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At the Core of Anti-Trans Legislation

photograph of person walking through crowd draped in transgender flag

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson has introduced two new anti-LGBT bills immediately after his reelection in the midterms. Senate Bill 1 targets gender-affirming care for minors; Senate Bill 3 regulates drag shows with children present. Johnson campaigned on the promise to preserve Tennessee’s conservative values, including the idea that marriage “must remain the sacred union of one man and one woman.”

Senate Bill 1 would ban hormone therapy and procedures that remove organs (practically this targets top surgery, or a double mastectomy) for minors who wish to have those procedures done to alleviate gender dysphoria, or, as the bill words it, “purported discomfort or distress from a discordance between the minor’s sex and asserted identity.” The bill provides an exception for congenital defects and chromosomal abnormalities. When writing SB1, Jack Johnson sought out input from notorious anti-trans, right-wing political commentator and leader of the recent “Rally to End Child Mutilation” protest against the Vanderbilt University Medical Center gender clinic, Matt Walsh.

Senate Bill 3, meanwhile, expands the definition of “adult cabaret performance” to include a performance that features “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest,” along with other legally recognized categories of performers including topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, and strippers. Since the current law governing adult cabaret performances states that they cannot take place where minors could be present, the amendment would ban certain drag shows from taking place in public spaces.

While the first bill may be obviously questionable to anyone familiar with trans activism, the negative impact of the second is less immediately apparent. If drag shows are of an 18+ nature, it seems fine to confine them to 18+ spaces. If drag shows are of a family friendly nature, then they should still be allowed in public spaces by the amended law, right? Wrong.

There is a throughline that connects these bills: a traditional, patriarchal worldview that paints drag queens and trans women as essentially sexualized and trans men as easily swayed victims whose reproductive capacities should be protected.

In other words, all drag is seen as entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, and all trans minors seeking gender-affirming care are misled victims. Trans and gender non-conforming adults are thus seen as grooming children by influencing them to identify as trans and to have medical interventions performed that mutilate their bodies and interfere with their reproductive ability (which is why the idea of sexual abuse is brought in).

These background transphobic attitudes can be clearly seen in two recent incidents, both in Tennessee. In September of this year, Chattanooga Pride held a family-friendly drag show event from which video footage emerged of a small child rubbing her hand up and down the front of a mermaid performer’s tail, near the performer’s groin. That video prompted a huge backlash against the event. Although the performer in question was a cisgender woman who regularly performs as a princess, many took the event as another example demonstrating that no drag shows are appropriate for children.

In October of this year, the Jackson Pride festival was moved indoors after lawmakers and community members complained about the scheduled, family-friendly drag show. The festival was planned to be held in the city’s public park, as it had been in past years, but organizers were pressured into changing the event to 18+ and moving to a venue where IDs could be checked. In part, this was done to appease community worries but to protect the event-goers given a number of violent threats levied by the Proud Boys and the Westboro Baptist Church.

As we can see in both of these examples, concerns about protecting children from inappropriate sexual content are being used to make even family-friendly drag performances private and inaccessible to children.

If almost all drag is sexualized by anti-trans legislators and residents, then the law may, in practice, treat a drag queen reading Goodnight Moon at a local library as no different from a drag queen suggestively performing WAP to an adult only audience.

In other parts of the country, there have been an increased number of hate crimes targeting drag reading hours.

These reactions and misunderstandings aren’t new — there’s a long history of harmful and inaccurate stereotypes that paint LGBTQ people as pedophiles and groomers. Transfeminine people, in particular, face excessive sexualization, from false autogynephilia narratives that claim trans women transition because they get off on seeing themselves as women, to the fetishization of trans women, to ideas that trans women will assault cis women in bathrooms, and on and on.

On the other hand, transmasculine people are often painted as innocent, misled victims who have been caught up in a kind of public social contagion that targets young girls who don’t want to have to face misogyny or who see transition as a way to solve unrelated mental health problems. And, for those who choose to undergo medical transition, they are seen as having done irreversible damage to their bodies from the effects of testosterone or the results of top surgery, with a focus on damage done to reproductive capacity.

