Trans Girls Are the Real Target of Anti-Trans Bills

A growing number of states, including Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, North Dakota, Texas, and Utah are considering—and sometimes passing—anti-trans legislation targeting youth, primarily in the form of sports bans and restrictions on access to gender-affirming healthcare. This most recent wave of anti-trans legislation has attracted considerable attention, with the issue spilling over into the halls of Congress; one conservative representative even referred to gender dysphoria as a “psychiatric condition that will resolve with time” in a bigotry-laced floor speech. Despite the ongoing conversation, there’s one thorny element that remains largely unspoken: These laws primarily and sometimes explicitly attack trans girls, though they also harm other trans youth.

Alabama’s recently signed bill on transgender athletes; Louisiana’s Vulnerable Child Protection Act, currently in committee; Texas labeling supportive parents as child abusers; and similar legislation poses grave danger for all trans youth by barring trans kids from competing on sports teams that match their genders and cutting off gender-affirming care for trans minors. In the process, these bills portray transness itself as a monstrosity from which “children” must be protected. Trans people of all ages are harmed as these bills normalize dehumanizing attitudes about the trans community, but we must not overlook that trans girls in particular are in the crosshairs. Some of the bills, by design, explicitly target women and girls’ sports and trans girls—a particular danger for Black and Brown girls who deal with not only transmisogyny, but with racialized misogyny, which can combine in ugly ways with transphobia, as for example when cis and trans Black girls’ bodies are policed.

While it’s critical to protect trans lives of all ages, it’s disingenuous to purport that all trans experiences are created equal. Trans women and girls, along with femme trans people who were mistakenly assigned male at birth, are subject to a uniquely intensified hatred thanks to their hypervisibility, with the most virulent anti-trans rhetoric reserved for them. Social attitudes about gender and sexuality pressure trans women to “pass” and punish them when they cannot; there’s a reason derisive comments about “men in dresses” are so common, evoking both the subject’s failure to appear to be sufficiently feminine and the ever-present threat of her imagined penis, turning her into a cartoonish female impersonator. From Lile Elbe to Laverne Cox, the lurid fascination with trans women comes with increased scrutiny that often has lethal consequences: Of the at least 44 trans people murdered in the United States in 2020, most were Black and Latina women. Trans men and others across (and off) the gender spectrum also experience transphobia, which can take unique and complex forms, but the lawmakers proposing genital checks for student athletes and trying to criminalize medical providers are thinking specifically about trans girls—and consequently, so should we.

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The cultural attitudes behind that hatred have numerous interconnected roots, including extensive right-wing and Christianist rhetoric, but one of the most pernicious and active at the moment is the rise of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), who gained a foothold in Britain in the 2000s and have successfully crossed the pond. Anti-trans users on the online parenting forum Mumsnet, an infamous breeding ground for TERFery, focus almost exclusively on trans women and the existential threat they pose. A broad societal acceptance of the trans community, they argue, puts “real women” in danger, whether in restrooms or high-school sports. (In a previous wave of anti-trans sentiment, also driven by TERFs, trans people were targeted with so-called “bathroom bills.”) They also devote time to suggesting that trans boys are simply girls experiencing internalized misogyny or confusion. TERFs (who reject the term “trans-exclusionary,” instead calling themselves “gender critical”) have also advanced the myth of “Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria,” which claims that a “social contagion” is increasingly driving children and their parents toward life-altering medical interventions like hormones and hormone blockers.

If threads of these arguments sound familiar, it’s because TERFs have long since escaped the message-board ecosystem and found their way into mass media—and, inevitably, into the propaganda of conservative organizations that have seized on the trans community as their next moral target. And as is often the case with ideological state-level legislation, the fact that the wording of such  bills resemble one another isn’t a coincidence: They’re likely being driven by Promise to America’s Children, a right-wing hate coalition with an all-star cast that includes the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation. And mainstream media has helped usher in this moment by actively cultivating a trans “debate” where there shouldn’t be one: People’s lives shouldn’t be the subject of intellectualized “what about” games. Both The Guardian and The Telegraph in the United Kingdom have hosted notoriously abusive content, to the point that a group of U.S.-based Guardian journalists actually rebuked its parent publication. In the United States, publications like The Atlantic have aided and abetted the anti-trans cause, perhaps most notably in a heavily-criticized 2018 feature by Jesse Singal. Both-sides reporting on the issue crops up in most major newspapers, dehumanizing trans subjects under the guise of “letting readers decide.”

