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When Culture Wars Come for Kids
Transgender youth are being attacked by a barrage of new legislation. These Smithies have their backs.
Like most parents, Brandi ’02 would do anything to protect her daughter. In Texas, where she lives, that might even mean breaking the law.
Brandi—we are using a pseudonym to protect her identity—is the parent of a transgender child. In March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate families of transgender youth who help their children access gender-affirming care, under accusations of child abuse. Brandi’s 17-year-old daughter was planning to start her medical transition—but due to scheduling conflicts, they hadn’t made it to the clinic. Now, it wasn’t clear if they’d be allowed to.
When she first learned about the directive, Brandi says, it felt like she’d been kicked. “I cried a lot, to be honest. It didn’t feel right to me that Violet would have to wait two more years to start hormones and have to transition by herself in college. I wanted to be able to support her during this transition, while she’s at home.”
Fortunately, Brandi’s local district attorney joined several other DAs in promising not to prosecute families with trans kids, and Violet was able to begin receiving gender-affirming treatment in June at a free clinic. But the threat still hangs over the lives of trans children and their families—and across the nation they are steeling themselves for the worst. Over the past two years, conservative legislators in more than half of all U.S. states have introduced hundreds of bills targeting trans and queer youth as well as the families and medical professionals who support them. This year alone, lawmakers have introduced 238 bills so far. At least 25 have been signed into law.
Cathryn Oakley ’05, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy and lobbying organization, says that in addition to reinforcing outdated social norms and helping to advance the conservative agenda in the 2022 midterm elections, the bills are meant to eliminate social supports that trans youth depend on. “The underlying intention is the idea that if young people are discouraged from becoming trans, if they are isolated, if they are not supported, they will no longer be trans,” Oakley says. “Which is simply not how it works.”
Smithies like Oakley are banding together to fight the bills and support the youth who are being targeted. Whether working in statehouses, courts, or schools, advocates say it’s more important than ever to listen to the kids at the center of the maelstrom.
Listening to trans youth is literally Cas Martin ’19’s job. Martin is a lead trainer with Massachusetts’ Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a joint initiative between the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Commission on LGBTQ Youth, which provides training and curricular resources to schools. The program is the only one of its kind in the country. Martin points out that many people believe that states like Massachusetts, with relatively liberal politics and progressive track records on LGBTQ rights, have not been impacted by anti-LGBTQ legislation; however, it’s a different story when you look at the local government and school board levels.
THE BILLS are meant to eliminate social supports that trans youth depend on.
“We’re really seeing school committees become a battleground for trans issues,” Martin says. “We’re seeing lawsuits, school committee fights, and just so much anger coming from parents when they find out that their children are being their true and authentic selves at school. They feel like their rights are being infringed upon.”
Even in states where fewer anti-trans bills have been introduced, trans youth often have to do a tiring amount of self-advocacy within their schools. Martin’s organization goes into schools and clarifies and establishes policies ensuring that trans students are protected and supported—whether by confirming that there are all-gender restrooms or answering hard questions from teachers and staff about students’ identities, pronouns, and more. The goal is to make sure students don’t have to do this work and can focus on what they’re actually there to do: learn.
HOW STATES ARE TARGETING TRANS KIDS
Many states are proposing legislation that will restrict access to or criminalize gender-affirming care (which can range from counseling to medications like puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy, also called HRT) for trans youth. Studies show that such care improves youth mental health outcomes and decreases risk of suicide.
Sports bans in 18 states bar trans youth (predominantly trans girls, though language can vary from bill to bill) from playing on primary, secondary, and university sports teams that match their gender. Yet studies have shown that trans girls and women lose any possible athletic “advantage” compared to cisgender women when they are on HRT, and researchers affirm that physical advantages and variation are already common among cisgender athletes.
“Bathroom” bills in the style of North Carolina’s H.B. 2 from 2016 seek to prevent trans people from using restrooms or locker rooms in alignment with their gender.
