Episode 2: Religious Liberty, Bathroom Bigotry

Photo by Ted Eytan, A blue, pink and white striped transgender pride flag overlayed with the words "religious liberty, bathroom bigotry" and the "traitor radio" script logo.
original photo by Ted Eytan/flickr/creative commons

Increased visibility has become a double-edged sword for transgender, intersex and non-binary Americans, who are increasingly targeted by religious conservatives and Republican lawmakers. You’ve probably heard of “bathroom bills” like HB 2 in North Carolina, which force people to use public restrooms according to the gender they were assigned at birth. But in addition to playing bathroom police, politicians are also championing “religious liberty” legislation — bills that are, in actuality, just about letting people discriminate against trans, intersex, non-binary and other queer folk if they claim Jesus told them to.

We’re at a pivotal political moment, and allies must support trans, intersex, non-binary and queer activists in their fight for freedom. On this episode of Traitor Radio, we talk about how.

Listen to us on SoundCloud above, or subscribe to us on iTunes and Stitcher. (And if we’re not on your podcasting platform of choice, let us know!)

Can’t listen? We’ve posted the episode script below — something we’ll be doing for all of our episodes as part of our commitment to accessibility.

But first, here are links to the organizations and resources we talk about on this episode:

TR2: RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, BATHROOM BIGOTRY

ANDREA GRIMES: Hello, Traitors! Welcome to episode two of Traitor Radio, the podcast for people who are mad as hell and ready to bring the resistance home.

< THEME MUSIC >

ANDREA: I’m your host, Andrea Grimes. Our format is pretty simple — we introduce y’all to real people who will talk about how their lives are affected by the racist, sexist, transphobic and otherwise oppressive laws and policies that are backed by the officials and institutions that are making America un-great. Then we’ll give you some homework which will help you start making change in your own community.

Every activist, new or seasoned, is welcome here. Hello, old-school resisters! But this is a 101-level space; if you’ve never done activism before, or you’re just getting into the swing of it after the election, I’m so happy to join you on your journey to un-fucking this country.

So let’s get started.

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ANDREA: For a while there, you couldn’t stand in a grocery store check-out line without seeing Caitlin Jenner on the cover of magazines obsessed with the nuances of her transition. In 2014, Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a primetime acting Emmy for her performance on the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness, about her trans girlhood in Hawaii and journey to becoming a journalist and advocate in New York, became a New York Times bestseller.

But visibility is a double-edged sword; across the country, politicians have increasingly targeted the trans community with so-called “bathroom bills” based in false and hyperbolic rhetoric that casts trans people as criminals and creeps. Here’s a report from KXAN news in Austin, earlier this spring:

< NEWS CLIP >

CROWD CHANTING: “SHAME! SHAME!”

NEWSCASTER: “Signs of a controversial legislative session as protesters began chanting before the bill was even filed.”

TEXAS LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR DAN PATRICK: “We know it’s going to be a tough fight. The forces of fear and misinformation will pull out all the stops.”

NEWSCASTER: “At a press conference, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick said the ‘Texas Privacy Act’ would expand to every public building. Author of the bill, state Senator Lois Kolkhorst said with limited exceptions for emergencies, parents and others, the bill would require school students to use the bathroom of the gender they were born with. If a district goes against it, the attorney general would dole out a civil penalty.”

TEXAS STATE SENATOR LOIS KOLKHORST: “Are we going to have bathroom police? No. What this is is it allows an individual who feels uncomfortable to report that.”

< END OF NEWS CLIP >

ANDREA: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and other transphobic lawmakers say that trans women and girls are playing pretend for the opportunity to harass others, a claim that has no basis whatsoever in reality. And there are already laws that make sexual harassment and assault illegal — and if anybody is creeping on people in bathrooms, those laws already apply. So much for small government, I guess.

In the news report, you heard state senator Lois Kolkhorst there talk about how there wouldn’t be any ‘bathroom police,’ but I wonder — how, exactly, does anyone imagine this kind of law would be enforced? Do we all carry our birth certificates with us to the movies and the baseball game, in case we have to go? Do we run a chromosome test or submit to a physical exam before we do our business?

