Trans bodies in politics
A chaotic mess of transphobia, misinformation, and scapegoating
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According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 2021 has already become a record year for anti-trans legislation, with at least 80 bills introduced across the country.
With the recent surge of politicians once again arguing over what to do with trans people’s lives, we thought it’d be a good idea to go back and address some of the misinformation that has constantly come up and still perpetuates popular opinion at some level.
Gender identity politics involve a lot of nuance, but the way they are handled in mainstream media and the political arena continues to cause a lot of real psychological (and sometimes physical) harm to trans people.
Here, we review and rebut some common talking points that come up during discussions of anti-trans legislation. We hope to address the harmful rhetoric used to criminalize trans bodies, and help clarify the effects it can have not only on trans people, but also on the groups anti-trans bills claim to protect.
I’ve heard it can be dangerous to let trans women into public women’s spaces because predators could take advantage of this label. I just want to keep men out of women’s spaces. What’s wrong with that?
This bad-faith argument was commonly thrown around when the topic of bathroom bills first garnered national attention in 2016. They consisted of legislation aimed at barring trans people from accessing bathrooms (and other gendered public spaces, like locker rooms).
North Carolina passed such a bill in March 2016. The resulting backlash, media craze, and proponents for the law brought that decision to the nation’s attention.
Many supporters of the legislation claimed bathroom bills protected women and girls in gendered spaces, such as bathrooms. People espousing this rhetoric posited that predators could pose as a woman to prey upon women in these spaces.
This rhetoric is dangerous. By claiming that trans women are men masquerading as women, proponents of this argument embolden those who seek to harm and dehumanize trans people. Furthermore, the scenarios that many fearmongers concoct to rationalize such arguments are contrived. Trans people just want to use spaces in peace, like our cis counterparts.
When it comes to “protecting women,” bathroom bills do nothing. The systemic issues that actually impact the safety of women and gender minorities don’t have anything to do with trans people using the bathroom.
Criminalizing trans people via legislation only endangers them further. Trans women, especially trans women of color, number among the most vulnerable population in our society. The HRC reported that 2020 was the most deadly year for trans and gender nonconforming people. The vast majority of those taken from us were Black or Latine trans women. Unfortunately, 2021 looks like it is trying to keep pace with its predecessor. We have already lost 11 lives to violence.
Trans youth — who already face high rates of homelessness, violence, and poor mental health — stand to suffer greatly from bathroom bills. The bills legalize barring them from the gendered spaces where they may feel most safe and comfortable. Even without the passing and enforcement of such legislation, the discrimination many trans youth face daily takes a significant toll on their wellbeing. According to a 2019 report by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network), LGBTQ+ youth who experienced in-school discrimination “had lower GPAs than other students, were nearly three times as likely to have missed school in the past month because they felt unsafe, [and] had lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression.”
A personal side note from Nathan: I particularly remember how heated things were becoming politically because these issues arose around the time I came out. Considering I was still years away from medically transitioning, I was constantly terrified of being attacked (verbally or physically) for wanting to use the men’s bathroom. I will admit that I sometimes used the women’s bathroom during my freshman year due to a combination of heightened gender dysphoria and social anxiety around using the men’s bathroom as someone who was coded more femininely at the time. For the record, doing that sucked a lot, even if it felt right for my personal safety.
I know the medical transition process for trans folks can involve hormones and surgery, but that seems too drastic and unsafe for children. I wouldn’t want my doctor recommending surgery for my 12-year-old. Can children even know that they are trans?
Children begin gaining a sense of their own gender identity when they are three years old. From there, they go on to develop a more concrete sense of gender and the gender roles and stereotypes that exist in their environment. Allowing all children and young people to explore this aspect of their identity freely is important to their healthy development.
