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The Unprecedented Attack on Trans Rights

There is a massive attack on the rights of trans people, especially trans youth.

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Over the past few years, lawmakers across the United States have proposed, and passed, swaths of bills attacking trans rights. Meanwhile, elected officials have prattled on about protecting the children of the United States from “threats,” such as drag queens; trans children playing sports; trans people using the bathroom that aligns with their gender; and medical procedures that will “ruin” children’s lives for the sake of gender affirmation. The falsehoods go on and on, and so does the list of proposed bills aiming to “fix” these “problems.”

Rather than protect kids, these bills aim to restrict, police, and criminalize trans people. The United States has seen an enormous uptick in the number of these bills introduced and passed in the last two years — 2022 was the year with the most anti-trans legislation introduced in history, and 2023 is already on track to beat that record. While the proposed bills (and preexisting laws) vary in their specifics, they fall under three main categories: medical bans, “drag” bans, and school-related legislation.

Depriving Children and Adults of Lifesaving Healthcare

At least 95 bills targeting trans medical care, mostly for minors, have been introduced this legislative session across the majority of the United States — already twice as many as were introduced in 2022. It is not an exaggeration to describe gender-affirming care as “lifesaving.” According to survey data from the Trevor Project, more than half of all trans youth consider suicide in a given year, and nearly 20 percent make an attempt. Supportive environments at home and at school strongly correlate with lower rates of suicidal ideation.

So far this year, bans have passed in three states — in Utah, South Dakota, and Mississippi — and other states already have similar bills in place. The Utah ban applies to people under 18 and bans not only gender-affirming surgeries (which are rarely given to minors anyway) but also hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) and even puberty blockers, which simply delay the onset of puberty. The South Dakota ban includes a forced detransition provision, which will force healthcare providers of youth already receiving gender-affirming care to “systematically reduce” their patients’ hormone doses over time. Other bills, such as those in South Carolina and Mississippi, ban such care for all people under 21. In Oklahoma, the original version of a bill banned gender-affirming healthcare for people under 26, but the bill has since been amended to reduce the age to 18. 

Texas is now proposing a bill (SB1029) that would ban insurance providers from covering gender-affirming care at any age and place new medical liabilities on doctors who provide it. We must call this bill what it is: a roundabout way of banning gender-affirming care for all trans people in Texas, including adults. Only the most wealthy will be able to afford their treatments. A similar bill (SB 199) exists in Arkansas as well.

Florida is also trying a similar route toward banning care for adults, with a bill that would hold employers liable for detransition care for anyone who gets gender-affirming care on an employer-sponsored health plan. While not banning gender-affirming care outright, it could force companies to withdraw coverage out of fear, rendering this care unaffordable for most people.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is attempting to ban health insurance providers from covering gender affirming care anywhere if they want to contract with TennCare, the state healthcare system, even if they don’t cover this care in Tennessee. This bill would likely be found unconstitutional eventually, but since Tennessee is the fifth most populous state in the United States, this bill could create financial incentive for companies to comply in the meantime. 

Sometimes, the bills target healthcare providers themselves, making it criminal for medical professionals to administer gender-affirming services at the risk of losing their license, owing steep fines, and even facing jail time. In Texas, lawmakers have targeted parents, defining helping their children access gender-affirming care as child abuse and requiring that these parents be investigated by Child Protective Services. Families are therefore faced with a terrible choice: they can continue to help their kids get medical care and risk having their family forcibly separated by the state; they can stop seeking medical care for their children, damaging their child’s mental health; or they can uproot their lives and leave the state, perhaps for California, Minnesota, or another state passing sanctuary laws — assuming they can afford it.

The politicians proposing these medical bans often use blatant transphobia to justify these bills, claiming that gender dysphoria is related to mental illness and can be “fixed,” that transgender people don’t truly exist, or that transness is a phase or a fad. Other, more insidious arguments for the bills, however, make seemingly more “reasonable” arguments about why the bills are “necessary,” such as that trans kids can be supported, but gender-affirming care is a bridge too far for minors and can irreversibly damage children if they should change their mind about using it. This assertion implies two things: first, that medical intervention for minors is permanent and irreversible, and second, that there is a high likelihood of transition regret or detransition — that is, people going back to living as the gender that aligns with their sex assigned at birth or ceasing the use of gender-affirming medical care. Both assertions are false.