Today on the show, you’ll hear from three gender diverse Americans who will describe firsthand what it’s like to live, work and, yes, pee — when your very identity is under attack. So now I’ll turn this over to gonzo journalist Kit O’Connell, reporting from Austin, Texas.

STORYTELLING

KIT O’CONNELL: “Bathroom bills” aren’t really about bathrooms or even about privacy: these laws are designed to label transgender and gender diverse people as second-class citizens, and limit their access to public life. And “bathroom bills” are also about more than just bathrooms. They also roll back protections for LGBTQIA people — that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual folks — and encourage and enable discrimination in workplaces, housing, medical care and even the court system.

I’m a gonzo journalist, so I don’t pretend to be neutral in my reporting: I’m openly biased toward human rights and equality. I’m also an activist, organizer and educator in my Austin community. And, I’m genderqueer, which means I don’t fully fit into the gender binary of male and female. I use he and him pronouns, though, and generally don’t mind passing as a man.

For cisgender people — people whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth — and folks like me who mostly but don’t quite fit into society’s two gendered boxes — it can be hard to understand how thoroughly transmisogyny and similar forms of gender discrimination can interfere with a person’s everyday life, rendering even the need to pee into a potentially life-threatening situation.

Since bathroom bills encourage the oppression of anyone outside the gender binary, I sought out stories from a variety of people who face these kinds of gender-based discrimination. You might be hearing some new words in the next segment. “Chimera,” for example, describes a person born with two distinct forms of DNA. It’s one of several conditions which can result in a person being born “intersex,” which means they have a combination of reproductive and sexual anatomy and other physical traits typically associated with male and female genders. And, “breast binding,” which is when someone flattens their breasts using cloth strips, bandages, or special undergarments made from material such as Spandex.  

In this podcast, I wanted to create an inclusive picture of what gender diverse people experience, but it’s important to remember that transgender, intersex and non-binary are separate but sometimes overlapping categories. Not all intersex people consider themselves transgender, and most transgender people are not intersex. Non-binary, meanwhile, is an umbrella term that can encompass a wide variety of gender expressions.

First up we’re going to meet Houston performance artist Koomah, an intersex person who uses “any and all pronouns.” We’re going to hear about a terrifying incident that happened to Koomah when they were where so many of us have been — trying to find a bathroom on a long road trip.

KOOMAH: “My gender? That’s complicated … If you’re not familiar with what intersex is, that is when someone is born with a body that is either anatomically, hormonally or genetically somewhere in between what is considered standard for male or female. At least for me, my gender is very fluid.”

KIT: Koomah told me about a frightening and disturbing incident which occurred to them while traveling with another performance artist after a burlesque & cabaret show in New Orleans.

KOOMAH: “We were headed back to Houston and I had to go to the bathroom so bad. Like really really really bad. And we came across this gas station. I went for the first restroom that I saw, which was outside and it was the men’s room. I typically use whatever restroom is closest, cleanest and has the shortest line. And in this situation, I didn’t care what restroom it was, I had to go. This restroom was horrifying. Just something out of a horror movie. It was the scariest most disgusting restroom. Kind of an empty room with like one toilet and half a partition and a sink. No toilet paper. It had like one of those giant toilet paper rolls that’s like the size of an inner-tube or something. Sitting inside the toilet bowl so the toilet couldn’t actually flush? Soaked in urine. It was so awful, I was gagging.

So I walked into the gas station and up to the attendant, cashier person and asked them, do you have a restroom? The person kind of glared of me up and down trying to figure out what was going on with my gender, and looked at me and said Men’s? I said, Nope! So they kind of nodded me over to the women’s restroom, and the women’s restroom was not nearly as horrifying as the mens. There was about five ladies in line waiting to use the restroom. I got in line and we stood and we talked and nobody cared and it was just, nobody questioned that maybe i was not supposed to be there or whatever my gender was. We just talked about mostly how frustrating it was that one of the stalls was out of order. Did my business, no problem.

