Before getting into a bird’s eye view of the current crop of proposed and passed legislation targeting gender and sexual minorities, I feel the need to repeat some of my words from 2018, slightly edited to fit today’s focus on legislation:
“Here at the beginning, I want you to know that I am wonderfully happy about my gender and sexuality. I love – I really love – being genderqueer. I love belonging to the transgender family. I’ll be focusing on painful and difficult experiences [today] as we continue to call [our communities] to accountability, but I don’t want there to be any confusion. There is so much joy in my life. There are so many incredible, beautiful, fantastic people I’ve met and you are so important to me, and to our community. I am so grateful for the time and life we’ve shared together. I am so grateful for you. The joy and life and love we share are why I am willing to stand here and assert our humanity … . I am angry, to be sure; but I am angry because all this suffering is unnecessary and cruel, and I am so exhausted from feeling and seeing my transgender siblings suffer so much. I hope that, in the anger, you also can hear this love.”
March began with thousands of people flocking to the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which Christopher Mathias aptly described as “creepily obsessed with trans kids and showcased the GOP’s alarming and intensifying anti-trans rhetoric.” Highlights included former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka, who is allegedly a “member of a Nazi-collaborating political order in Hungary,” claiming that Democrats are “mutilating boys and girls” and “sacrificing them on the altar of their transgender insanity.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene announced that she is re-introducing her failed “Protect Children’s Innocence Act,” proclaiming that it “will make it a felony to perform anything to do with gender!” The president of the right-wing website Judicial Watch, Tom Fitton, labeled gender-affirming care “a demonic assault on the innocence of our children.”
But Gorka, Greene, and Fitton were outdone by The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles, who declared that:
“The problem with transgenderism is not that it’s inappropriate for children under the age of 9 … . The problem with transgenderism is that it isn’t true. … If [transgenderism] is false, then for the good of society... transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely, the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.”
Again, the crowd erupted with clapping and cheers.
The rhetoric coming out of spaces like CPAC reflects the growing movement centered around transgender people and their needs, a shift in focus that we’ve been watching for many years now. As transgender people, and our related vocabulary and needs, have grown both more familiar and more acceptable to the general public, we have also become an easy target for those who can exploit popular fears and misunderstandings. So it is that we also live in a time where every year, year after year, we brace ourselves for the barrage of legislation aimed at denying and banning our very existence. And it happens again and again, year after year.
However, the frequency and intensity of these attacks has been increasing, and this year is a case in point. Last week, for example, Tennessee gobbled up the headlines as Gov. Bill Lee signed two bills into law that targeted transgender folks in particular, becoming, as James Factora summed it up, “the seventh state to pass such a ban on care, and the first state to ever pass a ban on drag.” House Bill 1 bans transition-related care to minors and can be used to strip healthcare providers of their license for providing care. It also allows patients who received care as a minor “to sue providers within 30 years after the patient turns 18.” House Bill 9 bans performances of “male or female impersonators” in a public place that “could be viewed by a minor.” Penalties include 11 months in prison and/or fines up to $2,500, with repeat violations classified as felonies “punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3000.” The Trans Formations Project explains, the broad wording “effectively criminalizes just existing as a trans person in any performance, educational industry, or in public! If you’re wondering how, it’s simple. This bill defines simply being trans (or crossdressing as a cis person) as sexual.”
Missouri led the way early on, proposing 31 anti-lgbt bills in January. (For those keeping count, Oklahoma passed that number in February, with 34 proposed bills.) Those bills are in different stages of the legislative process, and most will probably not make it out of committee. However, Missouri lawmakers were recently in the news for discussing House Bill 634, which has been dubbed Missouri’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. It aims to prohibit instruction that includes sexual orientation or gender identity, going even further than Florida’s ban by extending the prohibition all the way through grade 12. (Florida’s ban allows for “age appropriate” education on those topics starting in grade four.) The language is terribly vague, lending itself to prohibiting even the promotion of heterosexuality, something that Rep. Phil Christofanelli (a gay Republican) pointed out in a now famous video clip of him questioning the bill’s author, Rep. Ann Kelley:
“‘I’m just going to read you the language in your bill,’ Christofanelli said, pointing to a section that stated no classroom instruction ‘relating to sexual orientation or gender identity shall occur.’ / ‘You mentioned George Washington. Who is Martha Washington?’ Christofanelli asked. / ‘His wife,’ Kelley answered. / ‘Under your bill, how could you mention that in a classroom?/ Christofanelli continued. / Kelley replied, ‘To me, that’s not sexual orientation.’ ‘So it’s only really certain sexual orientations that you want prohibited from introduction in the classroom,’ Christofanelli shot back.”
