How We Can Combat the Legislation Taking Aim at Transgender People Around the Country

More than 50 bills targeting trans people were introduced in 20 states during the 2016 legislative session, and state lawmakers are continuing the trend in 2017.

The coming year promises to be long and difficult, but the trans community will not stop fighting. Ty Wright/Getty Images

In April 2012, voters in Anchorage, Alaska, rejected a nondiscrimination measure that would have extended local protections to LGBTQ people. Through tactics foreshadowing the national conversation about transgender people that has played out over the past year, anti-LGBTQ groups in Alaska successfully preyed on public fear of and confusion about transgender people to defeat the measure.

One animated television ad against the Anchorage equal rights measure featured a “transvestite”—someone the ad referred to as a man, depicted with facial hair while wearing a dress—who applied to work at a daycare center, scaring an employee and child. The misleading ad warned, “If [the daycare center’s owner] hires ‘him,’ she risks losing customers. And if she refuses, she can be fined or imprisoned.” The ad stoked panic among Anchorage voters about what it would look like for trans people—or at least a caricatured version of trans people—to exist in community with non-trans people. The measure was soundly defeated, and the campaign became a blueprint for those exploiting fear of transgender people in order to forestall progress and safety for the entire LGBTQ community.  

The LGBTQ movement should have committed then—not to mention decades ago—to defend the common humanity of trans people against false and dehumanizing attacks. But that lesson did not sink in the wake of the Anchorage loss. It would take a later understanding that the kind of harmful anti-trans rhetoric that gained traction in Anchorage hurts the entire LGBTQ community before the movement engaged a more systematic response to it.

Between 2012 and 2015, many in the LGBTQ community witnessed tremendous legal progress, including U.S. Supreme Court decisions first striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and then remaining bans on marriage equality. While this formal progress for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people marched forward, the mainstream LGBTQ movement did little to deepen the public’s understanding of trans people, and trans people remained in the shadows of well-resourced national campaigns for marriage. That left trans people as particularly vulnerable targets to the inevitable reaction to marriage equality from longtime opponents of changing norms of gender and sexuality.

Just a few months after the Court’s decision in favor of marriage equality nationwide, voters in Houston, Texas, repealed a local nondiscrimination measure that would have extended legal protections to LGBTQ people, among other groups. Like in Anchorage, Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was rejected following a relentless campaign based on fear of trans people and the now-regular—and false—refrain that nondiscrimination protections for trans people would lead to “men in women’s restrooms.” Despite polling that suggested the vote would be close, HERO was overwhelmingly repealed. Unlike in Anchorage, however, the Houston vote served as a wake-up call to the LGBTQ movement of the need to invest in public education about trans people; center trans voices; and lift up the local organizing work of trans people in states and localities being targeted with anti-trans bills and messaging.

Unfortunately, though, opponents of trans people were also invigorated: As shown in Rewire‘s Religious Imposition database, more than 50 bills targeting trans people were introduced in 20 states during the 2016 legislative session. One of the first anti-trans bills to gain traction was HB 1008 in South Dakota, which would have required that single-sex facilities in secondary schools be “designated” based on “a person’s chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth.” According to proponents of the bill, it was aimed at maintaining the privacy and safety of [non-trans] girls and preventing the state from endorsing a “reasonable alternative to your natural creation.”

Forget that the bill contained no clear enforcement mechanisms; that proponents could not identify a single problem the bill was attempting to solve; that no one had claimed women and girls were unsafe when sharing the restroom with trans people; and that not even those pushing the measure could not seem to pinpoint what they meant by “biological sex.” The bill still passed through the legislature and landed on the governor’s desk in February of this year. After a national education campaign directed at South Dakota from LGBTQ organizations, celebrity leaders like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, and individual trans people and allies; a meeting with transgender youth from South Dakota; and in-state and national business opposition to the bill, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed the bill on March 1.

The victory for trans students in South Dakota was especially important after the Houston loss and with bills moving quickly through legislatures across the country. While the great majority of anti-trans bill were defeated in 2016, soon after the success in South Dakota, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the sweeping anti-trans HB 2 at a special session convened solely for that purpose. Mississippi, meanwhile, had passed HB 1523, a First Amendment Defense Act aimed at preventing the state from taking action against discrimination driven by certain “sincerely held” religious or moral beliefs, including the belief that trans people do not exist. Both North Carolina’s HB 2 and Mississippi’s HB 1523 were immediately challenged in court and have been partially put on hold. But the toll of these measures on the trans community cannot be overstated.

The community is already under attack from systemic discrimination in employment, housing, education, by police, and in their own homes. Data from the latest U.S. trans survey shows a rate of attempted suicide within the trans community of 40 percent—about nine times the national average.

Yet, rather than address this crisis, state lawmakers are continuing to take aim at trans people—zeroing in on trans youth, in particular. The 2017 legislative session has not yet begun, and the attacks have started.

In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has included proposed anti-trans legislation, under the deceptively named “Women’s Privacy Act,” among his top ten legislative priorities. And in South Dakota, opponents of trans people are threatening a ballot measure if legislation barring trans people from restrooms is not passed this year. Unfortunately, 2017 will likely see more anti-trans bills like these and others authorizing discrimination based on religious and moral beliefs that one can only and forever be the gender assigned to them at birth. And this time, we will face them under the much more hostile climate of the Trump administration.

As I have written elsewhere, to combat the impulses behind anti-trans bills and build commitment to and momentum for trans survival, our work moving forward must center at least these important truths:

  1. The existence of trans people does not threaten the privacy of anyone else. We exist, and you may be uncomfortable with us, but discomfort with difference is not the same as infringement of privacy.
  2. Trans women and girls are women and girls. Full stop. They are not “biological males” or “men pretending to be women” or some other hateful qualification. The same is true for trans men and boys being men and boys.
  3. Extending legal protections to transgender people, including when it comes to using restrooms and locker rooms, does not threaten the safety of anyone else. This has been proven time and time again, despite the ongoing rhetoric to the contrary.
  4. Policing of gender or genitals in restrooms is bad for everyone. There is no way to enforce anti-trans bathroom laws except by exposing us all to intrusive questioning about our bodies, our gender, and our government documents.
  5. Anti-trans laws are not about restrooms, locker rooms, safety, or privacy, but about expelling trans people from public life. Those most affected by these laws have been and will always be trans people who are already subject to the most policing and violence—particularly trans women of color.

With both federal and state governments targeting trans people, the fight to stop anti-trans legislation will literally be one of life or death. Trans young people are dying by suicide. Trans women of color are being murdered for being trans. Trans people are dying from a lack of health care and the relentless neglect of systems that are indifferent or downright hostile to their needs.

More than 15 years ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that sometimes prejudice is the result of an “instinctive mechanism to guard against people who appear to be different in some respects from ourselves.” Indeed, we may try to guard against difference, but to expel from public space and life those who we do not understand is simply not a moral or legal option.

The coming year promises to be long and difficult, but the trans community will not stop fighting. Eventually—hopefully not too far in the future—these anti-trans bills will fail, laws like HB 2 will be defeated, and we can embrace a more transformative vision of justice.