“Don’t Say Gay” bills modeled on Florida’s H.B. 1557 aim to restrict materials and discussions about queer histories and topics in classrooms and libraries, and are currently on the rise—introduced in at least a dozen states this year.
In his role, Martin sees firsthand the impact of the anti-trans bills on students’ mental health and their ability to be present in school environments. “This is an incredibly difficult time,” he says. “We are seeing intense burnout among trans youth because there’s so much violence being displayed in the news.” Beyond the unprecedented number of bills attacking queer youth, Martin points out that 2021 was the deadliest year on record for murders of trans people.
“It’s so exhausting as a young trans person to constantly hear about the danger and discrimination that comes with your identity,” he adds.
Statistics back this up. According to a January poll from queer youth advocacy organization The Trevor Project, 85% of trans and nonbinary youth (along with two-thirds of queer youth overall) said their mental health had been negatively impacted by the anti-trans bills. And the organization’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that nearly half of all LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, with trans and nonbinary youth reporting the highest rates of suicidality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that in the first half of 2021, one in four LGBTQ teenagers attempted suicide.
TRANS YOUTH often have to do a tiring amount of self-advocacy within their schools.
Advocates for trans rights say the fight has grown even more urgent in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision to restrict bodily autonomy in a related field: abortion care. In June, the court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned nearly 50 years of precedent established in Roe v. Wade. While the fights for abortion rights and trans rights may seem disparate on the surface, alums say the basic civil liberties underpinning both are the same.
“If we no longer have a Supreme Court that cares about precedent or cares about the rule of law … that is something that threatens our entire democracy, and every single American should be outraged about,” Oakley says. “They have overturned 50 years of precedent—not because anything has changed, not because the law has changed, not because circumstances have changed. The only thing that has changed is the composition of the court. That is an affront to our democracy, and that should concern every American.”
What’s more, legal advocates explain that Dobbs does not bode well for the safety of other civil rights. “Banning abortion is one pillar of an effort to mandate outdated gender norms into the law—and that includes erasing the experiences of LGBTQ people and of transgender people especially,” says Deborah Archer ’93, president of the ACLU, which has played a key role in challenging both anti-trans laws and abortion bans. “The same politicians who are seeking to ban abortion are those that are fighting to pass this unprecedented wave of laws to erase transgender youth from public life. We should be concerned about what comes next as they try to expand their control over our lives.”
In the face of this ongoing struggle—and particularly in the wake of the overturn of Roe—it’s easy to fall into a fatalist mindset. But the Smithies fighting the anti-trans bills say that’s the last thing we should be doing.
“We have rightly focused on things like suicidality, and pain and suffering, as a motivating rallying cry around trans rights—like, here’s why we need to have access to gender-affirming care, here’s why we need to believe trans people, because look at the consequences if we don’t,” says Sebastian Barr ’10, a Massachusetts-based counseling psychologist who works with trans clients of all ages. “I think that’s important, and I don’t discourage anyone from taking that approach. But I think another important thing to include is that it’s not just about the young people or adults that we lose to suicide. It is also about all of the ways in which this crisis prevents the self-actualization and flourishing everyone deserves access to.”
Martin agrees that it’s crucial to counter the narrative that being trans means a life of suffering—because it’s the kind of narrative that leads trans youth to believe there’s no possible future for them. “I think that it’s all the more important to create spaces where trans youth can celebrate and experience joy and feel uplifted.”
And though it can be scary to be a trans kid—or the parent of a trans kid—anywhere in the United States right now, Brandi and her daughter say that despite what Texas government officials may want them to believe, transness is something to be celebrated.
“I struggle with joy, but it’s certainly easier to find when my kiddo isn’t miserable all the time and not going to school,” Brandi says. “I found joy in the free clinic Violet goes to. The nurse who prescribes Violet’s meds told me that she would be right there with me if the government ever came for her younger patients and their families. Then she smiled, and I smiled, because we are both badasses sometimes. Sometimes I think you have to be.”
Oliver Haug ’20 is a freelance journalist and culture writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This story appears in the Fall 2022 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.