By Emily Starbuck Gerson
"People are going to die.”
That, put simply, will be the consequence of the historic, nationwide surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation, says Mary Wilson, a retired Christian pastor in Austin, Texas. As an out lesbian who advocates for LGBTQ youth, she testified against her own state’s recent efforts to restrict their rights.
Every year, some states inevitably propose or pass anti-LGBTQ legislation. Just a few months into 2021, 17 anti-LGBTQ bills have been enacted in state legislatures, the most since 2015, with a dozen more awaiting a governor’s signature or veto, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Hundreds more bills have been introduced and are under consideration, running the gamut from banning transgender student athletes from competing to permitting religious refusal of medical treatment for LGBTQ people.
But a huge number of these laws – and arguably the most damaging – seek to prohibit and/or criminalize gender-affirming health care for youth. Transgender, nonbinary and intersex youth make up a small fraction of the population, and receiving gender-affirming care is not just beneficial, but often life-saving for them from a psychological standpoint.
So why are conservative lawmakers, who notoriously fight for individual freedom and liberty, making it their business to regulate private health care decisions of this tiny, already marginalized community? Here’s how and why the Religious Right has targeted LGBTQ children in their latest culture wars issue.
Despite marriage equality becoming the law of the land in 2015, the Trump administration constantly rolled back LGBTQ rights. Then, a few months ago, after President Joe Biden was sworn in and the toxic dust of the prior administration began to settle, it seemed as though the LGBTQ community was making strides again. Trump was out, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act (again), and Biden swiftly ended Trump’s ban on transgender military service.
The public was mostly in favor of this progress, too. Numerous surveys, including a recent one by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that the majority of Americans – even Republicans and evangelicals – support LGBTQ rights.
Yet conservative political and religious groups refused to relent on their moral crusade against the LGBTQ community. Over the last few months, they’ve delivered an onslaught of copycat bills in Republican state legislatures that aim to roll back rights.
Their first major win was in April, when the Arkansas legislature overrode Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto to pass a law banning transgender minors from obtaining gender-affirming care (this includes puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery). The Republican governor’s opposition wasn’t because he cared about trans kids – Hutchinson signed the state’s anti-trans sports bill into law – but because he felt regulating health care decisions reeked of government overreach.
The Texas legislature is currently trying to pass similar bills that not only ban youth from this health care but label supportive parents as child abusers and punish doctors who provide this care. Alabama, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and numerous other states have moved forward with similar bills in quick succession, many with near-identical language.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, this is no coincidence. It’s an effort led by the usual group of anti-LGBTQ organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom and Eagle Forum, and perhaps some so-called conservative “bill mills.”
In addition to working in ministry, Wilson is very engaged in politics, and in 2018 she ran as a Democratic congressional candidate in Texas. (She lost in a runoff.) After getting involved in the current fight over LGBTQ rights in Texas, she’s noticed a pattern of these bills showing up in states with Republican-dominated legislative bodies.
“I think it’s a targeted, strategic initiative getting these passed where they believe they can get passed,” Wilson said.
Danielle Skidmore, another Austin resident and LGBTQ activist, sees the same trend. Skidmore, an out trans woman and engineer, previously ran for Austin City Council and currently serves on the board of Equality Texas, and she recently joined the board of Annie’s List. Just a few years ago, she was at the Texas Capitol testifying against the bathroom bill, begging lawmakers to allow her to use the restroom that aligned with her gender identity, a measure that failed twice.
This spring, she found herself there again, testifying against a handful of bills that target LGBTQ Texans, some of which specifically aim to punish transgender and intersex kids. She and other activists recall how it was uniquely heartbreaking to watch brave young children get on the stand and beg lawmakers for their rights.
“Let’s be clear, the attacks against transgender youth are part of a coordinated attempt by a small minority of zealots who are seeking to ostracize, stigmatize and ultimately eliminate transgender people from their world,” Skidmore says. “That’s what makes their focus so insidious; they are not protecting the children, but rather seeking to impose their view of a world order that is rooted in the patriarchy.”
The right-wing politicians and Christian nationalist groups leading the charge on these bills rationalize them with claims that simply aren’t true or are exceedingly rare. Legislators pushing bills banning transgender student athletes from competing have been asked in media interviews for real-life examples of problematic situations the bills solve. Many haven’t been able to come up with a single example.
Research shows that supportive interventions in trans and gender-nonconforming youth, such as therapy and puberty blockers, help ease gender dysphoria – the psychological suffering that comes from an incongruence between one’s physical body and their gender identity.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) is the body that sets widely accepted standards of care for gender-affirming health care. Its U.S.-based affiliate released a statement in March strongly opposing the wave of anti-transgender legislation.
