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Why are so many states trying to limit transgender rights?

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Toby Beauchamp lecture in the Knight Auditorium at Spurlock Museum in Urbana Thursday, October 17, 2013. photo by Darrell Hoemann all rights transfer to IPRH, courtesy of Illinois News Bureau

By Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau

Several states have introduced legislation in the last year that would restrict the rights of transgender people and regulate discussions of gender identity in schools. State laws prohibit transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports in public schools, ban talking about sexual orientation and gender identity in some elementary school grades and prohibit medical care that helps transgender youth in transitioning. The Texas governor ordered the state’s child welfare agency to investigate transgender medical care for adolescents as child abuse. Toby Beauchamp is a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign whose research interests include transgender studies. He is the author of “Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices.” He spoke with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel about the increasing number of bills aimed at limiting transgender rights.

Why are we now seeing so many states with proposed bills seeking to restrict the actions of transgender people or regulate issues related to them?

We are living in a time of rising authoritarianism, in the U.S. and globally. When organized white nationalist and fascist groups converge on Pride events with weapons and threats – as in Dallas and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, this summer – it is an overt, violent reminder that authoritarian systems operate in part through strict gender and sexual norms. Those norms are inextricable from white supremacist ideologies of racial purity. Because queer and trans people disrupt norms like the heterosexual nuclear family and the binary gender system, we represent a threat to authoritarian control.

Other factors may further explain the specific focus on trans people. First, with increased visibility comes increased scrutiny and targeting. Second, the surge of anti-trans bathroom bills began shortly after federal recognition of same-sex marriage, which suggests that as non-trans lesbian, gay and bisexual people gained broader support, opponents pivoted to attack trans people specifically. Additionally, during its focus on marriage and military rights, the mainstream gay movement largely refused to prioritize trans communities, leaving them more susceptible to attack. Finally, there is a massive amount of misinformation and disinformation being weaponized against trans people.

In 2016, North Carolina passed a since-repealed bill that prevented transgender people from using public bathrooms aligned with their gender identity. Many of the proposed bills today are aimed at children. Why the emphasis on actions that affect children?

As a class, children have far fewer rights than adults and limited avenues for self-advocacy, which makes them convenient rhetorical tools. There is a long history in the U.S. of using children’s vulnerability – especially white children – to justify government overreach and increased criminalization. We can see this across many different sexual and moral panics, in arguments for enforcing racial segregation, in the bathroom bills, etc. Of course, children do often need protection. It’s important to pay attention to which children are depicted as innocent and worthy of protection. We have repeatedly seen that depiction denied to Black youth killed by police, for instance. In anti-trans legislation, trans youth are cast as threats to other youth or as under threat from their own trans identity.

Those seeking the outright elimination of trans people also target trans youth with the belief that they can rid young people of their trans identities and thus eventually eradicate the trans population altogether. This is not, of course, how trans identity works. But it means we should not imagine that bills focused on youth will stop there. This April, the Florida Department of Health advised state health care professionals against facilitating both medical and social transition for youth, despite access to transition being the widely accepted standard of care. In June, the agency overseeing Florida’s Medicaid program signaled it would block Medicaid coverage of gender-affirming health care for trans people of all ages.

How do you expect these bills to affect transgender youth?

We have already seen evidence of trans youth experiencing increased harassment, abuse and suicidal ideation. Legislation that criminalizes trans youth and their families and health care providers dovetails with our criminal legal system’s targeting of people of color, immigrants and poor people. Some families have uprooted their lives to move to states offering better protections. But many people don’t want to leave their home state, and many don’t have the means to do so.

Even when these bills fail to become law, they still cause harm. For example, the introduction of severely restrictive anti-trans legislation can make other anti-trans bills appear more acceptable by contrast. We’ve seen a similar process with anti-abortion legislation: The possibility of a six-week ban can make a 12-week ban look like a reasonable compromise, when in reality these “compromises” are still attacks on bodily autonomy and self-determination.

Additionally, we should not underestimate the extreme stress and trauma of having one’s very existence repeatedly debated and threatened, even if some threats are eventually vetoed. I want to emphasize, though, that trans youth are not simply passive or voiceless. I am inspired by their courage, their creativity and their determination to fight for each other. It is our responsibility to listen to them and fight alongside them.

What does this say about LGBTQ rights in the U.S. today?

For those that need it, this is a reminder that we cannot simply rely on courts and legislation – particularly under severe voter suppression and gerrymandering – but must build strong networks of solidarity to protect each other. This means paying attention to how attacks on trans people are intertwined with attacks on abortion and reproductive autonomy, Medicaid and anti-poverty measures, public education and racial justice. And it means recognizing that these bills are not solely about trans people, but part of a broader authoritarian agenda.

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