We Can’t Have Trans Representation Unless We Protect Trans People

Asweas marginalized people continue to fight for representation at every level of office, it’s getting more apparent that having a seat at the table isn’t enough to create change or protect our rights. When we get that seat, we need to be supported — or at least not attacked. 

Peyton O’Conner, the first openly trans woman in a North Carolina school board, resigned this week after experiencing what’s been described as rampant transphobia ever since she joined the board in March 2021. During her time serving on Asheville’s school board, O’Conner said that she was constantly misgendered and was repeatedly harassed at school board meetings by Ronald Gates, a member of an Arizona-based organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom, and his team. The ADF claims it aims to protect religious freedom, but due to their often violent anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed them to be a hate group, according to the Citizen Times

“On the surface, it appears [the ADF] is attacking me, but I am merely an easy vessel and a target to allow him to wedge a political divide that will ultimately whittle away at the thin layers of protections we have for our queer students, staff, and family,” O’Conner wrote in her letter of resignation to the Board, which she also posted on Facebook. “I can’t in good conscience give him the foothold and I believe that stepping away may give him less of an opportunity to sow divisiveness.”

According to O’Conner’s Facebook post, the ADF’s strategy was to harass her so much that the board would have no choice but to censor or limit Gates’ ability to speak at meetings. This would ultimately give the ADF ammunition to file a lawsuit and claim that Gates was being censored and that his free speech was being attacked. 

It’s concerning to think that as more trans and queer people earn positions in office — a record number of LGBTQ candidates won their midterm races last month in what was deemed a “rainbow wave”— hate groups are also getting more sophisticated in the ways they try to blot them out.

Their playbook is tired, sure, but it is also a cautionary tale of what could come. When queer and trans people’s existence feels like a threat to anti-LGBTQ cohorts, they will continue to manipulate the tools of democracy to fight our progress. In most instances, they’ll use terms like “religious freedom” and “free speech,” whether it’s related to their refusal to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple or banning trans people from sports, as a way to justify the erasure of LGBTQ people. 

As hate against our communities becomes an increasing part of the right’s agenda, it’s essential to remember that just because we see more representation doesn’t mean we can let our guards down. If anything, now is the time to ensure that the people representing our communities feel supported enough to stay there and make meaningful change. Clearly, there are many who are counting on their downfall.