“What we have is a situation where our opponents are fixated on us and our allies are leaving us behind,” says trans attorney and activist Chase Strangio. Republicans have made attacks on trans youth a signature policy item at the state level. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes and Chase Strangio talk about the avalanche of transphobic legislation Republicans have generated, the role of fascist politics in this onslaught and why trans students are not getting the support they need from liberals or the left.
Music credit: Son Monarcas and Silver Maple
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
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Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I am your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. On this show we talk a lot about organizing and what solidarity demands of us. Today, we are going to talk about the waves of legislation targeting trans youth in the United States. Last year, state legislatures brought a historic number of bills aimed at restricting the rights of trans people — with a particular focus on trans students. Republicans have made curtailing trans rights a signature policy item at the state level, with hundreds of transphobic proposals looming in statehouses around the country. In just the first week of 2022, Republicans in seven states introduced at least nine measures targeting trans youth. Some bills aim to prevent trans youth from joining sports teams or using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Other bills seek to restrict trans children’s access to medical care, and some would even criminally charge parents if a trans child receives gender-affirming care. Unfortunately, we are not seeing anything like the kind of mainstream media coverage or large-scale displays of solidarity that this onslaught warrants. So, today, we are going to hear from Chase Strangio, who is an attorney and trans rights activist in New York, about what this crisis looks like, why people aren’t paying attention, and what we should be doing.
So why haven’t you been hearing more about this situation? Well, as Media Matters recently reported, “Between January 1 and February 3, the only show on the six mainstream (non-Fox) national TV networks … that aired even a single segment devoted to the proposed trans youth sports bans or bans on gender-affirming care for minors was MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson Reports.” Outside of Jackson’s show, the legislative attacks trans youth are facing were mentioned just four times during that same period, amounting to just over a minute of discussion on those six networks. Fox News, of course, devotes considerable air-time to attacking trans-inclusive policies and fear-mongering about trans people.
According to the Pew Research Center, “a majority of Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party (59%) say that the greater acceptance of transgender people is good for society, while a majority of Republicans and Republican leaners (54%) say it is bad for society.” So, in theory, we should be seeing some fiery pushback from Democrats on this issue, but instead, we are seeing a lot of trans youth, some of whom have spent their entire adolescence advocating against bills that target their existence, being let down by their allies.
While much attention has been paid to debates around critical race theory and right-wing book bans, the transphobic aspects of these policy assaults are often omitted from popular dialogues. As Melissa Gira Grant recently wrote in The New Republic, “It’s not just Maus and the 1619 Project that have been targets of bans, but also books by and about trans and nonbinary people and curricula concerning the existence of trans people, too. Groups like No Left Turn have listed anti-racist books alongside books meant to destigmatize gender nonconformity, and members of Moms for Liberty have harassed school boards in the name of banning books on race, gender, and sexuality from schools.”
But as Gira Grant stresses in her piece, it is not simply books or curricula that are under attack, but the actual health, well-being and bodies of trans students. We must raise the alarm about banned books, and we need to get people on those school boards to end those exclusions, push for better curricula, and so much more. But when children’s bodies are being banned and regulated, and relatively few people are discussing it, something has gone horribly wrong, and we need to figure out how to make it right. Since most people have a lot of catching up to do, I asked Chase Strangio to give us a bit of a rundown on what’s been happening with these bills.
Chase Strangio: In 2022, what we’re seeing nationally is really an all-out assault on trans people, particularly trans young people in state legislatures. That looks a lot just like an escalation of what we’ve seen year after year, really beginning in 2016, when we started to see the so-called bathroom bills really emerge as a sort of backlash to marriage equality. And in some sense, a product of the mainstream LGBTQ movement’s failure to center and lift up trans people in the mainstream fights for things like same-sex marriage and military inclusion.
So 2016, you really start to see these very insidious attacks on trans people, but there is a significant backlash at that time. When North Carolina passed HB2 in 2016, you had a national outcry. You had the United States suing the state. Leagues moved their championship games. The NCAA moved the final four. Businesses pulled out of North Carolina. Query whether that type of boycotting of a state is a strategic move from a progressive standpoint. But nonetheless, when you look at the national picture, there was a huge response to the sort of escalation of attacks on trans people in 2016.
Between 2016 and 2020 … because of that, attacks on trans people in the restroom context really waned. This was also of course during the Trump administration, when state legislatures could rely on the federal government to be sort of the “discriminator-in-chief” with respect to trans people. But in state legislatures, between 2016 and 2020, we really saw a decline in [legislative] attacks on trans people.