These negative stereotypes and narratives rather neatly line up with patriarchal ideas that attach certain traits to cleanly divided ideas of biological sex (note that SB1 allows surgeries on intersex people to make them conform to binary ideas about sex). On this picture, men are seen as active, sexually powerful beings who can prey on the weaker sex. Women are seen as weaker, mentally and physically, and their purpose is to reproduce (in white supremacist patriarchal ideology, the point is to reproduce to repopulate the white race).

Gender non-conformity is a threat to the patriarchal system, because it implies that biology is not gender destiny and that gender categories, and thus power structures, are fluid.

While cisgender people may be allowed or encouraged to access gender-affirming care like breast implants and supplemental testosterone, intersex people and trans people either receive forced medical intervention or are denied access to care. These negative attitudes also affect trans and gender non-conforming people who choose not to undergo a medical transition, as they too disrupt the narrative of biological destiny.

Anti-trans activists thus aim to shield children from any knowledge that trans and gender non-conforming people exist so that there will be fewer trans people. The problem is that trans identity is not a contagion but a facet of human experience present across cultures and centuries. Children will continue to grow up and discover their own gender non-conformity, but when they do they seem doomed to find fewer and fewer supports. Ultimately, this rampant anti-trans hate will only increase the number of trans deaths, whether through hate crimes or suicides.

Trans Panic and the Philosophy of Fear

image of storm clouds gathering

As a trans person living in the U.S. right now, how can you both stay apprised of dangers to your health and political rights and not become paralyzed by the overwhelming quantity of anti-trans legislation and sentiment? When is the fear that you feel appropriate? When does it become something that is more hurtful than helpful?

These are difficult questions, because the dangers to trans people are very real, whether that be a lack of affordable access to gender-affirming medical care, an inability to get contraceptives or access to abortion, or an overturning of other rights using the reasoning given in Dobbs that they are not “deeply rooted in our history or traditions.”

There are two traps that it is easy to fall into, either ignoring these threats and failing to do anything to prevent them or becoming obsessed with anti-trans news at the expense of your health.

These responses are understandable given the near constant onslaught of anti-trans legislation and rhetoric, but they may not be the most helpful.

In what follows, I do not intend to identify one perfect way to react in the face of oppression. Instead, I’d like to make several distinctions between different kinds of fear so that we can collectively be more reflective about the emotions we are feeling in this time and have more options in choosing how to respond to them.

First, who are you feeling fear for? Is it just for yourself? Do you only care about things that threaten you? Is it just for you and members of your community? Do you only care about the dangers that face your friends or people who are a part of the same group? Or do you feel fear for yourself and others when they are threatened, whether they are in your group or not?

It makes sense that we would be more fearful for ourselves and for those close to us, but there is a danger in failing to recognize the dangers that are present to other marginalized communities.

Just as Myisha Cherry argues that rage is more productive when it is felt in response to an injustice, it seems that fear is more appropriate when it is felt in solidarity with others.

If, as a white, abled, trans person, you only feel fear in response to threats to trans people and not to people of color or people with disabilities, something has gone wrong.

The purpose of fear seems to be to remind us to attend to certain dangers or risks, so that we can prevent those things from happening. Unlike anger, which is backward-looking and responds to past injustice, fear is forward-looking and responds to potential injustice. If we just attend to what could happen to us, we will miss the perils that threaten others and fail to counteract them before it is too late.

Second, is the fear that you feel constant and unchanging? Or is it responsive to features of the situation? For example, do your fears start to resolve if anti-trans legislation slows down and trans rights are being secured? Or do you remain stuck in high alert even after the danger has passed?

One of the difficulties of the experience of sustained danger to one’s safety is that it often leads to complex trauma that makes it easy to be hyper-aware of any potential danger but hard to gauge which threats can be ignored.

We can see this now in the responses that many people are having in these later stages of the pandemic, where they might find themselves having a panic attack after being in a small, crowded room, even though the collective dangers to health have shifted dramatically as more people have gained access to the vaccine.

These kinds of trauma reactions are certainly understandable, but a fear that does not respond to the situation can lead to actions that do not actually address the problem at hand. Unresponsive fear can also interfere with being able to feel safe, to enjoy relaxing, or to go out and participate in meaningful social activities. As much as it is important to attend to dangers to trans rights, it is equally, if not more, important to preserve trans joy.