Coming out, again walking through the gas station to leave, this other worker grabbed me by my shirt and said Oh hell no, I know you did not just use the ladies’ room. So this person, this lady, just demanded that I show her my ID and was like I’m going to call the cops. And i was like, I got this. The gender on my ID says female. Related to being intersex, when i was a teenager I was given a forced mastectomy that I didn’t really want. In the intersex community we call it a “normalization” surgery, it was done to make me apepar in this instance more male. It was done without my fully informed consent. I didn’t really want it done. I have autoimmune issues that require me to take chemo, and because of that, I have chemo-induced hair-loss.

Just thinking on my feet, I just started crying and making a big scene. And was just saying I had a mastectomy, I’m on chemo, everyone thinks I’m a man, I’m so ugly. Causing a big scene for this woman and she’s looking at my ID, and it says female. I am on chemo, I did indeed have a masectomy, not necessarily related to the reason that I encouraged her to think it was related to. I do not have breast cancer. But it was something that worked. And it worked for me and I felt like I didn’t really lie. She was like oh my god ma’am, I am so sorry. And I snatched my ID and ran out of there and jumpe din the car with my friend and was like go, go, go!

I present the story in a humorous way and it is kind of humorous, but being able to improvise and think quickly has definitely saved me from a lot of problems on several different occasions. If I was not able to do that, it could have ended differently. If i’d left my bag in the car and didn’t have my ID on me, or if my ID didn’t say you know, female on it. Which is a reality for a lot of people. The story could have ended a lot different.”

KIT: Closely related to bathroom bills are so-called “religious liberty bills.” On the federal level, a bill called the First Amendment Defense Act, which first appeared in 2015 and which Republicans have threatened to reintroduce in 2017, would enable employers to discriminate against queer and transgender workers at will under the guise of religious freedom — basically saying that if someone claims their religion dictates that they can’t work with trans or queer people, or allows them to treat trans or queer people differently just because they’re trans or queer, that’s totally legal. Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that trans discrimination violates the law, those protections are uncertain in today’s political climate and lawsuits are often too expensive to be practical. In our next story, we’ll meet Demeter, from Texas, who faced discrimination at her workplace.

DEMETER: “I’m a non-binary trans woman. I go by she, her or they, them, either one is fine.”

KIT: Demeter, who has a math degree, describes herself as a “plant geek. She spent about a decade working in the nursery industry.

DEMETER: “I was kind of desperate for a job because I needed the money, and so when I hired there, I was basically informed that I had to conform to masculine, to male gender norms.”

KIT: That meant that she had to remove her earrings and bind her breasts to her chest to create a more traditionally masculine appearance. Breast-binding is only safe for short periods of time, but Demeter had to bind for entire workdays.

DEMETER: “During the winter time, that was fine, I guess. But in the summer time, when the temperature in the greenhouse could be ninety to 100 degrees outside and about five to ten degrees warmer in the greenhouse because they didn’t vent it properly, I ended up getting overheated and I ended up getting rashes from the sweat and the binder.”

KIT: While her managers made some token efforts to enable Demeter to work there, the upper management was openly hostile, and frequently made homophobic or transphobic jokes during store inspections.

DEMETER: “Being out, if they found out that I was trans, I probably wouldn’t have a job any more. And I needed the money.”

KIT: During one of the job’s most challenging moments, Demeter was forced to bind her chest and attempt to pass as a man for an entire 36-hour trip to the company’s corporate headquarters in Dallas.

DEMETER: “It basically was 36 hours that I had to be in with the company, which meant that I had to be in ‘guy’ mode, bound, for 36 hours straight. That included sleeping in a room with somebody, I was informed, who shouldn’t find out that I was trans. So I had to sleep in my binder, which is not healthy. It’s very much not healthy.”

KIT: Things only grew worse for Demeter. In the months that followed the trip, the store’s assistant manager began sexually harassing her verbally and physically.

DEMETER: “He started doing things like running into me with his hands cupped right at my chest level so that he would feel my chest through the binding and give a slight squeeze to indicate that he actually knew where they were. Both the assistant manager and the manager were LGBT. The assistant manager was bi, the manager was a lesbian. The assistant manager would do things like slide my paycheck into my back pocket and cup while his hand was in my back pocket. I really couldn’t report some of the harassment because he had my job on the line.”

KIT: It took time, but eventually Demeter forced upper management to step in and stop the harassment, and she never felt safe working there after that. After a while, she was able to find enough other work to leave the job, but you can tell the memories are still intensely painful to this day.