And then what starts to happen in 2020 is we start to see an escalation of attacks and a real pivot from our opponents. Ever strategic, ever well funded, ever suppressing votes and taking over state legislatures. There was a shift in 2020, we started seeing well coordinated efforts by national groups shipping out pre-drafted legislation to conservative lawmakers across the country and state legislators, focusing on two primary things. The first was banning health care for transgender minors. And the second was banning trans women and girls in particular, but actually banning all trans youth from athletics.
Those bills really started to pick up in 2020, but in part because of the COVID pandemic and shortened legislative sessions, only one bill passed. And now what we’re seeing, 2021 led to the passage of approximately 13 anti-trans bills targeting trans youth, including three bills in Arkansas [and] multiple bills in Tennessee. And definitely the peak of bills introduced across the country, targeting the trans community.
And now in 2022, we’re surpassing even what we saw in 2021, the bills are moving more quickly. They are broader in scope and we’re seeing a resurgence of old friends, or foes, like the bathroom bill. We’re only a few weeks into state legislative sessions and we are seeing states pushing so many bills, reviving bills, even after they’re defeated in committees, bringing back bills that were passed the previous year, just to expand upon them. It’s really like nothing I’ve ever seen in terms of the magnitude of the attack. And there is almost no public response in opposition. And that’s part of why this is happening, because in 2016, lawmakers felt like after HB2 passed (the bathroom bill) the conversation really shifted, that they couldn’t get away with targeting trans people. What they saw in 2021 was that they absolutely could get away with targeting trans people.
And now what we’re seeing in 2022 is that they’re using their free rein to attack trans people. And they’re doing it alongside a lot of other scary things, like attacks on abortion, voter suppression bills, attacks on books and history and words in the classroom. And this sort of distorted notion of parental rights that’s escalating across the country.
And with all of these things happening, we’re seeing very little resistance to the bills targeting trans people. Many of which are catastrophic in nature, that would literally cut off lifesaving care to trans people. And I think for me, one of the things that’s been the most disheartening has been the reminder that, in the context where the bills target the whole LGBTQ community — so things like restrictions on teachings related to sexual orientation and gender identity — we do get a larger outcry. We hear from the White House. We hear from national leaders. We hear from businesses. Even if we had to compare, the 35 bills restricting health care for trans youth are much more dangerous in nature. There’s very little support when the bills target just trans people and especially when they target just trans youth. And so what we have is a situation where our opponents are fixated on us and our allies are leaving us behind.
KH: According to The Trevor Project, “85% of transgender and nonbinary youth say that recent debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health.” The organization also found that “71% of transgender and nonbinary youth, feel scared about the future.”
CS: I have been doing trans advocacy work for about 20 years and I’m a trans person myself. I’m a parent and I have never seen the level of fear and sadness among trans young people and their parents and their loved ones that I’m seeing right now, because the single most terrifying thing for so many trans people that I know, particularly trans young people who have fought to be believed as who they are, is to lose their health care. And we are now in a situation where bills are being proposed that would make it a felony potentially for doctors to treat their patients with standard of care medicine, care that young people might rely on for a period of eight years before they’re 18 years old, or in a case of Alabama’s prohibition, it would be 19 years old. In the case of Mississippi’s prohibition, it would be 21 years old.
So this is really scary for people to think about. I had to fight so hard to be believed as me. I had to fight so hard to get this health care, which is already really hard and inaccessible, like all health care in this country. And now it’s becoming a crime to receive it. And some families are fleeing the states that they live in and trying to find safer homes for their families. And that means leaving behind potentially older relatives, businesses, jobs, communities. Last year, Arkansas passed a ban on health care for trans minors and people had to pick up and leave, in some cases, when they had the means to. Thankfully, we were able to sue and stop that law before it went into effect. But that fear that people are experiencing is so heightened. And in some states, these bills would make it a form of child abuse for a parent to affirm their trans child.
So if you can imagine now, parents are walking around scared that the state will take away their child if they provide them with a loving home. And obviously when we think about the history of the so-called child welfare systems in this country, they are systems that have been designed to target largely communities of color, particularly Black and Indigenous communities. And now we’re adding upon that, the fear that those communities that are already targeted disproportionately could be at risk of losing a child because they love their child, because they support their child, because they’re treating them consistent with who they know themselves to be. So people are really scared. Young people are missing school to go testify at state houses when they should be just managing the already very challenging circumstances of growing up and going to school in a pandemic.
