Rise in transphobic bills & laws spreads across The U.S.


Alyssa Wang

CONCERN HAS MOUNTED RECENTLY over growing legislative activities that promote transphobia in state houses across the U.S. In some states, bills banning trans participation in sports teams aligning with their gender have gone into effect, and in others “bathroom bills” and bills banning the education of children regarding gender issues have also been passed. Most worrisome to advocates in many cases are bills that essentially make it illegal to identify as trans if a minor, and even as an adult make it extremely difficult to affirm your gender. Trans rights are one of the fronts of a culture war being fought by reactionaries who score political points by demonizing innocent minorities who have long been scapegoated.

Oliver Kreeger, News Editor

Over the past year, debates over the basic rights of transgender people have regained national prominence.  Since the 2010s, America has seen more conversations about the level of freedom transgender people have to express their identity in society, sparked by both growing social acceptance of trans people and more complex understandings of gender, as well as concurring backlash from a reactionary minority seeking to strip trans people of their rights and trying to stifle growing levels of expression of trans identity in society.  

The Recent History of the Trans Rights Debate

Back in 2012, former U.S. Vice President (current U.S. President) Joe Biden called trans rights the “civil rights issue of our time” in response to a passerby’s question, one of the earliest mentions of transgender issues in national political conservation and a sign of civil rights and social debates to come. 

Fast-forward to 2016, the visibility of trans issues was already growing. Notable civil rights cases over anti-trans policies had emerged, particularly ones regarding trans peoples’ right to use bathrooms that align with their gender. One such case began in 2014 by a transgender boy named Gavin Grimm who had been forced to use the girls’ bathroom at his Virginia school.  

In 2015, President Barack Obama had also reversed military policies that discharged transgender soldiers who came out, and in 2016, North Carolina state politics were thrown into heated debate over a “bathroom bill” passed by the Republican legislature, which banned trans people from using bathrooms that honor their gender.  Culture wars surrounding the “bathroom bill” created a chaotic political environment in North Carolina, and even on the same day they voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, North Carolina voted out their Republican governor, with state-level backlash to his transphobic “bathroom bill.”  That contributed crucially to his opponent’s victory. A key civil rights victory for trans people came in 2020, when the Supreme Court ruled that existing laws banning workplace and hiring discrimination related to race and gender also applied to trans people and respecting their gender identity. Then came the new state legislature bills. Mainstream political analyses tend to attribute the recent rise in anti-trans state legislative activity to the November 2021 upset victory of Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor election.; Youngkin had run on a campaign promoting “parental rights” and protecting kids and students in schools from supposed malignant “woke” influences.  

 New Anti-Trans Legislation

Whatever the cause, since late 2021 and 2022 there has been a rapid rise in anti-trans bills in state legislatures across the country, some seeking to emulate North Carolina’s old “bathroom bill” or to ban trans kids from participating in school sports teams whose gender makeup is different from the gender a trans person was assigned at birth. Some bills seek to exert more broad suppression of the trans community as a whole.  A new law in Texas, for instance, bans the transition of any children, and could see parents of trans kids lose custody of their children for respecting their child’s gender, and similar bans on gender-affirming care for trans people have taken effect in conservative states like Idaho and Indiana (anti-trans bills have also been introduced en masse in many liberal states, though due to the political balance are far less successful than their counterparts in conservative states).   

The latest national headline-making controversy in regard to state anti-trans activity comes from Montana, where Democratic state representative Zooey Zephyr, the first openly transgender legislator in the state’s history, was banned from giving speeches in the House by the over two-thirds Republican State House. The Republicans in Montana say they banned Zephyr from making further remarks on the house floor until she apologizes for a speech, saying any supporters of bills banning gender-affirming healthcare that they would have “blood on [their] hands”. Trans rights activists and Democrats voiced outrage over the expulsion of Zephyr from the floor, stating that such a tactic in response to her speech is an unfair attempt to silence her.  Many also pointed to potential further malignant motives for the floor expulsion; Zephyr is the first trans lawmaker in a political environment where transphobes are increasingly emboldened to push back, and indeed a press release from the Montana Freedom Caucus (a grouping of the most far-right GOP legislators) repeatedly misgendered Zephyr and purposefully inaccurately referred to her as a man.  

History teacher Brendan Collins Jordan and English teacher Pilar Mendez-Cruz ‘12 co-teach the interdisciplinary humanities American Studies course offered to juniors.  In American Studies (AmStud), Mendez-Cruz and Collins Jordan recently set aside class time to discuss the expulsion of Zephyr from the Montana house floor. “This strategy of expelling using a super majority to expel lawmakers from different groups that are being targeted in that legislative session…I think that’s unfortunately a trend that is becoming a political strategy.  I think we’re going to see more of that. And I think what this in some ways, I think what we’re seeing with Representative Zephyr is sort of like part of this larger attack on trans people and trans rights,” Collins Jordan said, “and it’s manifesting in the same way that these other attacks are. There are attacks on trans people that are attempting to remove trans people, to make trans people invisible in the world that we live in, and so I think removing Zooey Zephyr from a legislative body is doing the same thing. They’re trying to remove her from the political process.” she continued. 

AmStud isn’t the only class where Collins Jordan and Mendez-Cruz see discussions about gender emerge more and more. “In terms of the English classes that I’m teaching in general, I would say that myself and the entire English department are working on incorporating more and more literature that represents more and more identities and experiences. But I’ll also say that I think that’s an area of growth for the department, or at least for me, in the department. And so, continuing in that effort is really important.” Mendez-Cruz said.  

Collins Jordan added that she has emphasized the different perceptions of gender across the world in her Religions classes for sophomores.  “I think we often assume religion has one perspective on gender and sexuality, simply because that’s been the dominant narrative in this country. But that’s a narrative that’s very centered on Christianity and a narrative that centered on a very particular kind of Christianity. Of course, there are queer and trans Christians. There are lots of different experiences with gender and sexuality and religion, many of which are very queer and trans affirming.”

 A Call to Action

Both teachers reaffirmed the importance of having more discussions surrounding gender and affirming the rights and identity of trans people.  “I can say that since I was also a student here, we weren’t having any sort of conversations like this in my memory when I was a student in 2012.” Mendez-Cruz emphasized the importance of talking about the issue. “The fact that we are having these conversations should be happening more consistently throughout a variety of spaces in school, such as, advisory, morning meeting, and classes.” 

Collins-Jordan also called for students to take action politically.  “I think reaching out to local representatives is huge, especially because there are now anti-trans bills that have been introduced in the state of New York. Donating to organizations that are fighting this legislation [is also important]. There are a lot of organizations that are filing lawsuits to try to stop a lot of this legislation…Getting involved with those kinds of organizations and that kind of work. We’re going into summer and a lot of students are often looking for internships. And students who are interested in legal work or advocacy work, can get involved with organizations that are fighting for trans rights, that are providing services for trans people, whether that’s mental health services or health care services or financial services. I think that can be a great way to do this work in a more tangible, hands-on way as well, and is something that is really important and necessary.” Collins Jordan said.