Far-right lawmakers often rally around the idea that young children are coming out as transgender and immediately undergoing major surgery — far-right Florida governor Ron DeSantis said in a 2022 press conference that the Left was “literally chopping off the private parts of young kids.” The fact is, gender-affirming surgery is extremely rare in minors. Surgical procedures for trans people are usually not covered by insurance and are quite costly, and many medical providers aren’t adequately prepared to engage with transgender healthcare. Because of this, gender-affirming surgical procedures are not easy to access, they are not taken lightly, and they are not happening without serious consideration and discussion between the child, their family or guardians, and their medical providers. The right wing’s hysteria around this topic is just that: hysteria.

Another common fearmongering line is that if young kids start using HRT, their health will quickly diminish, their bodies will transform entirely, and they will need to use the hormones for the rest of their lives. Again, this is simply untrue. Children who come out as transgender are not immediately given HRT. In many cases, they do not receive any medical intervention at all, but when they do, younger children are often prescribed only puberty-blocking medication, which pauses the onset of puberty. These drugs are safe, effective, and reversible. If a child no longer wishes to use them, they cease the medication, and their puberty continues on as if they never took the drug in the first place. If a minor is prescribed HRT (estrogen or testosterone), which is typically given only to older teenagers, the dosage starts very small, is increased very gradually over time, and doesn’t cause any significant body changes for months or even years. If at any point during this time the child decides this path is not for them, they can cease taking the medications, the changes to their body will stop, and many of the effects will even reverse. HRT is not an overnight, irreversible change, as lawmakers would have us believe.

Furthermore, even if these medical interventions were irreversible, it is extremely uncommon for a child (or adult) to regret or reverse their gender-affirming care. Research has shown that 97 percent of trans people have no regrets about their decision to transition, and less than 3 percent say that while they have some regrets, they ultimately don’t wish to detransition. Only around 0.4 percent of transgender people decide to detransition, and of those who do, the vast majority cited their reason for detransition to be pressure from family, school, work, or society in general. If trans people were given more support and faced less discrimination for their decision to transition, the number of folks who decide to detransition would likely be even smaller.

Thus, the argument that these bills are somehow protecting children by denying them access to gender-affirming care — which has been found to be lifesaving — simply doesn’t hold water. These bills don’t protect children, they don’t make children safer, and they don’t have children’s best interest in mind. These bills are only in place to restrict the rights of trans folks.

“Banning Drag” Means Banning Trans People

Another major category of anti-trans legislation consists of so-called drag bans — bills targeting drag performers. There are at least nine of these bills under consideration across the United States. Many of these bills are clones or near clones of one another, and some are being drafted by far-right groups such as the Idaho Family Policy Center.

Before we summarize the bills, let’s remember that drag performances are very diverse. Drag queens sing and dance, they lip-synch, they perform comedy routines, they host brunches and bingo games, they read books to children, and many other activities. Even if these bills were simply banning drag, they would already be discriminatory attacks on a diverse queer art form. But these bills go beyond that — they intentionally define “drag” in such sweeping terms so as to include any person who doesn’t present themselves in a way that aligns with their sex assigned at birth, and while how they approach the topic differs, all of them are attempts at criminalizing trans adults, and especially trans women, who are at the center of all of the fearmongering.

The first major type of bill classifies “drag queens or similar performers” as those who “provide entertainment that appeals to the prurient interest.” According to this definition, drag performance must be restricted to adult-only venues. This type of bill effectively bans drag in any setting outside an adult venue, including at Pride. Intentionally, the bills offer no clear or concrete definition of what is “prurient,” allowing authorities to enforce the law widely at law enforcement’s discretion. These bills do, however, give a laundry list of places where drag performance is prohibited — one section of the Montana bill specifically addresses drag performances in schools and libraries, a provision that clearly targets popular family-friendly Drag Queen Story Hour events, which feature a drag queen reading a children’s book aloud. By prohibiting these child-appropriate activities, these make clear that they are intended to criminalize any drag whatsoever, and the bills’ vague definition of drag allows them to also criminalize anyone presenting themselves in a way that doesn’t align with their sex assigned at birth.

