We are not yet three weeks into 2021, President-elect Joe Biden has yet to be inaugurated and already powerful forces on the right have made clear what will be the next front in their so-called culture war — which is to say, their effort to maintain political power by demonizing the bodies, private lives and personal decisions of Americans they’ve deemed unworthy of such autonomy.
This time, they’ve chosen transgender youth as their target, seeking to capitalize on insidious stereotypes about trans people, preposterous pseudoscience and a divisive cadre of supposed women’s rights campaigners who believe the only way to achieve gender equality is to oppress other people.
These efforts to attack trans young people are driven by the same fundamental goals as previous attempts to restrict all transgender people from using public restrooms: to exclude transgender youth from participating in public and educational life alongside their peers and to perpetuate the myth that transness is itself harmful and should be eradicated. Despite all the high-minded rhetoric about “protecting children” and “saving women’s sports” behind these legislative efforts, these bills will actively harm young people, not help them, and will compromise women’s sports, not save them.
In at least 12 states right now,efforts are afoot that include actually criminalizing health care for transgender youth (as in, send doctors to prison for following medical treatment protocols to help trans youth) as well as banning all transgender young people from participating in age-appropriate athletic programs.
Last year, Idaho, in fact, passed a wholesale ban on transgender women and girls participating in women’s sports. Though the law has since been blocked in court, it represents the most extreme restriction on trans athletic participation at any level of competition anywhere in the world. This year, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Kentucky have already introduced similar bans.
While lawmakers and proponents of these bills claim they are necessary to “save women’s sports,” most supporters of the legislation can’t point to a single trans youth athlete in their state, let alone one who has ever displaced a nontransgender athlete, and no one can explain how they save women’s sports. Not one of these lawmakers has introduced legislation to actually invest in women’s sports. These bills are just another opportunity to repeat (and, they hope, enact into law) myths about trans women and girls dominating in women’s athletics and posing a threat to cisgender women and girls.
Though decades of experience show that trans women and girls do not, in fact, dominate women’s or girls’ athletics when they do participate, what is true is that trans young people participate in athletics for the same reason their cisgender peers do: to manage anxiety and stress, build connections with their peers and find joy. What these bills would succeed at, if they passed, would be taking those critical tools away from an already vulnerable population of young people to score political points in a distant culture war and ultimately to open the door for the state to police the bodies of all female athletes based on how they look.
Meanwhile, Alabama, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Montana, Indiana, New Hampshire and Utah — so far — have also introduced bills that would criminalize or otherwise ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Several of these bills classify any gender affirmation of trans young people as a form of “child abuse,” a provision which, if enacted, threatens to imprison medical providers as well as parents and guardians who affirm their children.
These bills, though, run counter to every prevailing norm of medical science in the United States and have been condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Endocrine Society, among others, because they would cut off young transgender people from treatment known to save their lives.
And the impacts of these bills, if passed, would be immediate, forcing young people already receiving treatment off of it and removing them from care that has allowed them to manage distress and embrace their own, individual processes of learning about and celebrating their bodies and identities.
Proponents of these criminal bans claim they are necessary to “protect” youth who cannot consent to care that may alter their bodies for life — even though the puberty-suppression treatments that would be banned by the bills have no permanent long-term physical effects. At the same time, though, these bills actually permit nonconsensual surgical intervention on infants with intersex traits to “normalize” their bodies, even though such care is often performed in infancy with lifelong physical consequences and is considered to be a form of torture by the United Nations.
Given this, these anti-science bills cannot be understood as motivated by concerns about children or their ability to consent to medical treatment. Rather, they’re motivated by some adults’ need to police young people’s bodies and to make them align with those adults’ expectations of how young male and female bodies should look.
Together, all of these legislative efforts — like other anti-trans legislative efforts before them — attempt to weaponize the current distorted, pseudoscientific public discourse about transgender people, both for larger political aims of right-wing lawmakers and as part of a larger project to stop people from being transgender at all.
For example, proponents of Idaho’s anti-trans sports law argued in court that the law actually benefited transgender people by discouraging them from being trans because “those who persist in living in a transgender identity into adulthood suffer severely poor mental and physical health throughout their lifetimes.” This is inextricable from the underpinning of the health care bans, which likewise seek to control the bodies of transgender youth in ways that limit their self-expression and their reclamation of their noncisgender identities.
But the reality that these lawmakers and other anti-trans forces will eventually have to face is that when transgender young people are able to access health care, play sports, go to the restroom without fear and use pronouns that affirm who they are, nothing bad happens to anyone. Trans children are more able to live full, self-actualized lives. Cisgender people are not excluded from athletics or the restroom or anywhere else (and maybe they learn about the beauty and complexity of their fellow human beings even if it has escaped some of their parents). Trans children are not forced to undergo surgical interventions and, in fact, through pubertal suppression, may in adulthood have the option to have fewer and less invasive surgical interventions than may have otherwise been necessary for some individuals.
Ultimately, all that happens when we allow transgender people to live their lives freely and fully is that we get to celebrate more transgender people doing incredible things in the world, we expose the pseudoscience and stereotypes animating these bills for what they are and the people who are pushing these efforts are forced to contend with the limited vision they have for the world.