This past spring, Carmarion D. Anderson-Harvey, a Black trans woman who is Alabama state director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), faced, with her activist colleagues, a political double assault: Advancing through Alabama’s overwhelmingly Republican legislature were not one but two anti-transgender bills: one to criminalize gender-affirming medical treatment for trans young people, the other to ban trans students from playing on school sports teams consistent with their gender identity.
The bills came during a legislative season when copycat bills were being pushed in about 30 states—making 2021 a record year for anti-trans bills—and they posed a dilemma for Anderson-Harvey and her colleagues: Which one to push back against harder? The one that could criminalize doctors for giving young people gender-affirming treatment like puberty blockers, which forestall puberty for young people who identity as transgender and, studies have shown, may prevent them from committing or attempting suicide? Or the one that would put a statewide ban on transgender girls playing on girls’ sports teams—supported by those who say that players assigned male at birth have an unfair advantage when on such teams, but also backed up by only a small handful of actual examples nationwide?
Ultimately, said Anderson-Harvey, though she and colleagues opposed both bills, she decided to throw HRC’s weight behind fighting the health care bill. On March 30, on state Capitol grounds, she led a rally in which trans young people and their parents spoke up about how denying them health care could actually cost lives. After that, she said, enough lawmakers “decided that this was becoming too controversial and said they didn’t want to see this bill coming up for a vote.” The bill died in the legislature—while the sports ban bill sailed through both chambers and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey.
The choice of which bill to push back on harder was strategic. “Health care has an immediate impact, and [lack of gender-affirming health care] can increase suicide,” Anderson-Harvey said. “And we were able to change conservative minds on that bill because we humanized it, showing how legislatures were inserting themselves into family and medical decisions, and showing how puberty blockers worked.”
But pushing back against the sports ban bill was a heavier lift, she said, because Alabama is a poor state where a lot of people rely on sports scholarships to go to college—and it was hard to fight the perception that transgender girls would be given an unfair advantage on teams.
“Even though I could not find one trans student athlete in the state,” Anderson-Harvey said. “Those kids aren’t trying to play on teams, because they don’t want to add to the anxiety and discrimination that they already face.” Additionally, she noted, puberty blockers prevent the masculinizing effects of puberty on transgender girls.
Ultimately, she said, not fighting back as hard on the sports bill was “the bone we threw to [conservative] lawmakers. It’s not going to go into immediate effect. And when it does, we can litigate against it or work behind the scenes to get the bill reversed.” The priority was killing the health care bill. “I didn’t want one of my trans youth to die over that,” Anderson-Harvey added.
Charting a Strategic Pathway
Exactly how Anderson-Harvey decided to approach both bills points to the tremendous amount of strategizing that trans folks and their allies have had to put into fighting back an unprecedented onslaught of anti-trans bills this year. As of early May, nine anti-trans bills—among 15 more broadly anti-LGBTQ bills—have passed in about six (all heavily Republican) states. Most are school sports bans, but Arkansas has passed a health care ban—which may well run afoul of the Affordable Care Act, which bans anti-LGBTQ discrimination. And Tennessee has passed a bill requiring public bathrooms to post whether they allow transgender people to use the facilities.
LGBTQ advocates have called the Tennessee law particularly cruel because it sets up trans people (or even trans-“looking” people) for harassment and violence in public restrooms—anxious settings for trans folks even when the general public is not encouraged to sniff them out. So far, Tennessee has not faced the national outrage and business boycotts that caused North Carolina, which passed a similar bill in 2015, to somewhat reverse its policy.
Most of the anti-trans bills—some 120 in all, many already defeated—have been sparked not by state or local entities but by national, well-funded anti-LGBTQ groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Alliance Defending Freedom. They also come at a time when the Republican party is divided between pro- and anti-Trump factions and hence perhaps hungrier than ever to stoke anger (and votes) around cultural wedge issues.
Beating back such bills has become a full-time job for national and statewide trans advocates and their allies. “It’s a staggering number of attacks we’ve been facing, specifically from bills that target trans youth,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the deputy executive director for Policy and Action at the National Center for Transgender Equality. After sports bans and health care bans, he said, bathroom-related bills like Tennessee’s and those that would block trans folks from correcting the gender on their birth certificates make up the rest.