Missouri lawmakers have also been busy debating Senate Bill 49, the “Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act”, which would ban state and local government employed health care providers from providing gender-affirming health care to minors, as well as banning state and local facilities from providing gender affirming treatments like puberty blockers and hormone therapy. In a recent email update, PROMO’s Executive Director, Katy Erker-Lynch appropriately called out these lawmakers’ “audacity to debate trans kids’ very right to live and exist”:
“They spread lies about the parents of trans youth, about the physicians who provide best practice care, and about the larger LGBTQ+ community. … this legislative session continues to push us into unprecedented times — over 30 explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been prioritized by this legislature—seeking to use transgender bodies as political pawns to push their political agendas forward. The fact that these bills were dignified by voting them out of the Senate Committee should be appalling to any person paying attention and a wake up call to those who haven’t been listening.”
If you have had a difficult time keeping track, it can be helpful to know that the anti-trans legislative tactics have taken on a few predictable forms. The Trans Formations Project has provided six broad categories to track those attacks:
- Bathroom bills typically deny transgender folks from accessing their appropriate public restroom. However, “They increase danger without making anyone any safer and have even prompted attacks on cis and trans people alike.”
- Healthcare bills substitute discriminatory health practices for “professional and scientific consensus” around lifesaving, gender-affirming care. They often include criminal charges against healthcare providers and child abuse charges against parents. Notably, “intersex children are typically exempted,” meaning that invasive medical procedures (that coincidentally conform to cisgender-heteronormative expectations) can still take place without the knowledge or consent of the child.
- Public performance bills usually target drag performances, which is egregious in itself, but they are also often worded in such a way that they ban transgender and gender-expansive people from performing in public at all. Three important elements to these bans include: 1) a loose definition of “drag” as a “public performance with an ‘opposite gender expression’”, 2) labeling those performances as inherently sexual, and 3) asserting that the performances are therefore inappropriate for children. Again notably, cisgender-heteronormative gender expressions remain acceptable.
- School bills often use the language of “parental rights” to force educators and schools to: “misgender or deadname students, ban instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, and make schools alert parents if they suspect a child is trans.” They also typically make it difficult for trans youth to access “life-saving affirmation and support” at school.
- Sex Designation bills create further obstacles for transgender folks to access identification and documents that match their gender identity.
- Sports Ban bills “are often one-sided and ban trans girls from playing on teams consistent with their gender identity.” Some versions have also included “invasive genital examinations.”
“What happens is, there might be eight members of the House of Representatives who all want to go home and say they filed the bill. And so, they all filed the identical bill. And then at some point in the process they mesh all those together and make one bill that’s called House Bill 40, 72, 137 — they’ll list all the numbers. So they can all go home and say, ‘I kicked a trans kid in the face.’”
Both positive and negative reinforcement is at work here. On the one hand, transgender folks have become a preferred target, so it is easy to try to leverage proposing and supporting anti-trans bills as a way to seek votes. But there’s also the negative side, in that failing to support these bills can also be used against them in a future campaign. As Senator Razer put it, “if it is brought to a vote, then how do they vote no? Because somebody on the right is going to primary them. And run the ad: ‘Voted to support gender affirming care for transgender kids.’” That pressure is real, and I fear that transgender lives and care are not important enough for even sympathetic lawmakers to feel compelled to risk their political ambitions and careers. Transgender lives – the wellbeing of people like me – are not important enough. We are part of the acceptable losses. We are necessary casualties in their culture war, the holy sacrifices on their altars raised to the delusions that transgender people and our basic human needs exist as a tool of some “evil-doer who is seeking to kill and destroy us and our children.” (And yes, these words are the direct quote of another Missouri State Senator.)
There is much more to reflect on in how this is unfolding, but I’ll limit myself to one more aspect of this debate. In late February, Missouri senators held a press conference about the SAFE Act that included Chloe Cole and Luka Hein. Both Chloe and Luka transitioned as teens, including receiving gender affirming top surgery, and then later retransitioned. Both are critical about the way they received care and the failure of their medical providers to give them the care they needed. Hearing their stories is important as medical providers continue to improve standards of care for young people; everyone should have access to the care they need.