Third, is the fear helping us to act in ways that address the danger? Though fear can prompt action that is targeted and useful, it can also make us paralyzed, more suspicious and paranoid, and less calm and deliberate in our thinking. When we are collectively afraid, we can easily begin to fight among ourselves because emotions are high. This can lead to a cycle in which effective action seems less and less possible, which can further reinforce a collective paralysis.

To avoid this outcome, it seems important to recognize the ways that fear operates and give space to individuals to express those fears, work through them collectively, and ensure that the most pressing danger is being targeted. Likewise, we must remember to be in solidarity with others and the particular threats that are pertinent to them. If we can band together to protect each other from the threats that we face, we will have a better chance of mounting an effective response.

Fear has a bad reputation as a negative emotion that must be overcome or avoided.

See, for instance, Master Yoda’s words that “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Or the famous Dune quote: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” I am unconvinced, however, that fear is always something to be avoided. Since fear draws our attention to dangers that often need to be attended to, it seems helpful and even good in certain circumstances.

But why not just say that the feeling of fear itself is something bad that needs to be overcome? Perhaps it points us in the right direction at first, but surely the feeling of fear is something to be overcome. There are two things to say in response. First, courage is often taken to involve acting despite fear; without fear, an action doesn’t seem nearly as courageous. So, at the very least, fear can give meaning to certain kinds of actions.

Second, fear can often prompt us to act and take measures to ensure our safety in the future. For example, if I am afraid of leaving the stove on when I go on a trip, I might check it again before I leave to ensure that it is off. Or, if I am afraid that a law will pass, I might organize my friends and family to contact their legislators to prevent it from passing. What needs to be overcome is not necessarily fear, but paralysis.

So long as our fear moves us to act in ways that are appropriate and doesn’t get in the way of being able to flourish, it seems straightforwardly helpful. Of course, living under oppression isn’t so easy, and the constant terrorism can interfere with feeling safe and happy. The answer, however, isn’t to get rid of fear; it’s to contextualize it.

Whose Rights Matter for Gender-Affirming Care?

photograph of youth holding small Trans Support Flag at rally

Should medical decisions involving children be up to children, parents, physicians, the state, or some combination thereof? This question has been at the core of recent issues including vaccine mandates, but it is also central to a new slate of bills targeting gender-affirming care for trans youth, which are usually supported by appeals to children’s rights.

For example, the Idaho House recently passed a bill that makes it a felony, punishable by life in prison, to provide gender-affirming medical care to trans youth, to provide permission for a minor to receive that care, or to permit a minor to travel out of state to receive care. The bill has since been blocked in the Idaho Senate, due to concerns about parental rights. Similar laws are being proposed in Tennessee, Alabama, and Iowa.

What is interesting about these bills (as well as Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill) is that they are contested on the basis of a conflict between children’s rights and parents’ rights. In the case of gender-affirming medical care, whose rights matter more?

It seems that the proponents of these bills are right to say that it is the children’s rights that are primarily at stake in these decisions — not the parents’. They are wrong, however, to say that children’s rights support this kind of legislation.

Except for therapy, gender-affirming medical care begins around puberty, when children have basic reasoning and decision-making capacities and start to develop as autonomous agents. These capacities may not yet be fully developed (and young adults may not yet be socially and legally independent), but this fledgling autonomy is sufficiently developed to warrant and even require that these children are part of the medical decision-making process. However, before minimal autonomy is reached, parents and physicians should be very careful about making medical interventions to alter a child’s sexed presentation, especially given the long history of medical abuse of intersex people.

Apart from considerations about autonomy and decision-making ability, the other primary consideration is whether these interventions will help or harm the children who undergo them. Both concerns target children’s rights.

The two questions we should ask are thus: Can children who have reached puberty consent to medical intervention? And do these interventions harm or help children? For those proposing these laws, the answers are that the children cannot give informed consent and that these interventions are, on balance, harmful. But are these assertions true?

The answer to the first question is supported by ideas that children cannot yet know their gender identity and how they would like to present, or that they will transition just because it is cool, or that they will choose transition as an easy out from facing misogyny or mental health problems.

