What It Takes to Fight for Trans Kids in Texas

·6 min read
Photo credit: Tamir Kalifa - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tamir Kalifa - Getty Images

On a sunny October afternoon, transgender kids, their families, and the advocates who support them gathered outside the south steps of the Texas Capitol building in Austin for a rally. In a year when dozens of anti-trans bills were introduced over the course of four legislative sessions, rallying at the Capitol was familiar and painful. We had been here many times before—for each of the seven hearings held on bills attacking trans rights. This was our last opportunity to formally speak out against a bill attempting to ban transgender kids from playing on school sports teams as their authentic selves. Before we headed up the pink marble steps, I led the crowd in a chant: “I believe that we will win.”

This has been a long year for trans rights—and not just in Texas. Legislatures in more than 30 states have been aggressively targeting trans communities. Though the national landscape is bleak, it is particularly painful in my home state. Texas alone accounted for more than a quarter of the anti-trans bills filed in 2021. For 10 arduous months, transgender kids and those who love them showed up time and again to testify in defense of their humanity.

For me, working alongside these families has been gutting and deeply personal. It was the eve of National Coming Out Day in 2010 and I was 17 years old, embarking on my senior year at a Catholic all-girls school. After years of knowing who I really was, I was compelled to post a fill-in-the-blank Facebook template to commemorate the day. I selected “same-gender loving” from a drop-down menu, and within two clicks of a button, I was “out of the closet.”

The post read, “I'm coming out for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality because it’s 2010 and almost 90% of LGBT youth experience harassment in school, and too many lives have been lost.” Less than three weeks later, I walked into a Supercuts and requested they cut off most of my hair. I held up a photo of Tegan and Sara—lesbian sisters with short, cooler-than-you hair. Later that night, I would self-assuredly write on Tumblr that I did it “to more closely match my gender identity.” I was ready.

Being a transgender teen in Texas—before most of my classmates or teachers knew what being transgender was—meant that I spent my senior year trying to find the words that allowed me to feel seen without risking my personal safety. Fitting in is the unspoken rule of adolescence, but in a school where everyone was forced to perform femininity through pleated skirts and social norms, I stood out. Once, my favorite teacher pulled me aside and asked me, “You know, being gay isn’t all that you are, right?” I initially agreed with her, but deep down, I knew that I needed to be explicitly visible for there to be some hope for the rest of us.

More than a decade later, Texas concluded the worst legislative session for LGBTQIA+ rights in our history. Beyond the 26 bills attempting to ban transgender kids from playing sports, there were attempts to criminalize parents who support their kids by labeling them as child abusers, efforts to deny youth access to age-appropriate gender-affirming care, and more. We were exhausted. By the end, the families, advocates, and policy wonks like me were operating like well-oiled machines. We had grown accustomed to the relentless attacks—something no one should have to become, particularly not children.

There’s a bittersweet feeling that comes with each hearing. On the one hand, you enter the Capitol and find a community of advocates with whom you share a deep bond. After months of fighting the same attacks, there is unspoken gratitude in coming together to build power through our community’s visibility and strength. But on a more basic level, we wish we didn’t have to be here at all. It’s difficult to imagine a future where being transgender isn’t central to our existence. These political fights constrain our chances for survival, freedom, and joy.

That early October day, the committee debating our humanity moved the anti-trans sports bill forward. Later, on the night the bill was heard by the Texas House of Representatives, I listened to every word as friendly elected officials held back tears, giving speech after speech about the harm this bill would cause transgender children. They spoke poetically, alluding to the state violence these kids were enduring. “Wars have casualties. Today, those are the children in the crosshairs of this bill,” Joe Moody, a state representative from my hometown of El Paso, said.

Once the speeches were over, for the first time, the House passed a bill targeting transgender kids. In a few days, our governor would sign it into law. As the tears rolled down my face, I knew that we all did everything in our power to defeat it. But I still sat there, immobilized and clutching my phone, wondering what more we could have done to stop this cruel bill from becoming law.

In the end, 98 percent of the bills targeting transgender youth in the state of Texas were defeated this year. But the fight wasn’t easy, and having lawmakers enact even one cruel bill into law feels like a failure on some level. The overwhelming sentiment among advocates is a mixture of disappointment and heartbreak. Texas is our home. It doesn’t matter that the chips may have always been stacked against us because we have a governor hell-bent on building his political power by bullying trans kids. Throughout the session, there was always the looming sense that the passage of some anti-trans measure was inevitable. But we had done the impossible before; couldn’t we do it again?

Now, as this one bill becomes law, we are holding our breath in fear of what’s coming next. If lawmakers can pass a law that blatantly attacks transgender kids with no proof of any actual problem to solve, what else will they do to try to erase us?

Our community has endured a tremendous amount of trauma and harm. Transgender kids and their families have demonstrated immense perseverance and resilience. The fact is, trans people belong in our communities, because we’re here and have been for centuries. Why are we now attacking children who are so sure of who they are? And who impart their bravery onto us and the rest of the world? Is that threatening to the adults who make our laws? Perhaps the confidence of this generation’s children scares them.

As the wisest 10-year-old trans kid I know, Kai Shappley, would say, “There are more people with us than against us, and we should stay strong and hopeful.” At 17 years old, I couldn’t have imagined it. But fighting alongside such a vibrant, brilliant, and dedicated community of advocates, I do believe that, one day, we will win.

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