Life

The Shadowy, Widespread Effort to Erase Trans Youth

A person holds up a transgender pride flag in the middle of a crowd.
A person holds a transgender pride flag as people gather outside Stonewall Inn for a rally to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City on June 28, 2019. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

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Anti-trans legislation is spreading all across the country. State legislatures are trying to spin animus against transgender kids being allowed to participate in sports into rules around who’s allowed to do what in this country. And these very kids are having to show up to try to stop lawmakers from erasing their existence. Where are these bills coming from? And do any of them stand a chance of succeeding? To find out, I spoke with Kate Sosin, a reporter for the 19th who covers LGBTQ+ legislation and uses they/them pronouns, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Last year, South Dakota took up bills that would limit the kind of health care trans kids could get and the kind of sports they could play.

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Kate Sonin: Yes. Kids got on a bus with their parents and went to the state Capitol to talk to their lawmakers before this committee hearing. I flew to South Dakota and got on the bus with them, and there was a 16-year-old trans kid named Elliott who was traveling alone.

Elliott knew his representatives supported these kinds of bills. So when he got off the bus, he tracked his senator down and confronted him.

That ended up being what killed the bill. But he was like, I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to have to do this, it’s hard enough to be a teenager. To see a trans kid, because of this, say, “I wish I wasn’t who I am”—like, that bill failed, but it also succeeded in harming these kids. And there are more anti-trans bills again this year in South Dakota. It’s not over for these kids. They’re doing this year after year after year.

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By your count, this year there are 184 anti-LGBTQ measures in statehouses across the country, with 65 of those being anti-trans bills specifically. These laws are making their way through legislatures in places like Alabama, Montana, Georgia. Many of the lawmakers behind these bills have taken a two-pronged approach in case one bill goes down.

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Oftentimes what we’ll see two bills in legislatures: One will be a trans youth health care ban and the other will be a sports bill. This dual pursuit is so hard to keep up with because there are so many of them—you’ll see one bill fail, and then another one pops up, or a more extreme version pops up.

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A lot of these bills have a single source: a legal advocacy group called the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The Alliance Defending Freedom is a long-standing, extreme anti-LGBTQ group. They’re labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And to give you a sense of why, for a number of years it’s claimed that LGBTQ people are pedophiles, and it advocated for the forced sterilization of transgender people in the European Court of Human Rights in 2015. It is probably as extreme in its stance on queer people as you can get, and it often is behind a lot of these bills.

I was watching this testimony in Montana from an Idaho step representative. She seemed really passionate about the idea of keeping trans kids out of sports. She didn’t use words like trans girl or trans woman. She was talking about “biological males” and dressing up these conservative ideas as somehow feminist: She was talking about how this could set women like her back.

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That’s been a talking point for a really long time. I went to Anchorage, Alaska, in 2018. They were trying to get an anti-trans ballot measure passed by popular vote. When they were approaching people to sign, they actually weren’t even asking about trans people at all—they were asking, Do you want to keep “biological males” out of girls’ dressing rooms and bathrooms? In looking at this we found that a lot of people had signed both the ballot measure to support trans people and the ballot measure to keep “biological males” out of girls’ dressing rooms, because they didn’t know that the two issues were competing.

It’s like a trick.

Right. The reality is “biological males” is not a scientific term. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not accurate. Part of that is because sex is actually a spectrum, right? We have intersex people, and people can physically, medically transition. It’s an inaccurate term, but it’s also deeply disrespectful.

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You’re confident that public opinion has turned in favor of trans Americans.

The Human Rights Campaign did a lot of polling right around the election and found that even in swing states, even among Trump voters, people overwhelmingly supported LGBTQ rights, even when it came to allowing transgender people to access affirming medical care. They asked, do trans athletics rank for you as a campaign issue? And pretty much everyone was like, no. The data shows that for the most part, conservative voters aren’t too concerned about regulating transgender people.

So there is a question about why are all these bills being used to galvanize the Republican Party at this moment? They’ve historically been very unsuccessful. North Carolina passed an anti-trans bathroom measure in 2016, faced enormous economic losses, and had to quickly repeal it. Ever since then, people have been hesitant to pass another anti-LGBTQ bill because they know that that the country is going to punish them for it.

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It’s really unclear to me: Is this becoming mainstream Republican orthodoxy now, or is it something else?

There is a real reason why this is happening. There are these extreme anti-LGBTQ groups that are going to fight this no matter what. This is something that they believe in, they’re going to push it into state legislatures, and they have a lot of money and a lot of power. The other piece is that Democrats may control Congress and the White House, but the Supreme Court is conservative. So if one of these bills gets elevated to the right circuit, these groups feel like they have a real shot at doing some real damage to LGBTQ rights laws. And I think that’s a real possibility. There’s a real strategy here to flood the courts and see what can happen now. And we saw statements from justices that they wanted to overturn marriage equality.

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It seems like a dangerous strategy, though. I remember reading an article last year about the gubernatorial election in Kentucky and how it was being used as a test case for anti-trans advertising. The argument they were making was that the Democrat, Andy Beshear, wanted boys to be able to compete on girls’ sports teams. A ton of ads went out—and then the Democrat won. So it made me wonder, you could get this to the Supreme Court, but do you want to do that? Do you want to give people a reason to not vote for you?

The country is is changing on this. People have less and less tolerance for entertaining these kinds of bills and these kinds of policies. The medical community is rock-solid and established on this. It’s just a matter of time before this kind of becomes passé.

I feel like you can see it in what’s happening to these bills. I was reading about what happened in Utah where the Republican governor basically quashed an anti-trans bill. He was like, I’m not signing this thing.

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