And we know from the data that even just the introduction and debate over these bills has caused a spike in adverse mental health consequences for trans young people. Because when people in power are debating whether or not you should go to the bathroom or play on a sports team or have access to your health care, that in and of itself, that conversation, even if the bill never passes, is harmful. And not only is it something that the young people are internalizing, it’s messages that other people are receiving, which then increases the risk that these young trans people experience violence in their schools, in their homes, on the street, because people in power are legitimizing that type of discourse and sentiment.
KH: Chase and I also talked about the larger ramp-up of disposability that we are witnessing in the U.S., as mass COVID deaths are normalized. I am troubled by the thought that we are becoming more accustomed to leaving people behind, and what that could mean for people who are already living on the outskirts of the margins.
CS: We’re in such an upsetting time where you have this legitimization of the idea that some subsets of our communities are disposable and that’s always been true, but there is something about the combination of the escalating climate dystopia, combined with the escalating fascism in government, combined with the ongoing pandemic, that has sort of created a combination of apathy and authoritarianism that have combined to create both discursive and structural imperatives to legitimize the notion that it’s okay to let some parts of the population die off.
And that’s always been there. Our whole constitutional system believes that, to an extent, and that’s always been true. So I don’t want to suggest that this is a new phenomenon, but I think the notion of human disposability and the notion that the state has an interest in acting to allow the premature death or to facilitate the premature death of some populations is really upsetting and scary right now. And especially when you think about people who are experiencing that at multiple intersections on their body, on their survival.
I think one of the things I really noticed as someone who is litigating against these bills and going to state houses to lobby against these bills is that it is very clear to me, and it’s not a subtext, it’s right on the face of them, that these pieces of legislation are part of a global movement and narrative that believes that transness is deviance that should be stamped out. And that the state, however defined, has an interest in preventing transness, preventing people from being trans.
And we see it quite clearly in legislative hearings. We see it very clearly in litigation because what they argue is, well, it is harmful to be trans. And therefore we have an interest in stopping people from being trans, and we should intervene when they’re young, so that we can prevent them from becoming trans adults. And of course, having the state believe that they have an interest in eradicating a population is of course, a genocidal impulse. But we are sitting by and watching multiple genocidal impulses happen. And in some ways, it’s hard to figure out how to fight back against all these things, but doing nothing or simply allowing there to be some sort of debate over which side is right is certainly not the answer, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s really distressing to watch this all play out.
KH: Something that occurred to me as Chase and I discussed what has or hasn’t gotten coverage, or driven the discourse, is that a lot of people seem to have forgotten their own part in this story — as people who either said something or didn’t when the right escalated its violence against trans youth. The public’s creeping tolerance for the dehumanization of targeted communities is ultimately what enables atrocity. When dehumanization is codified, and that goes unchallenged, we are always looking at a cycle of escalation.
CS: I think that one of the things that really does concern me is this fixation with individuals and events, this idea that the problem is Trump. The problem is January 6. That the problem is McConnell. That the problem is the Supreme Court. And yes, those are all manifestations of a problem, but all of this is happening in part because of the way in which it’s being dispersed on a population-based level. It is happening as much in the discourse as it is happening in individuals. And we are complicit when we absolve the systems of responsibility by fixating on the individuals. And I think that is what we continue to do. That’s what we see in our cable news shows. That’s what we see in a media climate that largely focuses on headlines and is uninterested in nuance. We’re reproducing (and in fact reifying) the very fascism and authoritarianism that we, in some of those contexts, claim to be resisting.
KH: In October of last year, Judith Butler wrote:
As a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children, and LGBTQI people. It threatens violence against those, including migrants, who have become cast as demonic forces and whose suppression or expulsion promises to restore a national order under duress.
To Republican officials, trans youth are merely characters in a story they’re telling. The story is about maintenance of supremacy, which is what all fascist stories are about; however, they color in the details. To us, trans youth should be children and young people we are unwilling to surrender to the fascists or anyone else who might harm them.
Chase had a message for our cis listeners, and also some words for any of our trans co-strugglers who might be listening.
CS: I think when I want to sort of take a microphone and speak to all cis people of the world, or in the United States, especially really cis women whose bodies and experiences in history, particularly white cis women, are being leveraged in the service of anti-trans violence. I want to say it’s certainly not going to stop with trans people. And it is part of the animating ideology that is restricting access to reproductive health care, but it’s also going to increasingly restrict access to birth control, increasingly going to facilitate state-based surveillance over bodies as a general matter. This is not just about trans people. Trans people pose a very sort of a obvious and particular threat to the neatness of a sort of state control over sex bodies. But that doesn’t … It certainly doesn’t start or end with trans people. And so, even if you don’t care about us, if you care about yourself, this fight is your fight too. So I think that’s something that is so often lost in the conversation that I hope we can work on and work through.
