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Why Are There So Many Bills Targeting Trans Kids?

It's not a "distraction." It's an assault on trans kids.

A transgender couple sit together.

It’s no secret that anti-trans bills are cropping up across U.S. state legislatures, most of which are targeting transgender youth. And when Republican lawmakers aren’t going after trans kids, it’s governors and state agencies setting them in their sights. No better example exists than Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s recent directive investigating families with trans children.

For many transgender kids and adults alike, this is a confusing, frustrating, and scary assault on our basic civil rights. But why are Republicans so caught up with legislative measures attacking trans youth, and how is it part of a much larger plan to strip away trans Americans’ basic human rights? Here’s what you need to know about the anti-trans bills across the country targeting trans kids.

What are these anti-trans bills and measures?

A protest against anti-trans bills.
Image via Matt Hrkac/Flickr (CC BY).

Let’s be frank, the number of anti-trans legislative proposals expected this year is shocking. USA Today reports approximately 280 are projected for this year, up from 147 in 2021, per the Human Rights Campaign. Over 125 anti-trans bills have been recently active across dozens of state legislatures, according to the ACLU. States with active anti-trans legislation include Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, and Hawaii, among others. Many of these states are red-leaning (or Republican), but not all.

The most common recurring anti-trans bill discriminates against transgender athletes in youth sports. Athletic bans would prevent trans boys from competing in sports with cisgender boys, but these bills tend to specifically single out transgender girls, arguing they have an unfair competitive advantage against cisgender girls. For example, an Iowa bill signed by Republican Governor Kim Reynolds in March 2022 specifically bans transgender girls from participating in young girls’ sports, claiming interscholastic athletics must be defined “based on the sex at birth of the participating students.” NBC notes Iowa is the 11th state to target transgender children in sports.

The second most common anti-trans measure cropping up in state legislatures is a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth. One of the most extreme examples to date is Idaho House Bill 675. The act, which claims to ban the “genital mutilation of a child,” would make it a felony for any individual to knowingly provide puberty blockers to trans kids or grant them access to hormone replacement therapy. The bill, which is couched in language equating gender transitioning to genital mutilation, bans “castration, vasectomy, hysterectomy, oophorectomy, metoidioplasty, orchiectomy, penectomy, phalloplasty, clitoroplasty, vaginoplasty, vulvoplasty,” and “ovariectomy” surgeries, among other sex-reassignment-based medical procedures. Meanwhile, the bill carves out an exception to continue forced surgeries on intersex children.

For transgender youth, gender-affirming surgeries like vaginoplasty and phalloplasty are generally not carried out until reaching 18, as the Washington Post notes. But this doesn’t make the Idaho bill any less dangerous. Puberty blockers are often prescribed to trans teens seeking out gender-affirming care at the start of puberty, with the possibility of taking feminizing or masculinizing hormones in their later teen years, usually 16. This bill would strictly ban trans teens from accessing both necessary medications: The legislation defines a “child” as any individual under 18.

And while most gender-affirming surgeries aren’t carried out before 18, mastectomies (or breast removal) can be sought out before then. If the Idaho bill passes, mastectomies would be outright banned, essentially forcing trans teenage boys to carry on living with a body part that actively gives them gender dysphoria.

And no, it’s not like trans teens can simply hop to another state to seek out their gender-affirming care: HB 675 would also make it a felony if an individual knowingly “removes or causes, permits, or facilitates the removal of a child” from Idaho for accessing trans care.

Why are Republicans targeting trans kids?

A young Black transgender woman in a school bathroom looks over her reflection.
Image via the Gender Spectrum Collection (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

These bigoted bills all start with cissexism, the idea that cisgender bodies are innately natural and normative, and that trans bodies are disturbing, disruptive, and artificial outliers.

