Self-Care Amidst a Deluge of Anti-Trans Legislation
You might have been seeing some pretty disconcerting headlines in the news lately, or hearing something anxiety-inducing when walking by the TV, about state legislatures all across the United States voting on bills that would severely limit the rights of transgender Americans, especially trans youth.
Maybe you worry that your access to hormones or puberty blockers will be cut off in the near future, or that your state will take legal action against your parents for affirming your gender. Perhaps you’re a cis student and are worried that a school administrator who doesn’t know you will make an unnecessary and intrusive judgment about your body in order to stay on your sports team. You may even be concerned that the increased coverage about trans people will invite unwanted scrutiny in your home, even though it feels like cis people aren’t aware that this is going on or aren’t speaking up about these bills. The news cycle has spent so much time covering the election and coronavirus in the last year that developments on other issues can seem to come totally out of left field for people who are not experts or who haven’t been paying careful attention. Now we have to contend with the many conservative judges that were ushered into government during Trump’s presidency. Conservative lobbyists have spent decades trying to get these people in power, and now that the judges are on the bench, it’s probably a good idea to prepare for bills of all kinds to be introduced.
That’s all why I’d like to have a frank discussion with you about where these bills come from, what you can do to be informed about the rhetoric surrounding them, and how you can affirm yourself and practice self-care while you may hear and feel so many people being non-supportive or outright hateful about trans and gender-nonconforming people.
Before we get started, make sure you’re doing something to ground yourself as you read. If you are reading this and you are yourself a young trans or otherwise gender nonconforming person, please know that there are so many adult trans and other gender-diverse people who want better for you (including right here at Scarleteen) and are trying to figure out how help you get care and services while these bills (and the ones that become law) are contested. And there are many adults (cis and trans alike) who would put themselves in between you and these bills if that meant they wouldn’t touch you. I promise you are loved.
The anti-trans bias, including bio-essentialism, that are on clear display now are backlash to the legal protections that LGBTQIA+ people gained under the Obama administration.
When I was a teenager, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a major controversy. I was shocked when the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, as both of these pieces of legislations had been beloved by the GOP during the Bush administration. It feels affirming and encouraging to see that the media we make now reflects these massive changes in attitudes. Every time I see Zoomers criticize something like Friends or South Park, the young person in me who saw those flaws but who lacked the cultural support to address them head-on feels vindicated.
Unfortunately, where I see progress and understanding, others see a moral decline and a threat to the social order. Gender has long dictated and still dictates so many of our social norms and effects every level of our society, and changes to that framework can frighten people who fear the unknown. Trans people, especially children and emerging adults, are being used as political pawns by a divided GOP looking to blame policy failings on scapegoats rather than implement change. A legal advocacy group and Southern Poverty Law Center designated hate group called the Alliance Defending Freedom has been instrumental in getting proposed anti-trans legislation to conservative law makers, who then introduce their bills and those from other anti-trans groups to their states with few changes. So far this year, we have seen such bills brought to over half of the state legislatures. (If you want to keep up with the proposed legislation, I find the ACLU to be a reliable source for such information). The ADF doesn’t look like it will cease its lobbying efforts any time soon.
After losing the presidential race and the Senate in 2020, Republicans have started looking for ways to engage politically apathetic people with their base. It looks like many of them have decided that the best way to do that is to echo the worst scare tactics of others who’ve been acting with strong anti-trans bias. I don’t think they believe that this tactic will impress most voters- the Human Rights Campaign recently found that 73% of American polled oppose measures to limit trans student athletes. This is a numbers game meant to win over a segment of the population for future election coalitions: a “game” by which they mean to win power, but which has grave consequences for an entire generation of trans people. Some of these bills are being passed, and the Williams Institute estimates that about 45,000 transgender youth who already receive services are in danger of losing their healthcare. (Estimating how many students have uncomfortable conversations with sports coaches or how these laws will negatively impact trans youths’ relationships will prove significantly more difficult). Giving a political platform to voters animated by anti-trans rhetoric may not play out well for Republicans long term, but these violent disruptions for trans people will placate some voters.