In addition to these more sneaky bills, there are also many bills that explicitly define all drag performances as sexually inappropriate content. These bills also define “drag performance” as anyone presenting in a way that doesn’t align with their assigned sex at birth who does any type of performance. Iowa’s version would criminalize anyone who brings a child to a drag show. In Arizona’s version of this bill, the list of banned performance activities includes “monologuing” — speaking in public to a group of people while wearing clothing that doesn’t align with your sex assigned at birth. While this bill is framed as specifically a drag ban designed to “protect children” from “sexually explicit content,” it could also be deployed against any trans person speaking in public. This would ban trans teachers from giving lectures to their students, trans employees from giving presentations at work, or, most pointedly, trans activists from giving speeches against these very laws. These bills are attacks not only on drag but also on trans people and their right to political speech, their right to advocate for themselves, and their right to exist in public.

The worst of these bills, West Virginia Senate Bill 253, is not a drag ban at all. Unlike the others, West Virginia’s lawmakers didn’t even bother to hide their transphobia under the guise of a so-called drag ban. Their bill explicitly names any and all content related to trans people as “indecent displays of a sexually explicit nature” and therefore banned from schools. This bill could be used to prohibit trans people from holding many different kinds of jobs, from becoming parents, or from simply existing in public. Under this bill, school personnel would also be prohibited from teaching about the existence of trans people at all or providing books with trans characters or topics in order to “protect children” from “explicit material.”

Another proposed bill in Arkansas (SB 270) would make it a felony for trans people to use any public bathroom if a child is also in that bathroom. 

While all these bills are dressed up in the name of “protecting children,” they are intended to prevent children from knowing that trans people exist or having the opportunity to meet trans people and view them in a positive light.

“Don’t Say Gay” and “Don’t Be Trans” at School

More than 20 states have passed or are considering versions of what activists are calling “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” laws — the first of which was passed in Florida in 2022. These bills explicitly prohibit discussing gender and sexual orientation in schools among certain age groups, usually kindergarten through third or fourth grade, although some bills are proposing a total ban for all ages from kindergarten to 12th grade. A much more extreme version, in Missouri, would ban all school personnel, except mental healthcare providers, from discussing LGBTQ+ topics with students in grades K-12, and this intervention would be allowed only with permission from the student’s guardians, creating a situation in which students are, at worst, unable to discuss a major aspect of their life and, at best, allowed to discuss these issues only in one specific setting, and only after disclosing the information to their parents, who may not be supportive.

Just like the medical care and drag bans, these bills have been justified by claims that this censorship is for children’s protection. The fact is that these bills serve only to isolate and alienate children. Lots of kids have queer parents and family members, and passing legislation prohibiting discussion of LGBTQ+ topics at all would create an environment in which these children feel that their families and loved ones are a tiny, unspeakable minority of society. The bills would also make it much more difficult for young queer students to talk about their own experiences with teachers. This invalidation would not keep children “safer” — it would make children feel alone, and it would prevent teachers from creating a space for students to feel supported and validated, even if their home life doesn’t provide that.

Some of the more extensive “Don’t Say Gay” bills don’t stop at just limiting what students, teachers, and school staff can talk about — they mandate that school workers put children in potentially dangerous situations. One such bill, in North Carolina, would require school personnel to forcibly out children to their parents if a child begins using a different name or pronouns at school. Adolescence is a time of identity experimentation for everyone, not limited to gender and sexuality, and it’s common for young people trying to understand their developing identity to seek support and validation from teachers, or to “try out” a new name in one social setting before using it in every part of their life. In many cases, students find their family unsupportive, and they thus have no choice but to use one name and set of pronouns at school and another at home, or else remain closeted.

These bills would deprive students of the option to work with teachers to create a queer-friendly space for them to be themselves. Furthermore, some bills, like one in North Dakota, would not only prohibit educators from allowing students privacy and support on their queer journey, but would actually require school personnel to intentionally misgender trans students. Under this bill, students could very easily find themselves in a position where their families are unsupportive of their queerness and staff at their school are legally prohibited from supporting them in any way.

Beyond just bills restricting students’ ability to socially transition, also proposed are a number of bills that would prohibit trans students from using bathrooms consistent with their gender or from participating in school sports. Under these bills, trans girls would find themselves forced to use the boys’ bathroom, trans boys would be required to use the girls’ bathroom, and no trans students of any gender would be allowed to participate in sports. Some anti-trans athletics bills even go so far as to require enforcement via DNA testing or genital inspections, although the specifics of what situations would require a test were left vague. In Florida there was even a proposal for the athletics ban to be enforced by requiring girls to report data on their menstrual cycles, although the state athletics association voted down the idea.