However, what I see happening is that anti-trans lawmakers and social commentators are using the voices of Chloe and Luka to silence all other trans voices and deny us both basic care and human rights. For example, a study published in August 2022 by the American Academy of Pediatrics followed 317 trans children and youth for five years. Over that time, retransitioning occurred but was uncommon; around 7% of participants retransitioned during those five years. Obviously, standards of care need to be continuously improved so that this number is even lower. However, it is inappropriate to universalize the experience of 7% of trans youth receiving gender affirming care at the exclusion of the 93% that received the correct care. This is especially important because the impact of that care is literally life-saving. In another study published in February 2022, researchers found that trans youth (13 to 20 years old) receiving gender-affirming care (such as puberty blockers and hormone therapies) “was associated with 60% lower odds of moderate or severe depression and 73% lower odds of suicidality over a 12-month follow-up.”
This is not an aberration. More and more studies, collectively representing the experiences of more than 30,000 trans and gender-diverse youth, demonstrate that gender-affirming care translates into better mental health, while restricting access to that care is associated with worse mental health outcomes, including depression, self-harm, and suicide. For these very sound reasons, professional medical organizations have overwhelmingly published both policy statements and standards of care, including: the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Endocrine Society, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. As Heather Boerner wrote in Scientific American, “All of those medical societies find such care to be evidence-based and medically necessary.” But anti-trans lawmakers silence all of these researchers, medical providers, and transgender voices in favor of elevating the voices of those whose experiences more neatly fit their prejudices. I am not in favor of silencing people like Chloe Cole and Luka Hein, but their voices cannot be allowed to silence all others. Everyone deserves access to the care and support they need.
Another aspect of the retransitioning narrative is the way the anti-trans movement obscures the variety of reasons why a person may choose to retransition. A 2021 study that included more than 17,000 people who accessed gender-affirming care found that only 13.1% had ever retransitioned. Even more significantly, 82.5% of these respondents experienced at least one external factor, “such as pressure from family and societal stigma,” that motivated the retransition. Internal factors, such as uncertainty about their gender identity, was a much less common factor, even though the current discourse focuses on these rarer cases. This is very convenient, because it hides the fact that the major motivation for retransitioning is the stress that transgender people experience, such as bigotry and discrimination.
The end result is that both the public rhetoric and constant stream of bills, even when they do not become laws, create an atmosphere that is dangerous for gender and sexual minorities. Just to look at one risk factor, more than 80% of trans folks have considered suicide, and more than 40% have attempted suicide. Trans youth are at the highest risk. A 2020 study of suicidality among trans youth found that “School belonging, emotional neglect by family, and internalized self-stigma made a unique, statistically significant contribution to past 6-month suicidality.” And now we are witnessing a cultural and legislative movement that specifically aims to make it more difficult for trans youth to feel like they are safe and belong at school, that empower families to emotionally neglect their gender-affirming needs, and that promotes internalized self-stigma through the constant denial of their identities, rights, and care. Our society is collectively and persistently creating the conditions for a very painful and wholly preventable tragedy. The words and actions of anti-trans media and legislators are and will continue to contribute to the deaths of transgender people.
I don’t know how to end this reflection, which has become something of a lament. My best guess is to return to advice I gave back in January 2018. I concluded with four lessons, including this invitation:
“while we can and should support and agitate for reform in order to minimize harm, we must devote as much time, energy, and resources as possible into building community. We have to earnestly and intentionally cultivate practices, habits, and structures … that rely on and embody mutual care, respect, and justice. … We have to make justice and love normal.”
And I concluded that:
“I titled this talk ‘We Are Not the Fragile Ones,’ because victims are often spoken about in ways that patronize and condescend. The world knew it could break us, and they were right about that. Too many of us have had to live lives that were not ours, just to survive, locked away in a straight, cisgender world. And more - too many of us are wounded, and too many of us are dead. But I’d like to point out that it is oppressive systems that are brittle, and that it is people in positions of power and privilege who usually feel the most threatened and reactive to movements for justice.
“Those of us with these stories, we are not the fragile ones. We are not the ones who need a gay panic or trans panic defense. We are not the ones who think that our families will disintegrate if we accept people’s gender and sexuality as they are, rather than as we say they should be. And we are not the ones who justify cruelty and violence out of a fear of divine judgment. I offer my reflections as an imperfect tribute to all my comrades, to all my friends at the margins, who live as exiles amid these fragile, brittle egos. I offer my love to all of us fabulous and resilient and wounded people who, together, are creating a new and beautiful world.”