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A protester holds up a sign that reads, “Let kids be kids.”
Minnesotans held a rally in St. Paul in support of trans rights on March 6, in response to anti-trans measures in Texas and other states.
Michael Siluk/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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The time to panic about anti-trans legislation is now

Finding the language to describe the legislative assault on trans people is tricky. Pushing back against it shouldn’t be.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In recent weeks, as Republican politicians in several states have introduced increasingly draconian measures designed to crack down on the lives and well-being of trans teenagers, my trans friends and I started asking questions: What do we have to do to get people to pay more attention to this? What language can we use to make clear the severity of what is happening?

Let me try to offer you a window into why we’re as terrified as we are and why we want, so badly, to find the words to convince you to take these laws as seriously as they deserve to be taken.

While by far the most common laws passed or introduced this legislative session have been aimed at cutting down on trans teens’ participation in high school sports, several states have gone even further, considering measures that would make providing trans-affirming health care to minors illegal. A bill in Idaho, currently being considered by the state Senate after being passed out of the House, perhaps goes furthest in this regard. That bill would make providing medical care to trans youths a felony, punishable with up to life in prison. It would also effectively trap families of trans children in Idaho by forbidding them to travel elsewhere for treatment.

In the move that has garnered the most media attention, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed that state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to open child abuse investigations into parents who pursue gender-affirming health care for their trans children. A judge issued an injunction against the directive being carried out, but a tweet from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton suggested that the state will ignore the injunction and continue investigations into families of trans children.

To me, a trans woman whose gender was harshly policed for almost all of her childhood, the definition of parents affirming their trans kids as “abuse” is positively Orwellian — a literal manifestation of “war is peace.” The idea that children simply living their lives as themselves would be taken from families who loved and supported them and tossed into the foster care system (a potential outcome of the Texas measure) is a nightmare, and it’s being sold under the guise of protecting children.

These measures are seriously misguided, and they do nothing to protect trans children. They are all built atop the cis-sexist idea that transness is a harmful aberration at best and an outright fabrication at worst, and they aim not to help children but to suppress their basic selves. I issued this argument at much greater length last year, during what was then the worst legislative year for anti-trans bills. This new year has already surpassed it. 2023 will surely surpass 2022. In that article, I wrote:

There is a reason every major American medical body recommends giving trans children the chance to transition. (Here’s an article from the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics making this argument 11 years ago.) Children first transition socially — with changes to their clothing, haircut, and name. Then, with a physician’s guidance, they can block the onset of puberty in early adolescence, and finally start hormone treatment in later adolescence.

This method works. We have records of trans children receiving hormone treatment as long ago as the 1930s. With this approach, trans kids can largely live lives that are indistinguishable from those of cis kids. (If you don’t believe me, consider the surprisingly large number of famous trans women who transitioned as kids, like Nicole Maines, Kim Petras, and Hunter Schafer.)

The numbers are stark and horrifying, and they should be looked right in the eye. The prevalence of attempted suicide among trans and gender-nonconforming people is believed to be roughly 40 percent, compared to about 5 percent for the general population. A 2018 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that more than half of trans teen boys, nearly a third of trans teen girls, and 40 percent of nonbinary teens have attempted suicide. There is limited data on trans people who die by suicide, but a seriously elevated risk of suicide attempts generally correlates with an elevated risk of death. There is so much we don’t know, and will never know.

It’s worth repeating some other basic facts: Affirming trans children’s genders reduces their risk of attempting suicide; the use of puberty blockers in trans kids is safe; children are having bottom surgery only in exceptionally rare cases; and almost every element of trans health care we have was originally developed for cisgender people. (Cis children with precocious puberty have been using blockers for decades!)

I hopefully do not need to convince my cisgender allies of the asinine nature of these legal measures.

But how do I convince people of the severity of this problem, of the idea that what is happening is an assault on the civil rights not just of Americans but of literal children? How do I make everyone care as much about this issue as the anti-trans forces who wish to so casually destroy us? What language can I use?

A mass murder, abstracted

In nearly every trans person I know, the ongoing legal assault against trans people alongside the low-level background radiation that is TERF rage on social media (as well as the ongoing train wreck of cis lawmakers asking way-too-invasive questions of trans kids) have contributed to a mild, building panic. My friends who are the parents of trans children are struggling even more – their very real desire to help their children could land them in prison. These proposed measures aren’t just needlessly invasive, inserting government interference into private medical care decisions made by families. They’re dangerous, creating conditions that make trans children much more likely to die by suicide.

Even Spencer Cox, the Republican governor of Utah, in vetoing that state’s bill banning trans kids from participating in high school sports, pointed to alarming statistics on high reported rates of suicidal behavior as a reason not to sign the bill. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do,” he wrote of trans children, in a letter to the state legislature. “But I want them to live.”

This is why, in conversations with friends, the word “genocide” keeps coming up. We don’t use that term metaphorically, either. This movement is a direct assault on our lives. If these measures are carried out, a lot of trans people will needlessly die.

Still, if I use the word “genocide” in, say, the headline of this article, I know almost every cis person who reads this will blanch, at least a little bit, then quibble with the word choice. I would agree, to some degree. The United Nations defines genocide as happening to “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” which does not describe trans people, necessarily. But the UN’s definition also says genocide may involve “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; … [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” I would argue all of these proposed laws would have some or all of the above effects.