Misinformation about transgender healthcare has resulted in a number of people claiming doctors and medical professionals will encourage children to make irreversible changes to their bodies that they will later regret. A number of states are currently considering legislation that criminalizes doctors who provide gender-affirming care for trans kids. This kind of medical support can be crucial to the well-being of trans children who, as mentioned before, are already vulnerable to all kinds of stressors.
For children, medical transition typically involves taking pubertal blockers to “pause puberty.” This gives trans children more time to explore their gender identity and expression, with the added bonus that they don’t have to worry about their body developing in a way that could be anxiety-inducing.
Gender-affirming surgery and hormone replacement therapy are considered later, when a person is at an age to make independent, informed decisions about their health. It’s also important to note that not all trans people want or feel a need to medically transition — the process is different for every person.
So what is the deal with all the trans kids and sports talk right now? Is it not true that trans girls could have a biological advantage that would make it unfair for the cis girls they’re playing with or competing against?
Over the past several weeks, several states have proposed legislation intended to segregate sports on the basis of one’s sex. In some states, the bills go so far as to criminalize trans people who attempt to participate on a sports team consistent with their gender identity.
These provisions mean that a trans girl could be charged with a misdemeanor simply for trying to participate in her local girls’ soccer team. As with the bathroom bills, proponents of these bills take the stance of wanting to “protect” women and girls. They also claim that these bills would ensure that womens’ sports remain “fair.” These people assert that trans women have a biological advantage via “testosterone.” To maintain a sex-based divide in athletics, they call for genital exams, genotyping tests, and testosterone checks.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, the checks proposed in these bills are gross invasions of privacy, especially for minors. Such assessments also enforce dangerous stereotypes of what it means to be a woman. Anyone suspected of being “too manly” or “too strong,” whether they are cis or trans, can be traumatized by these tests. Not only are these legislative pushes transphobic, they are also misogynistic in that they uphold outdated gender stereotypes.
The so-called “biological advantage” argument that many cling to in support of these laws doesn’t hold water. It becomes moot when considering children, since trans girls seeking to participate in sport at this age have yet to undergo a testosterone-driven puberty that could grant them a growth spurt and ability to build muscle more efficiently. At more elite levels of sport, there are already trans-inclusive policies that clearly outline trans athletic participation (see the International Olympic Committee’s guidelines and the NCAA policies).
In any case, the very idea of “biological advantage” feels contrived when you consider the fact that cis athletes are encouraged to leverage their biological advantages. Tall cis women are often encouraged to play basketball and are commended on their success when they perform well. Tall trans women, on the other hand, are not likely to receive the same encouragement or compliments. Furthermore, hard work and dedication are key to developing athletic skill. Acting as if hormones and propensity for muscle mass are the only factors to athletic success invalidates the effort all athletes put into their sport.
As you may have noticed, the majority of the legislative actions discussed discriminate against trans youth, who are a particularly vulnerable demographic. Trans men, on the other hand, are often notably absent from conversations around anti-trans legislation.
Where do trans men fit into the equation, and why are trans women always the primary target of these bills? The answer lies at the intersection of transphobia, misogyny, and sexism, and it would take at least another article to provide a more nuanced explanation.
These kinds of bills may seem limited in scope at first glance, but they serve as a potential foot in the door for bigots to establish more severe and sweeping limits on trans people’s agency and freedom. This possibility is particularly frightening and contributes to the stress that trans people face daily.
When our claim to humanity is scrutinized and attacked for all the world to see, it wears us down. Trans people have to continually fight for the basic right to be ourselves. In doing so, we face discrimination that often stems from misinformation. To better support trans people in and outside of your own communities, we urge cis people to listen to and approach their peers with empathy. Please keep in mind that trans people you know are not there to educate you about their experience. Taking measures to educate yourself is essential when it comes to advocating for marginalized voices around you.
If you’d like to share related stories from other parts of the globe (as two Asian American trans people, our scope is unfortunately rather limited), feel free to start a conversation in the comments or email your idea for a guest post to firstname.lastname@example.org! For a list of references used and resources for further reading, please visit this link.