Trans people have a gender that does not align with their assigned sex at birth. Many seek out gender-affirming medical care, such as hormone replacement therapy, to alleviate gender dysphoria. What this reveals is that sex is far more malleable than most people assume — during and after puberty, everyone has the fundamental biological blueprint to undergo a hormonal transition. Their body will reflect those feminizing or masculinizing physiological changes in fat distribution, hair growth, and muscle development, depending on what kinds of hormones are dominant in their bodies.

Transness destabilizes how we think of terms like “sex” and “gender,” and trans bodies challenge society’s preconceived notions about gender and sex. Gender is not determined by sex, it turns out, and sex is not determined in the womb. Anyone can change their sex if they want to.

If gender and sex are not as innately tied together as neatly as most people think, and if cisgender people recognize that they are a privileged class benefiting from an oppressive understanding of gender that stigmatizes non-cisgender bodies, then the West’s entire grasp on gender and sex has to change. This threatens the status quo and its powerful hold on our society and culture. In other words, it’s not, as Jacobin argued, that anti-trans youth measures are a distraction. Far-right lawmakers see what’s at stake. They believe transness must be repressed and annihilated because it threatens the very way we think about gender and sex in the first place.

This is why so many Republican politicians want to force young trans people to live their lives in the wrong gender. They are eager to shut down all access to gender-affirming care, and they are insistent on suppressing all trans-affirming policies, because transness threatens the very social order we live in. They would rather have a trans child suffer (or worse) than have their power questioned. It’s all a reactionary response.

And controlling trans kids is the starting point to controlling trans adults. One Alabama bill would make it a felony for adults to prescribe puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy to anyone under 19. Joe Rogan, while platforming an anti-trans writer on his podcast, has argued that young adults’ brains aren’t developed enough to make gender-affirming care decisions. Bans on trans care for minors will quickly jump to trans care bans for college students and early 20-somethings if these lawmakers and right-wing thinkers have their way.

What about trans sports bans?

A protest against anti-trans bills.
Image via Matt Hrkac/Flickr (CC BY).

When it comes to banning gender-affirming care, far-right lawmakers tend to portray themselves as benevolent protectors of innocent children indoctrinated into some kind of “gender ideology.” Trans sports bans are a little trickier to unpack. To gain popular support, trans kids cannot be seen as confused victims of gender politics, but predatory aggressors encroaching on cisgender spaces. This is particularly true for how transgender girls are treated. No better example exists than Gov. Reynolds misgendering trans girl athletes by claiming that “no amount of talent, training or effort can make up for the natural physical advantages males have over females.”

“It’s simply a reality of human biology,” she said, according to NBC. “Forcing females to compete against males is the opposite of inclusivity and it’s absolutely unfair.”

Science around the issue suggests a far more complicated picture than the one Reynolds claims. Prior to puberty, boys and girls do not have sex hormones in the first place. Banning pre-pubescent trans girls from playing baseball or soccer with cis girls is nothing but transmisogyny. And while hormonal differences play a role in, say, cisgender men and cisgender women competing against each other in certain sports during and after puberty, the playing field generally becomes more equal as trans women undergo hormone replacement therapy. Joanna Harper, an advisor for the International Olympics Committee specializing in gender and sex differences in athletes, told WebMD that certain advantages diminish for trans women on feminizing hormones over time; hemoglobin levels for stamina, for example, disappears as testosterone becomes suppressed.

Granted, it’s true that some trans women may have certain advantages over cisgender women in sports. Harper argues that trans women are on average taller and bigger than cisgender women, which may field trans women competitive advantages in basketball or pose potential safety issues in collision sports like rugby. Meanwhile other factors, such as strength capabilities over cisgender women, require more research due to conflicting data. But regardless, Harper insists the correct solution is not a ban on cisgender and trans women competing, but sensitivity and thoughtful consideration combined with further research into a deeply unexplored and underfunded field.

“What really matters is can trans women and cisgender women compete against one another in meaningful competition. There’s no indication that trans women are anywhere close to taking over women’s sport, it’s not happening now,” Harper told WebMD. “It’s not likely to happen anytime in the future.”

