In early 2016, Robert Steinke celebrated a huge victory when his work to encourage his local City Council in Stevens Point, Wisconsin to establish transgender-inclusive employment protections at last proved successful. In Wisconsin, statewide non-discrimination laws protect people from discrimination based on a variety of classifications, including sexual orientation – but not including gender identity – and so until a state law can be passed to update these critical protections, activists like Robert and hundreds across the state are working on the municipal level to take a stand.
That lack of coverage for transgender people matters deeply to Robert. Although he is a straight, cisgender male, his parent Carla is a transgender woman – and Robert knows that she, and so many other transgender people, are vulnerable to discrimination just because of who they are. For several years, Robert has been speaking out, calling for his community and others across the state to take a stand against discrimination.
Robert knows that engaging in in-depth conversations with his friends and neighbors is the most critical way to change people’s minds and encourage them to open their hearts to the reality that all people – including transgender people – should be treated equally.
He can relate on a very personal level: When Robert’s parent came out as transgender in 2010, he did not respond well.
“I wasn’t very supportive at first,” Robert said. “I had always suspected something – and maybe I thought Dad was gay – but then when Dad came out as transgender, it threw me for a loop. I was being a selfish ass.”
Robert found strength to better understand by tapping more deeply into his faith. He had studied theology in college and was planning to be a pastor in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church tradition
“I dug deeper into my theology, and that really allowed me to understand more of how I’m supposed to be for others,” he said. “I dove into my books, and I thought, ‘Where does the family come down on this? Where do the general church concepts come down on this?’ I saw that my faith called me to be a loving, supportive son. I realized that the core of my Christian upbringing was a strong emphasis on family – that it was very much at the nucleus of the Christian faith. That was a lightbulb moment for me. I saw that this was about her – not about me. It took me a year or two to really realize that, but once I did, I saw that this was about Dad, and her process, and her life.”
Now discrimination against the transgender community deeply angers Robert. Last year, when Robert went to see Carla, he noticed she seemed upset and uneasy.
“I saw that my faith called me to be a loving, supportive son. I realized that the core of my Christian upbringing was a strong emphasis on family – that it was very much at the nucleus of the Christian faith. That was a lightbulb moment for me.” – Robert Steinke
“I was at her place, and you could see on her face that something was wrong,” Robert said. “I asked why, and she said that someone in a vehicle drove past and yelled an anti-LGBT slur at her. I don’t think I was ever more angry or mad in my life. I’m a pacifist, but that made my blood boil really badly. And it prompted me to start asking questions – who could I talk to about this? How can I be active? How can I make a difference?
Soon after this incident, Robert painted a sign that shouted, ‘End Transphobia.’ He marched down to a corner in his hometown, held it up, and had several conversations with individuals about the discrimination that transgender people face.
“Being as close to my parents as I am, I know the difficulty that transgender individuals have with receiving acceptance in the community,” Robert said. “Discrimination is there – it really happens. And it takes a really strong person to be able to deal with that. Even the strongest person can be beat down by discrimination. I’ve read about the high suicide rate in the transgender community, and I know it stems from this discrimination. My life without Dad would be earth-shatteringly bad. I want her to have the life that she’s entitled to – and she can’t do that when discrimination against people like her is permitted.”
“My life without Dad would be earth-shatteringly bad. I want her to have the life that she’s entitled to – and she can’t do that when discrimination against people like her is permitted.” – Robert Steinke
Robert hopes that people all across Wisconsin – and, in turn, nationwide – are able to experience a journey similar to his, where he advanced to a place where he could better understand and accept his parent for being who she is. He knows that there’s a long way to go – but that if people keep pushing forward, keep diving deep into their hearts toward an understanding that no one should be hurt because of who they are – the state and the country can be a stronger place.
“Seeing Wisconsin pass these protections statewide would take a huge weight off of my shoulders,” he said, referencing his work on the horizon in neighboring communities. “I would be so gratefully overwhelmed with joy.”