The idea that trans identities should be debated and legislated validates and normalizes the idea that transphobia should be entertained in the public discourse, while explicitly right-wing media has dived into the demonization of trans people with relish, with social media failing to keep pace with and moderate the lies. Commentators like Tucker Carlson are using transphobia to drum up ratings and push states and their governors on anti-trans legislation. And, as the recent outcry over transphobia at popular newsletter-subscription site Substack shows, these issues have become sensationalized staples not just of conventional corporate media, but of platforms positioned as the next iterations of media—ones in which writers lack editors, fact checkers, and other basic oversight, allowing them to spew whatever bile they please without consequence (including enforcement of terms of service). That’s troubling, given that TERF rhetoric and tactics were also cultivated on unmoderated blogs and bulletin boards that gained legitimacy as high-profile people started frequenting and validating them.

It’s important to pause and be open about which trans kids are most at risk, which are being targeted, and which face lifetimes of increased risk of harassment, abuse, and inequity.

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Mass media’s failure to cover these issues ethically and accurately is the predictable result of one simple problem: Most people currently reporting on these bills are not trans themselves, and are not familiar with the intimate nuances of reporting on the trans community. Marginalized journalists, including trans people, have historically been treated as though they can’t objectively report on their own community because they’re “too close” to the subject and unable to be objective. In fact, their specific and detailed knowledge is a tremendous reporting asset, and in this case might result in more thoughtful discussions of the bills that target trans girls and their implications. And even LGBTQ outlets with trans reporters often cover such bills as generically anti-trans, rather than taking time to focus the lens on how and why they target trans girls. That may reflect shortcomings in trans representation in journalism, with a growing number of nonbinary reporters and commentators and trans men working in the field, and relatively few publicly trans women; in all cases, white people are heavily overrepresented. There are likely a number of reasons for this, including the historic disadvantages faced by trans women and the racist structures at major media organizations.

Regardless, at a time when public sentiment is increasingly supportive of the trans community, many media outlets are still stuck in a previous era, one in which the voices of transphobes carry more weight than those of actual trans people. This isn’t uniform—the Times opinion section has explicitly named this wave of legislation as a threat to trans girls and women—but it is consistent. As Katelyn Burns notes in a recent piece for MSNBC, there’s another bycatch to anti-trans legislation targeting athletes and youth in need of healthcare: cis girls. This holds true for women as well, with insufficiently feminine cis women harassed in bathrooms and targeted for “gender verification” in sports. Notably, women with clinically high testosterone levels can be prohibited from competing, but men with high estrogen levels are not; testosterone is viewed as an unfair competitive advantage, though girls on blockers are suppressing it. There’s no evidence that being trans and on blockers or hormones or having high natural testosterone confers an advantage. No man is going through the costly, extensive, time-consuming, and life-altering process of transition to win the 100-meter dash at Podunk High School (Go Lions!).

While reporting on this issue shouldn’t have to appeal to cis people by making them aware that they themselves are also at risk, it’s important to address the fact that transphobic panic exacerbates an existing tendency to police femininity. This, too, has significant racial implications, as it is often women of color, particularly Black women and girls, who get labeled “masculine” and challenged in these environments, whether they’re cis or trans. Clearly, anti-trans legislation is bad for all trans people. Trans youth are uniquely vulnerable because the current crop of legislation targets them at a time when more trans kids than ever are coming out, and more broadly because of social attitudes about young people. In fighting these bills, it’s critical to treat them as hazardous to every trans kid, including those who are not out yet. But it’s also important to pause and be open about which trans kids are most at risk, which are being targeted, and which face lifetimes of increased risk of harassment, abuse, and inequity if they grow up.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.