And then when speaking to trans people and to people listening to trans people speaking to each other, I think, I just first and foremost feel just so sorry that, especially to young people who are spending an already traumatic period of their childhood going and trying to defend their existence in various halls of power and feeling the parody of their life. I feel so sorry. I feel so sad that that has to happen. And at the same time, I feel so much love. I feel like we all carry such rich legacies with us to share.
And that at the end of the day, we have always found extralegal ways to survive and take care of each other. If every state bans our health care, we will find a way to get each other health care. And so I certainly, as someone who was a “work within the system” person, however much I distrust and dislike the system, by definition, a lawyer is a within the system person. I know that ultimately our legacies, our knowledge base, our shared abilities to connect and provide information will give us the tools to survive outside of the various forms of violence that the system enacts.
And so, I send love and reminders that our history is one of sharing means of survival, extralegal strategies for survival, and whatever it takes, that’s what we’ll do. And it shouldn’t have to be this hard. And I wish more people were paying attention and I wish more people were engaged. And I think that we disengage with the truth of what’s happening around us at our own peril. Particularly if we oversimplify the mechanisms of authoritarianism and fascism that are being imposed upon us and that we are part of. So I hope that we all find ways to protect and care for our bodies and act in kindness and solidarity.
KH: I know this is an alarming moment for all trans people, and especially for trans youth. To be forced to use the wrong bathroom in your school, or to flee your home state in order to get medical care, or to avoid having your parents charged as abusers simply for respecting who you are — no one should have to know what any of those things feel like. So to any trans young people who are listening, I just want to say I am sorry that all of this is happening. But I promise you are loved and will be fought for, and that change is possible.
Over the past eight years, South Dakota has considered 34 bills that would have limited the rights of LGBTQI people. The majority of those bills targeted trans youth. Year after year, trans young people have organized to stop those bills. They knocked on doors to raise awareness. They got up before dawn to travel to the state’s capital to testify about how these bills would hurt them. They stopped bill after bill. Last month, however, the state passed Senate Bill 46, which bars trans youth from participating in sports teams that align with their gender identity. These young people managed to hold off transphobic attacks for eight years, and only now, when Republicans are hopped up on radicalization and imposing Trumpism at the state level, has one of those bills gotten through in their state. Well, I want to take a moment to applaud those young people, including Elliot James Vogue, whose work was highlighted in a terrific piece in The 19th by Kate Sosin called, “Kids in South Dakota have spent most of their youth fighting anti-trans bills. One was just signed into law.”
I know what it feels like to hold the line, when not enough people have your back. What these young people accomplished, by holding off so many attacks, and by expressing themselves as trans young people in this hostile world, is inspiring to me. I cannot tell those young people, or other trans youth, that the current storm is about to end, because it’s not. But the fight is not over, and it is not theirs to carry alone.
If people of conscience are not roused to act, or even speak, when trans children are being abused, or forced to flee or made to suffer psychologically, we have to ask ourselves why. The best case is that it’s the corporate media’s fault. In which case, if you had not heard about this, now you know, and you are accountable to that knowledge, so please spread the word. But also, I think it would be a good idea for all of us to ask ourselves if we have gone quiet on issues that matter to us, and if so, why? Are we leaving people behind who we might have defended before? This will not be the last time you will have to ask yourself those questions. Because normalization is powerful. We have talked about this in relation to immigration and COVID deaths on this show as well. To resist dehumanization and the creation of new death worlds, we have to confront our own experiences of desensitization, forgetting and erasure. It is work. It takes effort. And other people are worth that effort.
CS: I guess the only other thing I want to say, and this is just such a simple thing, but it should be obvious that it’s not about bathrooms and it’s not about sports and it’s not about health care. It’s about control. It’s about power. It’s about expulsion and it’s about disposability because you can’t go to the bathroom safely or at all, you can’t go to school, you can’t go to the doctor, you can’t go to a lot of places. And if you can’t get health care that you need to survive, then you can’t survive. And then if the state thinks that they can make us un-trans, but the only way they can do that is by killing us.
And so I think for anyone who’s really invested in stopping to think, What are these really about? It’s always important to look at the imperatives behind them. Not the words that they’re saying when they’re advancing these bills. So that’s just something I always just want to revisit when people are thinking about what’s happening.