This is why they are permitting people who are not experts to testify at official hearings and in the media. The goal is to unify voters through a shared fear of and bias towards trans people and so-called concern about how trans-affirming healthcare affects the long-term health outcomes of trans people. These scare tactics paint trans women as predatory men and trans men as innocent young women led astray by a deviant “ideology.” Many of the bills are citing a 2018 Atlantic article by journalist Jesse Singal which used a photo of an adult trans person to misleadingly frame a “discussion” about the merits of hormone blockers for trans children based on his extremely poor understanding of crucial studies. Abigail Shrier, a Wall Street Journal Opinion Columnist, was allowed to spew vitriol depicting trans women as predators and to testify at the Equality Act hearings about her new book which depicts transmasculinity as a cultural fad, even though she has no medical training. Recently the GLAAD Accountability Project has taken both Singal and Shrier to task about the impact their works have had on the trans community. Even Senator Rand Paul, a self-certified ophthalmologist, spent time during Dr. Rachel Levine’s February confirmation hearing and on Laura Ingraham’s show spreading misinformation about the prevalence of surgeries performed on minors.
If you are a young person, finding accurate information about these issues itself is a political act.
People with clear, strong anti-trans bias like Shrier who subscribe to the idea that transness is a “social contagion” worry about teenagers interacting with the transgender community on the internet and having access to accurate, peer-reviewed medical studies on the long-term effects of transition-related care. (Gallup’s latest data indicates an increased number of people who identify as LGBT, but attributes this rise to generational acceptance and notes the increases are consistent across different gender and sexual identities.) Shrier’s book claims that transmasculine teens are actually cisgender girls who have been brainwashed by trans adults (usually trans women) and “seduced” into “mutilating” their bodies, and I imagine it will only be a matter of time before she extends this line of thinking to include individuals who are assigned male at birth and decide to transition. In the absence of substantial evidence to back this theory, people with anti-trans bias like to point to the same handful of outspoken people who regret their transitions and subsequently claim those services should be limited for everyone else. (Keira Bell was the claimant in a case that recently ruled that British teens need court permission to gain access to puberty blockers). Be wary of any articles or “authorities” that frame children as pure objects that must be protected from corruption. These narratives also somehow manage to emphasize the extent to which masculinizing hormone replacement therapy changes patients’ physical makeup while simultaneously denying the effects of feminizing HRT. People they view as girls who transition are “marred” by testosterone, yet adult trans women who take hormones are still “men,” even though they have vastly different medical needs than cis men. It’s also incredibly common for people who adhere to these views to insist that sex and gender are the same thing, even though the consensus amongst scientists is that both sex and gender are social constructs.
It’s also worth noting that you can’t assess organizations based on their names alone! Rand Paul referenced the misleadingly-named American College of Pediatricians in his Equality Act hearing testimony, who may sound legit, even though they have an explicitly anti-LGBTQ agenda and have been decried by health providers. While some of the organizations spreading misinformation follow the “family values” naming convention of the Alliance Defending Freedom, others purposefully lean the other way.
Be on the lookout for discourse that frames affirming transgender youth as a “family” or “population” issue. Tucker Carlson has unfortunately become fixated on this idea, framing transition as a crisis that will wreak havoc on future generations by decreasing the birth rate. People born with uteruses are not babymaking machines, and commandeering millions of people’s bodies for the purpose of reproduction is nothing if not authoritarian. This point is also misleading: there are lots of trans people who have children and happy families!
Let’s talk about what you can do for yourself to make it easier to deal with all of this rhetoric.
Some of these bills have the potential to do serious harm that I can’t possibly address or fix in this piece of writing and would be best tackled head-on with therapy, legal action, and community support; specifically where child protective services become involved, an athlete’s personal autonomy is violated, and access to hormone blockers is cut off. That is why we must all get very loud about the consequences of these pieces of legislation and get involved in the political processes in our community. But trans people make up a small percentage of the global population, and we can’t do this work on our own.