And even medical care can be difficult for trans people to obtain. Already, people living outside the gender binary suffer from what’s popularly known as “trans broken arm syndrome,” in which doctors blame literally any medical condition on a person’s trans-ness. To close out our storytelling, we’re going to meet Nick, a transgender intersex man living in the Pacific Northwest, who told me about a particularly traumatic visit to the ER.

NICK: “My name is Nick, I’m in my 40’s. I’m chimeric. I was raised female. I live as a guy. I am transgender because my gender was female but now it’s male, but I’m also non-binary. So I’m the guy who will happily walk through the grocery store with an unshaven face, but needing a bra.”

KIT: Nick worked for years as a farm worker and migrant laborer, because he found it easier than answering questions about his gender at more conventional jobs. A few years ago he became sick, forcing him to change careers. Now he works as a home health care worker and at Walmart. Nick’s story begins on a day when his leg became severely swollen, and though he suspected it was caused by a known autoimmune illness, he was worried it might also be an unexpected life-threatening condition.

NICK: “I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I’ve also had relatives that have died from aneurisms, so I was just kind of like, okay, I want to make sure I don’t have a blood clot or something like that going on in my leg. So I went to the emergency room. It hurt so bad I could barely walk, it was swollen like three inches bigger than the other leg.”

KIT: During intake, the nurse began asking Nick about his menstrual cycle.

NICK: “With all the questions of, when was your last period and blah, blah, blah. And some of those don’t always fit intersex bodies. They don’t always want to take your easy answers and a lot of times, I just lie. Because I may have a little bit of a cycle now but then I may not have a cycle for a while depending on what my body’s determining to do at the moment, right?”

KIT: Despite Nick’s efforts to return the conversation to the subject at hand — his leg — the nurse decided he must be pregnant.

NICK: “She was like well, when are you due? And I’m like, I’m not expecting. And she was like okay what are you taking to stop your period because you said you weren’t on any medications, for, you know — she’s like, this one medicine is for rheumatoid arthritis and that’s it. And I was like, yeah that’s the only thing I’m taking. And she said well what are you doing to stop your period? Then that got into the whole conversation of I’m not doing anything, just move along!”  

KIT: Suddenly, Nick felt intensely aware of the strange looks he was getting from the nurse.

NICK: “She finishes the intake and she’s looking at me really weird the rest of the time, like oh my word, what is this person? So the doctor comes in, and he’s asking me questions and kind of poking around at my leg a little bit. And he says okay, we’re going to send you down for an exam.”

KIT: The doctor told Nick that they wanted to do an ultrasound on his leg, but then they loaded him on gurney and took him to the hospital’s women’s clinic.

NICK: “Where another nurse comes in and proceeds to tell me to put on the gown and take off my underwear and bra. And I’m like, why do I need to take off my underwear and bra for an ultrasound of my leg? And she says oh, this says we’re supposed to be giving you a pelvic exam. And I’m like, no. I’m here for my leg. And I showed her my two swollen legs, and they sent me down here to have a test done on my leg. And so then this whole, sorry, this is really upsetting, so this whole cycle started. And they were like you’re being combative. And I’m like, I’m being combative? For not letting you look at my junk? And they eventually labeled me a combative patient and sent me away from the hospital with no pain medication, no nothing. It turns out I was able to get into another clinic where the doctor was just, because i was pretty traumatized the next day when I got in, and I was like, both barrels blasting. And he was like okay, calm down, what they did was completely unethical, it’s illegal in this state, you really need to follow it up. He’s like, let me look at your leg, we’ll figure it out right here, you’ve got sweats on. Pull up your pant leg, we can do an ultrasound right here, we can have a nurse come in, whatever you’re comfortable with, call a friend, take your time. We’ll get it squared away.”

KIT: As painful and inhumane as his experience was, in some ways Nick was lucky — because he was able to quickly find another doctor who treated him with kindness and gave him proper care. Isn’t it appalling that this kind of health care isn’t available for everyone, when they need it, the first time they ask? And even more people would suffer under the First Amendment Defense Act, and similar state-level so-called “religious liberty” bills, because doctors and first responders would be legally allowed to refuse medical care to queer and trans people.