If children cannot yet know their gender identity, then it seems that puberty blockers should be recommended for even more children, as it would allow them to delay the changes their bodies undergo so that they can make informed decisions about how they would like their bodies to develop at a later date.

It also seems unlikely that being trans is cool enough to persuade children to transition on that basis alone. In 2019, 2% of high school students identified as transgender. That is hardly as popular as wearing crocs, and it comes with significant social costs.

The last rationale is usually cited in the case of trans men. Misogyny is an issue that many people assigned female at birth have wrestled with and that has informed both cis and trans folks’ gender identities, but transition is not an escape from oppression — it trades one kind of oppression for another. One might also worry that there’s a subtle misogyny in implying that people assigned female at birth are less capable of making competent decisions about their gender identity than those assigned male at birth.

Even if each of these worries were true, they would tell in favor of more care rather than less. Instead of cutting off options to children and leaving them without a good understanding of gender identity or the medical options for transition, we should be providing children with more options and with better counseling to enable effective joint decision-making. This provides children with greater autonomy than if they are left without any choice, and it allows them to explore for themselves where their feelings are coming from and what they indicate.

It is important to note that not all transgender or gender non-conforming children will choose to undergo medical procedures or the same set of medical procedures. There is a critique to be made here that our current system of medical care often prioritizes certain narratives of medical transition over others and tends to overlook the needs of those who don’t fit into these neat categories, especially non-binary people. But again, this tells in favor not of removing medical care but of improving it. We should be striving to provide adequate information to children in the decision-making process and, as the therapy begins, encourage re-evaluation of medical care and adjust that care in response to the child’s wishes.

Turn now to the second question: Even if children can give at least partial consent, is the harm done by gender-affirming care great enough to override what autonomy they have? To determine the answer to this question, we need to separate out different kinds of gender-affirming care. Though gender-affirming care encompasses a wide range of options, let’s simplify those options into the following categories: talk therapy, puberty blockers, hormonal therapy, and surgical intervention.

While talk therapy and puberty blockers present some risks, the main worries that proponents of these bills cite primarily target hormonal therapy and surgical intervention. The two major harms presented in support of this legislation are a loss of reproductive ability and the difficulties faced by retransitioners (people who transition back to their gender assigned at birth or who transition to a different gender, e.g., trans man to non-binary person). These are non-negligible considerations. But do they capture everything morally salient for decision-making?

There are other harms we should take into account that would result if these bills were to pass: an inability to medically address gender dysphoria (a psychological incongruity between one’s gender identity and presentation, which can result in psychological distress), the disruption of the patient/doctor relationship, the message that these bills send that trans youth are not seen or appreciated, the tendency of these bills to exaggerate inter-family conflicts when one parent supports a child’s gender transition and the other does not, the tendency of these laws to increase the risk that trans youth commit suicide, and the difficult to alter changes that happen after a child’s body naturally starts producing estrogen and testosterone at puberty, in the absence of puberty-blockers.

The question about access to gender-affirming care isn’t simply one about avoiding these harms — it’s also about promoting positive experiences like gender euphoria (joy felt when one’s gender lines up with one’s presentation and social relations with others). But do the worries about loss of reproductive ability and retransition override these other considerations?

With regard to retransition, several studies have indicated that only around 1% of patients regret their transition. The people who regret their transitions matter, and medical care should be tailored to prevent such regrets and address them when they arise. But the existence of very few who regret medical transition should not be used to deny gender-affirming care to others, especially when that gender-affirming care can be life-saving.

Regarding reproductive worries, many trans folks would like to have children of their own. While we are not yet to the point where trans women can bear children or trans men can produce sperm, trans women and men can rely on technologies that freeze their sperm or eggs and that allow them to produce a biologically related child in the future. Unlike surgery, hormone therapy does not necessarily make the patient infertile, though counseling is recommended to ensure that patients understand the reproductive ramifications of certain medical interventions. And the one surgery that is currently accepted for under 18 individuals is “top surgery” or double mastectomy.

These reproductive ramifications should be fully transparent to teens who are deciding what therapies to access, but these considerations alone do not seem to immediately rule out medical transition, given that they may be outweighed by a number of benefits. In addition, reproductive capacity will mean different things for different trans people, as, for example, some trans men may wish to avoid pregnancy at all for reasons of gender dysphoria.