If you feel really upset about what is happening or like you don’t have a lot of immediate control over the situation, don’t let anyone tell you that you are overreacting. Give yourself time and space to feel your feelings. If you need extra help or want to talk to someone, that’s completely appropriate, and I strongly urge you to put your immediate well-being before trying to take any kind of action. If you’re not in a safe space to talk about these issues, try to make the subject a boundary you don’t want the people around you to transgress so that you’re not being bombarded with anti-trans tirades.
Do whatever you can to carve out a space for yourself full of supportive people, be that in person or online. It’s a good idea to be cautious about how many personal details you give out to people you’ve never met before, but it’s very possible to get support and to commiserate with other trans people on the internet about transition or trying to manage the emotions other people have about your gender. There are tons of trans creators and users on TikTok and Instagram, and Facebook is full of support groups. Sometimes it really does make all the difference if you can pull out your phone and get a message from someone who has your back and sees you for the real you, and digital relationships can be a lifeline if you live in a conservative area where nobody can be out. The online trans community also has a very strong and specific brand of humor, and sometimes seeing a meme that you didn’t expect to relate to so completely can make you feel seen and laugh really hard. You can also find community or one-on-one support through the direct services here at Scarleteen.
Pay attention to health authorities and mental health experts, the overwhelming majority of whom agree that transitioned related care is affirming, positive, and life-saving for trans youth! The experts all agree that accepting people for who they are is emotionally edifying and that transition-related care is safe. It’s okay to acknowledge that the people around you who are repeating dangerous ideas about trans people may be doing so from a place of fear, ignorance, or both. If you think they are willing to listen to more informed opinions, let them know that the people “just asking questions” about hormone blockers and second-guessing trans people are using bad data and deliberately misinterpreting studies. Listen to providers who are doing the work of making care safer for trans people and listening to needs. In the past year, Americans have had to have a lot of conversations about how to approach community members who disregard a scientific understanding of COVID-19, and some of those tactics may be instructive here as well.
If you need to do something to take your mind off of the situation, you might go do something that lets you get out of your head. You could read an escapist fantasy novel, go for a hike and smell the first flowers of spring, write a short story about a different person, set up an easel and draw what you see in the backyard, count all the cracks in the sidewalk on the way to the bus stop, learn everything you can about something by clicking on different Wikipedia links until you land on a totally different topic, exchange terrible jokes with a friend, or make up a game that forces you to replace certain vowels or syllables with a silly nonsense sound in every word you say.
Be sure you go outside! When you feel down it’s easy to forget to do this, but the fresh air is good for you. I’ve told my loved ones that a positive suggestion they can give me is to go for a walk and get some sun on my face, especially if my depression is bad.
Seeing the HRC data that demonstrated opposition for these kinds of bills and support for the Equality Act made me feel hopeful. Seventy percent might not be the results you would want to get on your big math test, but it is a sizable majority for a political poll in America where opinions becoming more polarized every day. I think it’s also incredibly important to remember that only 20% of Americans claim to personally know someone who is transgender. More people will be given the tools to understand as the media owns the responsibility of respectfully portraying and representing trans people, as we speak up about our experiences, and as cultural acceptance gives more people the security to come out. A recent study conducted in the UK (which is waging its own “gender culture wars”) found that 84% of young people would support a friend if they came out as trans. We know that more young Americans are identifying as LGBTQ than their predecessors because acceptance is spreading.
When I was a teenager, I literally did not have the tools to make sense of my gender feelings, let alone access to gender-affirming health care or community support. I didn’t have an Elliot Page I could look up to and to model a positive transmasculinity for me. Everything I knew about trans people came from humiliating and dehumanizing portrayals of trans women in the media. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had been able to understand more about myself or have access to puberty blockers. I try not to get stuck on that because I have been able to create a lot of happiness for myself and have many people in my life that I love. Now I see the progress we have made towards making life easier for young trans people and know we have to keep fighting. You are going to be part of even more incredible change — one that will help people feel more at peace with themselves and each other. But these bills are heavy, and they will definitely hurt young people in the years to come.
This will be a long fight. I am using my voice now to let you know you are not alone, you matter, and we need you. We will work together. The trans community is smart. The trans community is resilient. The trans community is beautiful.