Washington (AFP) - For the first time, Washington National Cathedral welcomed a transgender priest to deliver a sermon -- a move symbolic of the rapid but under-the-radar progress on trans rights backed by President Barack Obama.
The venerated church, where the funerals of 21 US presidents have been held, invited Reverend Cameron Partridge onto the pulpit in a service Sunday during LGBT Pride Month, which celebrates the victories and contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
"It's pretty overwhelming, to be honest, and it's pretty inspiring," Partridge, 40, told AFP after the service, when he was congratulated by dozens of worshippers.
Partridge marked his transgender "coming out" 13 years ago, deciding to quit his biological female identity and live as a man.
Today he is married to a woman, is father to two children and serves as a chaplain at Boston University -- one of the few openly trans priests of the Episcopal Church, a Protestant denomination.
Partridge's journey from young lesbian to an established male priest illustrates the increasingly common decision by transgender Americans to live openly in society.
They stand emboldened by legislative successes in about 20 states which have passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity at work, school, in health care or housing.
"The last two years have seen an accumulation and the outcome of years and years of work," said staff attorney Matt Wood of the Transgender Law Center located in California, where trans rights are among the most advanced in the nation. "It's not just that these things suddenly happened out of nowhere."
- 'Patchwork' of 50 states -
Eighteen of the 50 US states have adopted laws banning workplace discrimination against transgender people. Eighteen states also bar "gender identity" bullying at school.
In 29 states, it is possible to obtain a new birth certificate reflecting one's new gender, without being buried in medical and legal bureaucracy.
And five states require that insurance companies cover gender transition treatments, on medical advice, including hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery.
For many, that is just a beginning.
"We still have a long, long way to go, even in securing formal, legal equality, let alone addressing the disparities in health and economic opportunities and other areas of life," said Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality.
"We have a patchwork in the US," Tobin added. "Even within each state they may have a different policy for driver licenses versus birth certificates."
Many conservative and faith-based voices have denounced what they see as encroaching LGBT propaganda, and challenge the idea that a person can identify as a gender other than their biological one.
"That means Americans will no longer be allowed to express dissent, moral or otherwise, about the choice to discard the oppressive 'gender binary' and be whichever blend of genders you choose," conservative columnist Brent Bozell wrote on Townhall.com.
"Disagree, and you 'stigmatize' and 'dehumanize' people," he added. "Freedom of speech in America is dying."
Eight southern and western states have passed laws essentially muzzling the issue: schools there cannot mention gender identity in anti-bullying rules. And in 29 states, an employer can still legally sack workers because they are gay or transgender.
The movement has a crucial ally in Obama. The president has signed several executive orders, applauded by rights groups, including those that enshrine trans rights for federal employees. But such authority is limited.
Faced with the patchwork of state-by-state legislation, Tobin hopes Congress or the Supreme Court could step in and bolster trans rights. A 2013 example, in which the high court gave a boost to gay marriage rights that have now been expanded to 19 states and Washington, serves as inspiration for trans activists.
The movement also relies on transgender people taking the reins in changing American attitudes. The image of actress Laverne Cox, heroine of popular television series "Orange is the New Black," adorned a Time magazine cover last month, alongside the title: "The transgender tipping point."