We also tend to think that adults should have reproductive freedom in choosing whether to have a tubal ligation or vasectomy, and the teens who would have access to hormonal therapy would be much closer to adulthood and full autonomy. Given their greater autonomy, it is less worrisome to allow them to make a joint decision with potentially negative long-term ramifications.

On the whole, gender-affirming care appears to be more helpful than harmful and certainly not harmful enough to warrant overriding the autonomy of older children and young adults. Current practices of gender-affirming care rightly provide less risky treatment to younger children and more risky treatment to older teens, which mirrors the growth of autonomy and decision making through young adulthood.

Bills that would deny gender-affirming care are insidious because they take away the rights of trans youth while claiming to protect those same rights. It turns out that if we want to protect children’s rights, we need to fight legislation that would deny access to gender-affirming care.

Is Radical Feminism Inherently Transphobic?

photograph of JK Rowling at book signing for Harry Potter

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, usually just called TERFS for short, are the bogeymen (or more accurately, the bogeywomen) haunting leftist spaces. A succinct “so-and-so is a TERF” is more than enough to permanently mar an activist’s reputation on Twitter. The word has been so thoroughly incorporated into online slang that it’s more commonly written as “terf,” without any indication that it stands for something specific. Overuse and misuse of the word has resulted in some confusion over what a TERF is, and how to spot one. As the acronym makes clear, TERFS are those who identify with the more radical strains of second-wave feminism, and also believe that trans women are not “real women” and therefore should not have a voice in feminist discourse. The second component of TERF ideology is unquestionably reprehensible, but it’s easy to get snagged on the “radical” part of TERF-ism. How can a movement as ostensibly counter-cultural as radical feminism be the springboard for conservative bigotry, and is it possible to separate radical feminism from TERF ideology?

TERFs are so troubling in part because they cloak their transphobic rhetoric with progressive language. This confusion prompted Cambridge University’s women’s campaign, an organization that protects women on campus and provides resources on feminist topics, to circulate an article titled “How to Spot Terf Ideology.” The article implies that TERF rhetoric isn’t always blatantly transphobic, and can be difficult to understand the implications of for the uninitiated. On a surface level, some tenets of TERF-ism even seem reasonable; one especially prevalent idea is “self-based oppression,” which means that cis women are discriminated against based on biological sex. This is a difficult point to argue with, but it has a few weaknesses. On the one hand, it assumes that all cis women experience share a universal experience of womanhood regardless of race, class, or sexuality. Furthermore, TERFs make it clear that that trans women are exempt from this discrimination.

This obsession with biological essentialism ultimately excludes trans women from feminist spaces, and elevates the cis (and usually white) experience of womanhood as the gold standard. In a recent seminar on TERF-ism, scholar Marquis Bey explained that “TERFs seem to have the power to renaturalize and reinstall or to further solidify the stranglehold of the gender binary, which is in and of itself a mode of violence and violation.” Bey is touching on the contradiction at the heart of TERF ideology; feminism is supposed to break down socially constructed gender roles, including the idea that women are biologically different from men, but TERFs just reinforce the binary. Biological essentialism also forms an ideological bridge between TERFs and the far right, who also bolster their arguments with “biology.” Both movements are also deeply reactionary; as Bey says, TERFs long for “the purported ‘golden years’ of feminist activism, which contrast with this supposed ‘too far’-ness of contemporary radical trans insurrectionary thinking [and] activism.”

So can radical feminism be untangled from TERF ideology, or are the two inextricably linked? Many would argue that they aren’t. Second-wave radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, who is often venerated by TERFs, was a trans ally herself. In 1975, Dworkin explicitly denounced biological essentialism when she said that “while the system of gender polarity is real, it is not true. It is not true that there are two sexes which are discrete and opposite, which are polar, which unite naturally and self-evidently into a harmonious whole. It is not true that the male embodies both positive and neutral human qualities and potentialities in contrast to the female.” This indicates that radical feminism isn’t a monolith. People who use the label can be TERFs, or they can reject transphobia entirely. Anyone can label themselves a radical feminist, so long as they take issue with mainstream liberal feminism and center their politics on gender discrimination. There are many “feminisms,” not just one.