The youth-directed bills reflect “a very deliberate strategy by the anti-LGBTQ opposition to undermine support for all LGBTQ rights,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “They’ve done messaging research and polling and found that making non-LGBTQ people uncomfortable with transgender youth” is an effective strategy. He pointed to Project Blitz, a coordinated effort among such groups to introduce nearly identical anti-trans bills in multiple states.
Telling Personal Stories Works
According to Heng-Lehtinen and other advocates, personal testimony from trans folks—and those closest to them, such as parents, health providers, counselors, and coaches—must be at the heart of strategies to push back such bills. And states that already have an LGBTQ rights organization are often better equipped to marshal such testimony quickly.
“There’s a stereotype that trans people live ‘over there,’ in New York and San Francisco, but not in states where these bills are being pushed,” said Heng-Lehtinen. “It’s very effective when trans people, and their friends and family, who live in those states talk to their legislators and say, ‘I’m your neighbor.’”
But he added that the first round of talks or testimony may not be enough. “It may take time to break through to them,” he said. “With bills introduced in so many states this year, it was probably the first time many legislators encountered trans people. Hopefully in a few more years, they’ll have learned more.”
But the often crucial work of telling one’s personal story can take a toll on trans young people—who are, after all, just trying to have a normal childhood of schooling and sports, like anyone else.
“They have to go perform trauma porn for legislators, beg to be seen, and have their existence affirmed by legislators who can give them life or death outcomes,” said Debi Jackson in Kansas City, Missouri, a founding member of HRC’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council and the mother of Avery, a 14-year-old trans girl. “It’s disgusting that we have to go show our fear, anger, and sadness over and over again. We’ve been going to Kansas and Missouri state capitols for five years now [to fight back] on bathroom bills, and now it’s medical care and sports. My daughter just said that she’s tired and doesn’t want to do it again.”
This year, she said, “A whole new crop of kids came forward.” Alongside their parents and medical experts, they managed to kill Missouri’s bills—at least for this legislative session.
But, Jackson added, trans young people can also find the work of self-advocacy at an early age exciting, sparking many of them to plan careers in activism. Meanwhile, she says, “You have to show them love and make sure you’ll do whatever it takes to protect them. It helps when they connect with trans big sisters and brothers, people who can say, ‘I got through my childhood, and we’re gonna get you through, too.’”
Broad Coalitions Are Essential
Also key to fighting such bills is assembling the widest possible coalitions of medical experts and organizations, parent and educator groups, and statewide businesses to help dispel myths about trans people, such as that trans minors are receiving gender-reassignment surgery—usually the only medical intervention before the age of 18 is puberty blockers—or that young trans athletes have a competitive advantage.
“Then you can amplify the importance of taking action against these bills,” said Alphonso David, HRC president, “to show that they’re fueled by fear and misinformation, in search of problems that don’t exist.” Some staunchly anti-LGBTQ legislators will not be swayed, he said, “but others, once they have the accurate information, understand that they can’t sign on.”
Another important strategy that may not only beat back but, over time, actually prevent bad bills, said Anderson-Harvey, is to stay in the game over several years. “You have to build relationships with both Democrats and Republicans, continue to show up and be counted,” she said—even when lawmakers vote the party line against you. “I’m not here to call people out, but to say, ‘How can we continue this dialogue? What else do you need from me for you to understand us?’”
She’s echoed by Rebecca Marques, HRC director in Texas, whose Senate as of late May was considering a trans sports ban bill that is a pet project of the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick. Ideally, she said, “there needs to be a very strong trans-led organization on the ground,” such as her state’s Transgender Education Network of Texas—whose budget, she said, just hit $1 million.
“That’s been a changemaker,” Marques said. “You need to center trans voices and make sure they’re at the table in a meaningful way.”
All strategies are necessary, say advocates, because such bills are likely not going away anytime soon. “They’re going to keep pushing and refining them,” said Jackson. “The public might think that 40 years in prison for providers who treat trans kids is too much—but that 10 years in prison with loss of license, plus investigating the parents, is OK.” Anti-LGBTQ forces, she said, “are testing to see what the public is willing to say is acceptable.”
More national celebrities and public figures, both trans ones and their allies, need to keep speaking out against such bills, Jackson said. “I’ve spoken to so many parents who had no idea what was going on because it wasn’t covered by local or national news. It was parents of LGBTQ kids going into support groups and saying, ‘My 15-year-old just said they want to make this or that illegal ... is this true?’ We need more celebrity parents with trans kids to come out and be active. They could really make a difference.”