By Geoffrey Carlisle (he/him)
In the first two weeks of this year, 26 states introduced 75 pieces of legislation targeting transgender individuals. This legislation ranges from bans on transgender students participating in sports, to prohibitions, and even criminalization of seeking gender-affirming healthcare. Such bills represent an all-out assault on the rights and dignity of an already marginalized community. While anti-transgender legislation has a long history in the United States, even proposing the legislation has an out-size toll on the health and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ students.
The transgender experience may be difficult to understand and feel like a new concept for many cisgender people, though in many cultures expansive understandings of gender have existed throughout history. As recently as 2016, only 30% of Americans knew someone who identified as transgender. Laws that discriminate against transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals have existed in the United States since at least the 1840s. “Masquerading laws” instituted at the time and throughout the 19th century targeted people who defied gender norms through clothing. Oftentimes, people were beaten, jailed, or subjected to humiliating strip searches on the street by police officers. History serves as a reminder that this current wave of anti-transgender legislation perpetuates our country’s shameful legacy of transphobic public policy.
Last year, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 25, which banned transgender K-12 students from participating in sports. Although organizations like Equality Texas and the Transgender Education Network of Texas successfully led a 10-month campaign that blocked 98% of the anti-LGBTQIA+ bills introduced in Texas, HB 25 passed in October. Representative Valoree Swanson, who authored the bill, argued it “protects girls from losing out on athletic and scholarship opportunities.” During numerous committee hearings and floor debates on the bill, she failed to produce a single instance of this happening in Texas. Astonishingly, language from the law banning transgender students from participating in sports now exists in the Texas UIL’s Non-Discrimination Policy.
In June 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice filed statements of interest against similar laws in West Virginia and Arkansas, saying such bans violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, as well as Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal funds.
Proponents of transgender sports bans often point to the physical attributes of so-called “biological males” (a term not accepted nor used by most scientists) and argue that athletes who were assigned male at birth will have athletic advantages that allow them to outperform their cisgender female competitors. These arguments ignore how numerous youth and professional athletic organizations have implemented trans-inclusive policies for years, including the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. Most athletic organizations with trans-inclusive policies require transgender women to undergo at least a year of hormone replacement therapy. However, it should be noted that there are numerous factors beyond testosterone that impact athletic performance.
Transgender athletes are also subjected to unfair double standards when it comes to athletic success. During the national conversation about Lea Thomas, a transgender woman who swims for the University of Pennsylvania, Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps weighed in on CNN saying, “there needs to be a level playing field.” As Phelps suggested that transgender women have an unfair physical advantage, he neglected to mention how his 6’7” wingspan, shorter legs, size 14 feet, double-jointed ankles, and lower lactic acid output than all of his competitors gives him a competitive edge. The physical attributes of athletes like Phelps are often celebrated reasons for athletic success, while non-cisgender athletes like Caster Semenya, who is intersex, are often demonized and subjected to humiliating and invasive physical examinations.
HB 25’s passage denied countless transgender Texans the same rights as their cisgender peers. Even anti-transgender legislation that failed to pass into law caused measurable harm to Texas’ LGBTQIA+ youth. At the peak of the debate over transgender athletes in May 2021, calls from Texas to the national Transgender Lifeline Crisis Center increased 71.6%. The Trevor Project saw similar increases during the 2021 legislative session, with nearly 4,000 transgender and non-binary youth crisis interactions— a 150% increase over the same period in 2020 without a legislative session.
During these calls to The Trevor Project, transgender and non-binary youth in Texas repeatedly stated that debates about these laws caused them to feel stress, pursue self-harm, and consider suicide. When defending her bill Representative Swanson said, “we don’t want to cause harm to anyone.” Despite her rhetoric, Representative Swanson, along with a majority of her colleagues, blocked an amendment to provide funding for mental health support to transgender students impacted by the bill— ignoring quantitative evidence indicating the need for resources.
Of the more than 40 proposed bills in Texas last year banning transgender students from participating in sports, accessing gender-affirming care, or changing birth certificates, the word “transgender” appeared zero times. To be clear, bans on trans kids participating in sports aren’t about sports, just like bans on trans people using the bathroom aren’t about bathrooms. These bans are about erasure.
State legislatures must use their power to meaningfully improve the well-being of trans kids, rather than cause further harm. States should fund professional development for school staff on LGBTQ student issues, because these students face alarmingly high rates of bullying and harassment. They should remove legal barriers to changing government identification, such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates, and end healthcare discrimination against trans people. Most importantly, policy solutions should result from meaningful partnerships with the trans community.
In her captivating testimony to the Texas House of Representatives, 7-year old Sunny Bryant asked legislators, “why are you attacking me? I shouldn’t be here right now, I should be in school.” As state legislatures race to see who can introduce the most anti-transgender legislation this year, they do so at the expense of children. These bills harm transgender youth whether they pass or not, and these kids deserve better. They deserve to be treated like human beings.