KH: In April 2021, Jules Gill-Peterson wrote:
If this year’s anti-trans bills are emblems of a broader conservative, Christian political project, we can see them not as sudden and arbitrary aberrations but instead as developments in a decades-long process. The construction of an authoritarian Christian ethnostate is a project that dates back at least to the Reagan revolution, in which sex panics and anti-abortion politics converged with anti-Blackness — in the from of the war on drugs, the dismantling of welfare, and the expansion of mass incarceration — to rewrite the conservative playbook.
This moment has been a long time coming. A lot of people have not reconciled the fact that it’s here. Decades of conservative plotting to reverse the gains of social movements, and to hold onto power in the face of shifting demographics, have been supercharged by a series of mass radicalization events. Some people may think, There’s a Democrat in the White House, and the Democrats control Congress, so how can fascism continue to take hold? How can the same people who were imperiled under Trump be facing similar nightmares now? In some situations, as in the case of migrants, it’s happening because neoliberal Democrats do some of the same things fascists do. Just somewhat differently. In the case of trans youth, it’s happening as part of a broader reclamation of right-wing power at the state level — one that includes the seizure of the electoral apparatus itself in some states.
Why trans children? Because they are symbolic targets, and because Republicans are betting they can get away with it. They are betting you won’t pay attention — or maybe even that you can’t. They are betting on the erosion of your compassion, and on your sense of inevitability, which has probably always served other people more than it serves you. They are counting on your cooperation. They do not need your approval. They just need your silence and your inaction.
I want people to think about the moment we are living in. Think about the normalization of mass COVID deaths. Think about the targeting of trans children. Now, think about how the Nazis targeted disabled people and people regarded as deviants. It is not simply the actions of wicked people that bring about horrific changes, but also the tolerance of everyday people who become acclimated to dehumanization and atrocity. It’s time to stop acclimating. Trans people are worthy of life and dignity, and should be defended. The lack of regard we are seeing, among people who might otherwise give a damn about trans people, about migrants, about COVID victims — this is how the fascists win. And if you think this moment is not part of that process, just because Biden and the Democrats are at the wheel right now, you are horribly mistaken. Neoliberal Democrats are basically surrendering to fascism by further normalizing mass death and abandonment, and establishing themselves as incapable of constructive governance. As people of conscience, our position should be that we surrender nothing and no one, and certainly not trans youth.
So how can you help? We will be including some links in the show notes on organizations you can support or follow up with, but more than anything, today I am asking you to make some noise. You heard the stats on how little news coverage this is getting. Spread the word, make up the difference, and demand to know why major outlets are not giving this issue in-depth coverage. Make it an issue by caring loudly and demanding more information from the people who should be providing it. And please, express your solidarity and support for trans youth, who deserve a lot more backup than they’ve been getting. As usual, we all have a role to play, and we all have work to do.
I want to thank Chase Strangio for joining me today to talk about trans rights, the law, and where we go from here. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Things you can do:
- If you would like to support a trans-led group in your state, but do not know where to begin, The Trans Justice Funding Project’s 2021 grantee list provides a list of options from around the country.
- To learn more from Chase, you can follow him on Twitter.
- We also highly recommend checking out Chase’s most recent piece in Truthout, Gender-Affirming Health Care Saved My Life. Everyone Should Have Access to It.
- You can share expressions of support for trans youth on social media using the hashtags #LetKidsPlay #ProtectTransKids.
- Uplift the work of young trans people who advocate for themselves, like these young folks in Arizona, who recently stopped a bill that would have prevented doctors from providing gender-affirming care to minors.
- If you want to check the status of specific bills, the ACLU has a bill tracking page that monitors “legislation affecting LGBTQ rights around the country.”
- Kids in South Dakota have spent most of their youth fighting anti-trans bills. One was just signed into law. By Kate Sosin
- Republicans Are Already Trying to Pass as Many Anti-Trans Bills as Possible in 2022 by Melissa Gira Grant
- Why is the idea of ‘gender’ provoking backlash the world over? By Judith Butler
- The Anti-Trans Lobby’s Real Agenda by Jules Gill-Peterson
- New Poll Illustrates the Impacts of Social & Political Issues on LGBTQ Youth (The Trevor Project)
- ‘It’s about control’: Author of ‘Maus’ pushes back after McMinn County bans book on Holocaust by Wyatt Massey
- Deep partisan divide on whether greater acceptance of transgender people is good for society by Anna Brown
- Major TV news outlets are leaving it to Fox to cover the national assault on trans youth by Mia Gingerich
- At least 7 states proposed anti-trans bills in first week of 2022 by Matt Lavietesy