In this context, it’s important to remember: We’re talking about teenagers playing sports together. Not elite Olympians. Another IOC advisor and sex differences expert, Dr. Eric Vilain, told NPR that there is no good faith reason to ban transgender women from competing with their cisgender counterparts in high school and college sports.

But it’s far easier to scare cisgender Americans by preaching on a topic most don’t quite understand. From there, these anti-trans politicians and organizations can push the needle further, seeing how far they can get away with their bigotry in state laws.

What can you do to stop this onslaught?

Transgender flags on the step to D.C.
Image via Ted Eytan/Flickr (CC BY-SA).

USA Today notes anti-trans bills blossomed in 2020 with over 79 proposed, followed by nearly double the amount the next year. In comparison, 2022’s approximately 280 proposed anti-trans bills seem like an avalanche. But ACLU’s Chase Strangio, a staunch legal defender of trans civil rights, told Truthout’s Movement Memos that we can’t divorce today’s anti-trans push from 2020’s.

In 2020, anti-trans legislation underwent far more sophisticated coordination, with “shipping out pre-drafted legislation to conservative lawmakers across the country and state legislators” set to limit trans youth health care and trans kids from athletics. The push to target trans rights through trans kids has only grown after anti-trans lawmakers and organizations saw initial success.

“And now in 2022, we’re surpassing even what we saw in 2021, the bills are moving more quickly. They are broader in scope and we’re seeing a resurgence of old friends, or foes, like the bathroom bill. We’re only a few weeks into state legislative sessions and we are seeing states pushing so many bills, reviving bills, even after they’re defeated in committees, bringing back bills that were passed the previous year, just to expand upon them,” he told Movement Memos in mid-February. “It’s really like nothing I’ve ever seen in terms of the magnitude of the attack. And there is almost no public response in opposition.”

So what can people do to fight back? In the episodes notes, Movement Memos host Kelly Hayes recommends donating to the Trans Justice Funding Project and its grantees. The latter are local trans-led organizations fighting back against anti-trans bills impacting their communities. Direct funding is one of the best ways to support trans people affected by bigoted legislation.

Meanwhile, in a viral Twitter thread, editor Sigrid Ellis provides another thorough breakdown of options that concerned allies can take. Besides donating, she says calling your elected officials and making it clear to local politicians that anti-trans bigotry is unacceptable can help turn the tide. And community leaders in all sorts of hobbyist spaces, from MMORPG Discords to the Lego fandom, should make it clear that their groups are trans-inclusive, she wrote. During a time when many trans people are looking for distraction, that kind of affirming community space is an provides trans people a safe haven from discrimination.

“If you are already doing this? Then just re-post your demands for support, justice, and trans rights,” Ellis wrote. “Keep being loud. Be the person now that you will not be ashamed of later.”

And for trans people, remember: This coordinated push is scary. But there is a glimmer of hope in the distance. As The Magic City Legal Center’s attorney director Sydney Duncan notes in another viral Twitter thread, these anti-trans bills are “all being championed by the same, small group of bigots,” with very little evidence to their claims and few experts willing to testify on their behalf. She believe these bills are being pushed in a haphazard attempt to rally their right-wing base, and they likely won’t stand up to legal scrutiny.

“So, while it hurts to see these cases paraded around the country, taking aim at trans kids, know that the law stands squarely on the side that seeks to affirm and protect trans identities,” Duncan tweeted. “They are loud, but they are small. We are many and we are right.”

(Image: via the Gender Spectrum Collection (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0))

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Ana Valens (she/her) is a reporter specializing in queer internet culture, online censorship, and sex workers' rights. Her book "Tumblr Porn" details the rise and fall of Tumblr's LGBTQ-friendly 18+ world, and has been hailed by Autostraddle as "a special little love letter" to queer Tumblr's early history. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her ever-growing tarot collection.