A Los Angeles court ruled on Wednesday that claiming someone is transgender is not grounds for defamation.
That preliminary verdict, handed down by Judge Gregory Keosian, is a major blow to a suit brought forward by Richard Simmons in May after the National Enquirer claimed the former fitness superstar was transitioning in a 2016 cover story. But advocates say that the ruling is an unusual victory for LGBTQ rights.
Keosian argues in a written opinion that being incorrectly labeled as transgender does not innately target an individual for “hatred, contempt, [or] ridicule.” To suggest that it does, he writes, would implicitly validate the daily bigotry trans people face.
“Whilethe characteristic may be held in contempt by a portion of the population, the court will not validate those prejudices by legally recognizing them,” Keosian says.
Lambda Legal, the national LGBTQ civil rights organization, applauded the judge’s ruling in a statement provided exclusively to INTO. M. Dru Levasseur, the group’s senior attorney and transgender rights project director, says that giving credence to Simmons’ claims would “demean transgender individuals.”
“At its core, defamation is about disgrace,” Levasseur argues. “Saying that someone is transgender is not an insult. Being identified as transgender is neither bad nor shamefulnot in our society, and not under the law.”
“We are gratified that the judge in this case has recognized that,” he adds.
Simmons’ counsel, though, argued in court that the events of the past few weeks illustrate the lingering stigma of being viewed as transgender. Attorney Rodney Smolla cited Trump’s recent ban on trans troops serving openly in the armed forces, which was made into policy in a Friday memo, and bathroom bills targeting the trans community in states like North Carolina.
“Obviously, it’s clear that the court itself doesn’t want to be in a position of endorsing prejudice against transgender people,” Smolla claimed. “But it’s not an exercise in idealism, it’s an exercise in realism.”
University of Florida professor Clay Calvert says that the Wednesday ruling recognizes that while there might be setbacks in the struggle for LGBTQ equality, progress is on its way. Plaintiffs used to be able to claim that being misidentified as gay was a means of character assassination, but today most courts of law would “reject that notion.”
“While Richard Simmons may lose his case, there’s a larger victory for the LGBTQ community in terms of legal recognition that being transgender is not a damning characteristic,” says Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project.
A final ruling is expected on the lawsuit next week.
Simmons filed suit against National Enquirer and its sister publication Radar Online earlier this year, claiming that headlines like “Richard Simmons: He’s Now A Woman” were “cruel” and “malicious.” The stories alleged that the reclusive 69-year-old, who hasn’t been seen in public since 2014, got breast implants and was receiving hormone treatments. The publications also claimed Simmons was going by the name “Fiona.”
While stating his support for the LGBTQ community, Simmons has claimed the false reporting “sensationalized an issue that ought to be treated with respect and sensitivity.”