LGBTQ rights supporters gather at the Texas Capitol to protest Republican-led efforts to pass trans exclusion legislation on September 20, 2021.
Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

My friend Lily Osler, a trans woman who spent much of her childhood in Waco, Texas, described the pain of this kind of life in an op-ed about Texas’s recent anti-trans measures in the Waco Tribune-Herald better than I possibly could. She writes:

That whole time, everyone perceived me as a boy. I knew I was a girl — it’s my earliest and strongest memory — but I didn’t have the language to describe myself, and I learned quickly that it was a very bad idea to try and tell anyone. It was absolutely miserable. It left me without a childhood as myself or a body that is completely my own. While I’m lucky enough to still be here today, I would never, ever wish what I went through on anyone.

This hollow longing, this sense that nothing is quite right and nothing will fix it, is something that comes up in so many conversations I have with trans people who transitioned as adults. Often, they made efforts to get the world to see them as they were in childhood and were brutally rebuked. Those who survive to adulthood too often turn themselves off to some degree. (A friend compares this to a spaceship in a sci-fi movie, gradually losing power to different sectors, life support critical.) And too many don’t survive.

If these laws go into effect, many in the trans community believe they will enable a mass murder — and, yes, that is what it will be — that no one will ever be able to count or quantify. These measures will create deaths that look like individual tragedies (which they will be) but never be understood as part of a massacre created by uncaring, even evil laws (which they will also be).

Again, how do you talk about that? “Well, this will be a mass murder, but it won’t look like one” is true, I think, but it feels insufficient to describe what’s going on. That indirectness blunts the impact just a little bit. The stakes are high, but it’s too easy to miss them entirely.

These measures aim to make trans identities impossible to conceive of. They’ll fail, but the pain will be real.

The bitter pill to swallow about trying to find the right language to use to best convey trans people’s panic over these measures is that, to a real degree, our language is being policed too. Florida’s now-infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for instance, aims to curb discussion of LGBTQ people in schools and is written with such a broad brush that it’s easy to believe it will have a chilling effect on talking about LGBTQ people in educational contexts at all.

And though the bill odiously resurrects the horrific myth of queer people “grooming” minors in order to corrupt them, its supporters have focused on trans people specifically. In its efforts to promote the bill (which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to sign), the governor’s office has put “transgenderism” front and center.

Combine laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill with measures designed to crack down on the lives and well-being of trans kids, and you create an environment where trans kids suffer, their parents risk imprisonment, and would-be allies either remain silent or exit their positions altogether.

As a singular example of this potential spiral, Randa Mulanax, a Texas CPS employee who testified in the court arguments that led to the initial injunction against Abbott’s order, said she was leaving her position at the end of March after disagreeing with the new policies. In particular, Mulanax spoke out against what she said was a statewide directive to prioritize cases involving trans kids. She said CPS can no longer denote cases involving trans kids “priority none,” which means CPS dismisses them as cases where no abuse has happened. Instead, they must be investigated, a condition that only otherwise exists in cases where a child dies. This post by a Texas mother under investigation by CPS for affirming her trans kid is wrenching to read, a clear example of what sounds like government overreach. And yet it may well become the order of the day in Texas.

“I’ve always felt at the end of the day, the department has children’s best interest at heart. I no longer feel that way with this order,” Mulanax said, according to the Washington Post’s Casey Parks. Her stand is admirable; it is not hard to imagine her position being filled by someone who would be all too happy to carry out Abbott’s rules in the event they are upheld by a higher court.

The goal isn’t just to punish trans kids seemingly for existing but to limit the imaginations of everybody else. If schools aren’t allowed to use language that suggests trans people exist and if trans kids aren’t allowed to pursue treatment, then the hope of these lawmakers seems to be that by never allowing discussion of these ideas, boundaries are placed upon the imagination.

Trans kids will still figure out they’re trans — I did, and I didn’t have the word “trans” — but they’ll have to wade through an artificial minefield to get there. Kids who are just questioning their gender, questioning that might even end up in them realizing they’re cis, will inevitably feel frightened by the contents of their own brains. It’s a clumsy attempt to shove a genie back in a bottle. It won’t work, but the cost will be immense.

Many lawmakers who support these measures argue that they’re saving the lives of children, but not any children who exist. Instead, the argument goes, by not allowing kids to pursue medical transition, those kids might ... someday have kids of their own.

“I see this conversation as an extension of the pro-life argument. ... We are not talking about the life of the child, but we are talking about the potential to give life to another generation. So in that sense, there is a nexus on this issue. I don’t see it as a contradiction,” Idaho state Rep. Julianne Young said in floor arguments, according to the Idaho Press. (Later, Bruce Skaug, the representative who introduced the bill, said, “The ability to procreate is a fundamental right that must be protected for these children.”)

These theoretical future children take precedence over actual kids who are alive. It’s the logical endpoint of a political and religious philosophy that prizes the imagined perfection of something not yet real over the messy humanity of those who already walk among us.

This argument uses the language of something many on the religious right care deeply about — eliminating the right to an abortion — and ties it, no matter how absurdly, to anti-trans measures, because both are about the terror many conservatives feel at the idea of anyone possessing some form of autonomy over their own body. You cannot legislate trans people out of existence. You can introduce laws that make it more likely we will die.

Like many others in the trans community, I’m angry and exhausted and terrified. Yet so often my conversations with even the staunchest cis allies I know get bogged down in the morass of explaining away the tiniest details of, say, trans medicine, or how kids know their gender from an incredibly early age, or assorted other topics. That’s all important information to convey, but we need to continue to move the conversation forward.

While we’re talking about minutiae, the lives of trans kids are under threat right now, all over America. A lot of people are going to die, while too many of us only worry about semantics.


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