exact opposite.”

One law that several speakers referenced was House Bill 1523, which Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law last April. The bill, which was struck down by a federal district judge before it could take effect, singles out three “sincerely held” religious beliefs as worthy of protection: that marriage is between one man and one woman; that people should not have sex outside such marriages; and that a person’s gender is set at birth.

“And to cloak it in religion, what religion is that? The one about the god who is so loving and accepting he sent his only son to die for your sins?” Bradshaw said.

“Again that’s not my Mississippi. My Mississippi is one who has always supported me and make me feel like I should be right here in this beautiful state.”

Other speakers drew a parallel between the current fight for gay, lesbian and transgender rights in the state and Mississippi’s centuries-long struggle for racial equality.

“Discrimination in Mississippi is rooted deeply in Mississippi. And it seems to me that it is so ingrown that Mississippi feels that they must have someone to discriminate against,” said the Rev. Edward Hightower of Mt. Moriah Church in Pulaski, a long-time civil rights activist. “People want to base it on Christianity, and the only thing I know about Christianity is it teaches love. Love thy neighbor.”

Other speakers, however, took a purely pragmatic approach to the argument for transgender rights, highlighting that inclusive policy is better for minority groups.

“Suicide rates of LGBT youth went down after gay marriage became the law of the land,” said Paloma Wu, legal director of the ACLU. “So think of all the youth who could have benefited from that reduction in stigma if that had happened earlier. We have the opportunity in Mississippi to pass civil rights legislation, and we don’t have to wait to see how all this pans out.”

A comprehensive civil rights bill authored by Simmons that would have included protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and gender non-conforming Mississippians died in committee earlier this session.

Dawkins said she knows that similar legislation won’t pass in the Legislature without a fight.

“My colleagues have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, so there’s that to deal with,” Dawkins said.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.