But TERFs claim to speak for all feminists whenever they make headlines. Just this year, J.K. Rowling was outed as a TERF when she refused to renounce her transphobic brand of feminism. Transphobia is splintering the community, as prominent gender theorist Judith Butler pointed out in a recent interview she gave on the J.K. Rowling scandal. “My wager is that most feminists support trans rights and oppose all forms of transphobia. So I find it worrisome that suddenly the trans-exclusionary radical feminist position is understood as commonly accepted or even mainstream. I think it is actually a fringe movement that is seeking to speak in the name of the mainstream, and that our responsibility is to refuse to let that happen.” Even if transphobes make up a small fraction of the feminist community, they threaten to derail decades of consciousness-raising and coalition-building. All feminists, regardless of how they identify, will have to reckon with this growing sense of division.

The Ban on Trans Service Members and Injustice of Healthcare Cost Disparities

close-up photograph of the boots of four servicepeople

President Trump has banned trans members of the military from openly serving and from joining up. The reasoning behind the ban is that inclusion would result in higher medical costs and lower troop cohesion. On January 22nd, SCOTUS lifted an injunction on enacting the ban, and lower courts will proceed with evaluating the ban while the military will be more free to follow it.

As a Vox report articulates, there are multiple dimensions along which this ban is offensive: “Trump’s ban could lead to some very ugly consequences: trans service members staying in the closet, even when it’s dangerous for their service and their personal health and safety; trans troops being discharged or abused; and trans Americans more broadly receiving yet another signal that society still doesn’t accept or tolerate them.”

Besides issues of discriminatory injustice, this ban has significant practical effects: over 134,000 American veterans are transgender, and over 15,000 trans people are serving in military today. The US has been at war for decades, so it is unclear why barring willing people from serving would be a wise strategy, especially for this demographic, as it’s been reported that “twenty percent of transgender people have served in the military, which is double the percentage of the U.S. general population that has served.”

The most suggestive support for the ban comes from research from the RAND Corporation which indicates that including openly serving trans folk in the military would make up “a 0.04- to 0.13-percent increase in active-component health care expenditures.” However, research from countries that allow openly serving in the military according to your gender identity, including the UK, Israel, and Canada, suggests that there is no cost to military preparedness or problems with the military’s budget.

The supposed extra cost of healthcare has been used as a tool of discriminatory practices both inside and outside of the military. Before Obamacare, it was allowable practice for women’s health insurance to be more costly than men’s, for instance. Even harsh critics of the law admit, “The Affordable Care Act enacted pricing rules that largely prohibited charging women higher health-insurance premiums than men, and the Republican plan would relax some of those restrictions, which probably would result in women’s paying higher premiums.”

Debates over whether being a woman should play the role of a “preexisting condition” bring to light the way healthcare should be conceived of and distributed. It is true that women pay more over their lifetime for healthcare than men, on average, despite, again on average, taking better care of themselves.

Health is a human good that is unevenly distributed by a natural lottery – both at birth with conditions that make health needs vary and later in life in the form of health-altering events such as accidents and disease. That some individuals may need more assistance in order to maintain health does not undermine its status as a fundamental human good.

There isn’t evidence that being trans interferes in any way with one’s ability to serve in the military – the inclusive policies of other nations serve as evidence to the contrary. The proposed ban on openly trans military service member is thus at best a matter of medical discrimination, but that justification is thin, given the diverse medical needs of diverse populations. In reality the ban is a barely veiled instance of putting transphobia into policy.

Caitlyn’s Costume Controversy

Spirit Halloween released a costume for Halloween 2015 in the likeness of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair magazine cover. The immediate reaction of many was one of disgust, feeling that the costume was mocking the former Olympian and her recent transition. Others were concerned that the costume perpetuates a transphobic view.   Vincent Villano, from the National Center for Transgender Equality,  sums up these views by saying  “There’s no tasteful way to ‘celebrate’ Caitlyn Jenner or respect transgender people this way on the one night of the year when people use their most twisted imaginations to pretend to be villains and monsters.”

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