Next, we’ll talk about how cisgender allies can work to become the best advocates they can be when it comes to ensuring trans people are treated with respect, dignity and equality wherever they go — whether that’s to their local representative’s office, to work, or to the bathroom.

HOMEWORK

ANDREA: Alright, y’all — it’s me, Andrea again. To kick off your homework, I want to cover some basic etiquette.

First: Trans women are women. Trans men are men. People who are agender, or don’t identify as either men or women — well, aren’t. People’s gender identity is not up for debate. Which is why when someone tells you their pronouns, you absolutely must use those pronouns, no exceptions. If you slip up, which happens, don’t fall all over yourself to make a big scene about it. Apologize, and then keep using that person’s correct pronouns. You can also offer your own pronouns, especially if you’re meeting up as part of a political organizing group. Don’t assume that only trans people need to share their pronouns. Make it normal for everyone to share their pronouns. (My pronouns, by the way, are she and her.)

The word “transgender” is an adjective, and never a noun. Say “transgender woman” or “trans person,” and not “transgenders,” which is offensive, dehumanizing and, frankly, will make even the most well-meaning ally sound like a massive asshole.

Strive not to suck about this stuff, okay? Here’s Kit:

KIT: So that’s your basic good-manners stuff. When it comes to supporting the rights of trans, intersex and non-binary people, there’s a great deal more to be done.

Some of that has to happen in our state legislatures and at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. We need state- and local-level protections against discrimination, but also strong federal protections that work to combat bias when the states themselves are the ones discriminating against transgender people.

To understand more about that how to talk to your elected officials, I called up Lara Americo, who fought against North Carolina’s anti-trans bill, HB 2, last year.

LARA: “I’m a transfeminine activist and musician living in Charlotte, North Carolina. I think every person should have an experience in lobbying, because these are people who are affecting your lives. And basically controlling your life. Every politician has their politician face, and when they’re in session, they have it on. It’s hard to get through to the human being behind the suit and the office. So before you walk into their office you have to remember they are human beings, just like you. They have one heart and one brain and two lungs. They have motivations and they have a life. So it’s, the main goal is to find that humanity in them. Especially when it’s an issue that affects you, like abortion or transgender issues. Those issues, like, affect your body and your livelihood. So it’s very important to remember why you’re there and try not to get intimidated. It can be frustrating, but the best thing you can do is be persistent.”

ANDREA: If you live in Texas, you have an opportunity to make a difference right now at the state Capitol. Lawmakers are headed back to Austin in July for a special legislative session, and keeping trans people out of public bathrooms is back on the agenda. Your homework: Contact your state senator and state representative, and demand that they oppose the discriminatory and transphobic legislation championed by lieutenant governor Dan Patrick. And follow Equality Texas, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, on Facebook to find out where and when you can participate in direct actions like protests, rallies and marches to support transgender Texans.

KIT: And if you’d like to go visit your lawmakers, a little preparation will go a long way. Write out what you’d like to say ahead of time, and bring a copy to leave with the staff. Be sure to include the name and number of the bill you are concerned about and how you want them to vote. And, as Lara said, be prepared for microaggressions and hostility from opposing lawmakers — you don’t need to win them to your side right then and there, just concentrate on leaving a lasting impression as their constituent — as a voter, you’re their boss, and you’re allowed to tell them how to do their job.

KIT: I know I’ve also wondered wondered what to do if I see someone being harassed, or someone threatens one of my trans, intersex, or nonbinary friends while we’re out on the town together. Even if all your friends are cisgender, any of us might happen to witness harassment. Here’s some advice from Tyson, a 35 year old trans man from Oregon.