Beyond their impact on trans students, these bills are also attacks on teachers and other education workers, both trans and cis. Queer education workers are forcibly closeted under some of the bills, and trans educators could risk getting fired simply by existing. These laws would also force education workers, including straight and cis workers, to be worse at their jobs. This goes beyond what topics can be discussed in the classroom — it also means they can’t provide emotional or even educational support for queer youth. They can’t teach content relevant for their students, even if students bring it up, and school healthcare providers can’t use their judgment as healthcare professionals. LGBTQ+ student groups could be disbanded if it’s illegal for a teacher to supervise their meetings.

These athletics and bathroom bills are based largely on North Carolina’s 2016 HB2 bill, which introduced bathroom restrictions for trans children and is thought to have kicked off the current wave of anti-trans legislation. North Carolina’s statewide bathroom bill has since been repealed after an international outcry in which the state lost an estimated $400 million in investments and jobs, but some of the bathroom bans implemented in North Carolina remain in place, even after the repeal of the law. Unlike in 2016, however, we aren’t seeing a massive outcry against the latest — and much bigger, and much worse — wave of anti-trans bills. The Overton window has shifted.

Republicans Are Attacking Trans Children, and Democrats Are Letting It Happen

When defending each of these anti-trans bills, politicians falsely defend them to cover the real reason the bills are being introduced. The false reason cited is overwhelmingly that these bills would protect children. Lawmakers have claimed time and time again that the Left is allowing young children to undergo major and life-changing surgical procedures, that trans children will regret HRT and find themselves unable to reverse its effect, that trans people and drag queens are a threat to children across the nation, and that trans kids being themselves at school and in sports will harm the child and their fellow students. None of this is true. Research has repeatedly shown that gender-affirming medical care is lifesaving, that trans people are vastly more likely to be victims of assault and harassment than they are to be perpetrators, and that students’ mental health fares much better if they are allowed to live their authentic lives at school, both in the classroom and in athletics.

The real reason we are seeing this enormous anti-trans legislation wave unfolding is twofold: on one hand, the Far Right is anti-queer and wishes to stop trans people from accessing medical care, appearing in public, and living full lives. In addition, many Republicans (even those not associated with the Far Right) wish to use trans children as political pawns in their election game. Trans issues have proved extremely polarizing, and Republicans wish to keep their hold on their white, religious voter base, which overwhelmingly holds anti-trans sentiments. They do this by pushing more extreme bills preventing trans people from appearing in public and trans children from coming out or playing sports. Beyond just dedicated Republicans, a more moderate voting base that could vote either Democrat or Republican may be more likely to side with the Right in cases concerning medical intervention for trans children, as prominent fearmongering misinformation concerning HRT and gender-affirming surgery have made trans medical care for minors seem like a bridge too far for many centrists. By pushing these anti-trans bills and continuing to propose more, Republicans can have their cake and eat it too: they get to keep their loyal voter base happy, and they get the opportunity to whip more votes from centrists who fear gender-affirming care. The New York Times and other publications are playing a major role in normalizing these fears for centrists.

Republicans aren’t the only ones trying to appeal to moderate voters. Democrats have shied away from proposing bills to protect trans children from these dangerous attacks from the Right for fear of appearing too radical. They, too, use trans kids as tools in their mission to win more votes from the center. If Democrats start explicitly supporting trans rights in schools or access to trans medical care, they could alienate those in the center who fear these interventions and lose votes to the Republicans.

The situation is clear: none of this is about children’s safety, politicians don’t have the best interests of kids in mind, and no bourgeois politician will protect trans children — Republican or Democrat. Our only viable option for protecting vulnerable trans folks is to take up the fight ourselves. Despite the success of public action in the repeal of North Carolina’s HB2, we are not seeing a similar public outcry in response to the post-pandemic wave of anti-trans laws. We must change this. We need a mass movement. Teachers must mobilize for immediate repeal of all anti-trans laws in schools, medical professionals must organize to fight restrictions and bans on gender-affirming care, and we all must take up these attacks on trans people more broadly, in our workplaces and in the streets. This enormous wave of anti-trans legislation is not slowing down, and it won’t stop unless we stop it. Trans children deserve better, and we must give it to them.

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

R.F. Landers

R.F. Landers is a teacher and childcare worker in New York City.

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