TYSON: “For those of you who have friends who are trans, or if you’re just a person of privilege in general, talk to friends of yours that are more marginalized and ask them how they would like those situations to be handled. For me personally, if someone is just using derogatory language or something in a public setting, let it go. Because I don’t want a nasty word to turn into punches and, you know, possibly knives and guns and things like that. That being said, if it gets to a point where I am in direct danger of physical violence, at that point, that’s when I want someone to intervene on my behalf. Whether that be a person who is familiar with self defense, or martial arts or something of that nature, or whether that be someone who is familiar with direct action or civil disobedience and knows how to respond in that way. So, for example, the differences between knowing how to do the various self-defense maneuvers, versus, I don’t know how to do self-defense myself, but I totally know how to throw myself on top of someone and take the punches for them so they’re not getting hurt, right? The most important thing to consider is if you’re genuinely going to say, I’m a safe person, you’re safe with me, you have to understand what that really means to someone who is more marginalized than you. And what that really means is I am willing to, if necessary, sacrifice my personal safety in order to protect yours. And if that’s not something you’re willing to do, you need to own that and have those tough conversations with your friends.”

Kit: What Tyson is saying, most of all, is that while it’s admirable to want to defend marginalized people, it’s important that we’re prepared to follow through on our words. It’s even more important that if we do intervene in a tense or dangerous situation, we don’t make things worse.

ANDREA: Self-education is also an important part of developing good habits as an ally; demanding that trans, intersex and non-binary people hold our hands through the basics can be really frustrating and emotionally draining for people who, as you heard in the first half of this episode, are already facing some really scary stuff in their daily lives.

So: I want to recommend that you pick up a copy of Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness. It’s got some tough content, but it’s also funny and moving and enlightening. Here’s Mock, talking about her book at a Google event a couple years ago:

JANET MOCK: “I think the bizarre thing about writing in a genre like memoir is that everyone knows so much about you, but you know nothing about someone else. So I think there’s this, especially with the platform of books period, there’s such intimacy there. You have to really engage with it for long periods of time. It’s not like an article that you can skim real quick, and kind of read the headline and maybe read the headline and the first two paragraphs and be like, I really got that. With a book, you have to really sit there with it and share space with it.”    

ANDREA: I blew through this book in a couple of days, and found myself laughing, crying, raging — millennials in particular, I think, will find Mock’s cultural touchstones particularly meaningful and relatable.

KIT: It’s never a bad idea to support — literally, with your money — the work of trans, intersex and non-binary people. We’ll include a list of organizations led by trans folks in the show notes for this episode, but a couple to highlight right now: Black and Pink, which seeks freedom and justice for incarcerated trans and queer people, and interACT Advocates for Intersex Youth, which supports the legal and human human rights of intersex children and young folks. There are also lots of local organizations to support, like Casa Ruby, a trans-led organization which helps low income LGBTQIA people in Washington, D.C.

KIT: This stuff isn’t exactly rocket science, but it’s also not yet normalized. Cis people have to take the initiative to educate themselves and listen to the trans, intersex and non-binary people in their communities. That means using people’s correct pronouns — every time. It means opposing transmisogynistic legislation, speaking up when you see or hear someone being harassed or threatened and it means paying for and supporting the creative and activist work of trans, intersex and non-binary people. If more of us do these things, we’ll make a safer world for everyone.

< TENSE MUSIC WITH PIANO AND STRINGS >

ANDREA: Thanks for tuning in — and thanks to the dozens of donors who have made Traitor Radio a reality. In particular I want to thank Shannon, Aspen, Merritt, Timothy, Teresa, Caitlin and Jacob, our Traitors of Record who’ve pledged $5 or more per month to support the podcast. If you want to join badass bunch of Traitors who get thanked by name on every episode, check us out at Patreon.com/TraitorRadio. We’ve got three different donation tiers with some pretty cool rewards, everything from behind-the-scenes updates to exclusive calls with our producers and guests. Because we’re committed to paying our contributors for their time and their emotional and intellectual work, we can’t do what we do without your financial support.

If you would like to contribute to Traitor Radio, we are always taking submissions, especially from people who are willing to share their first-person stories with listeners, just like Koomah, Demeter and Nick did on this show. Journalists are also welcome — if you want to do radio reporting on social justice activism, let us know! Our email address is traitorradio@gmail.com.

This episode was produced by me, Andrea Grimes, with help from Traitor Radio’s creative director, Carrie Kaplan. Our music is by Emily Meo. Follow us on twitter at @TraitorRadio, and find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/TraitorRadio.

< TRAITOR RADIO THEME MUSIC WITH STRINGS AND PIANO >

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