“These bills are based on misinformation and would cause great harm to transgender young people,” the organization says. “The preponderance of scientific evidence indicates that gender-affirming health care can greatly help transgender people … these laws will prevent young people from receiving beneficial, often life-saving services that have strong evidence of success and are supported by mainstream healthcare professional associations.”
A number of major health, education and child welfare organizations also signed an open letter in March condemning these harmful measures. In a separate statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the organization’s president, Dr. Lee Savio Beers, wrote, “With alarm and dismay, pediatricians have watched bills advance through state legislatures across the country with the sole purpose of threatening the health and wellbeing of transgender youth.”
'Let’s be clear, the attacks against transgender youth are part of a coordinated attempt by a small minority of zealots who are seeking to ostracize, stigmatize and ultimately eliminate transgender people from their world,” Skidmore says. “That’s what makes their focus so insidious; they are not protecting the children, but rather seeking to impose their view of a world order that is rooted in the patriarchy.' -- Danielle Skidmore
At the recent Texas hearings, Skidmore observed as Republican lawmakers trotted out a witness – the same one individual they always use as an example – who claims to have detransitioned. They do this in hopes of proving that trans kids will later change their minds and have regrets. While there are rare instances of people who choose to pause their transition or “detransition,” Skidmore says, “The vast majority do so because the social, political or economic consequences of being openly transgender are untenable, and it breaks my heart.”
Lawmakers pushing the bills also made claims of youth easily accessing permanent hormones and surgeries, Skidmore says. In actuality, these are very rarely part of treatment for kids. When LGBTQ youth do receive medical intervention, it’s often in the form of puberty blockers, which are reversible, ease dysphoria and delay puberty. This approach gives the patient, their doctor and the family more time to decide on whether to eventually proceed with more permanent transition measures. Hormones are usually used only in older teens, and surgeries often aren’t even considered for minors.
Wilson, the retired pastor, is an out lesbian, and she recalls the devastation she felt when Texas overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment in 2005 banning same-sex marriage. She felt betrayed by her state, though she notes she was an adult, with resources to process the heartbreak and legally protect herself and her spouse.
“But when you’re a minor, or even under age of 25 based on what we know about cognitive development, you don’t have the same resources,” she observed. “We already know suicidality is higher among transgender people than cisgender people.
“As a minister, I’ve been with people who have gone through this with their transgender children,” Wilson continued. “You’re already trying to navigate a confusing social situation and trying to have an authentic life, and then you have these lawmakers saying you can’t be who you are, and we’re going to make a law against it. While the law may be about puberty blockers or restricting care until a certain age, it feels like they’re making a law against their very existence, and people are going to die if they can’t exist in that world.”
With no problem to solve, minimal public support and only harm done to LGBTQ kids, why are so many conservative lawmakers in the states fighting to push through these laws? The answer is complicated, and it seems to be a mix of political opportunism and religious fervor that has turned into a disproportionately sized culture war.
Wilson grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition and can see why Republican lawmakers who believe being LGBTQ is immoral feel compelled to confront the increasing visibility of trans people.
“There’s a sense of, if we don’t do something to right this immorality, then we’re sending our community to hell, and we’re allowing ourselves to be put in a position where God will destroy us,” she explained.
While some people view readings from religious texts as metaphorical interpretations, the Religious Right does not, Wilson says. “Part of it is this literalism that the Religious Right and conservative fundamentalists bring to reading the Biblical text,” she said. Fundamentalists, she noted, often believe their view isn’t just one possible interpretation, but the only correct one.
“When that religious train of thought sees a verse from Genesis saying God created male and female, they say that’s it, there are two genders,” Wilson said. “They don’t understand anything about fluidity or the spectrum or even choice involved in that. Their belief is this is the way it is, and if you’re not adhering to it, you’re leading someone astray.”
Wilson says many in the religious and political right operate with the paradigm of a heaven and hell eternity. Those who view being LGBTQ as an abomination believe enabling LGBTQ children is unacceptable.
“If you’re leading children astray so they’re spending eternity in hell, then you’re the worst of the worst, causing eternal harm to these children,” Wilson remarked. She chooses to prioritize the here and now and making the most of the life we’ve been given. But it’s harder to rationalize with those who believe children’s souls are at stake and who whip up that fear in their base.
Whether they really believe it or not, many conservatives backing these laws position them as an effort to protect children from liberal hedonism. After all, Arkansas’s enacted law is called The Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, and Alabama’s legislation is called the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act.
Christian nationalists seem to think these kids are simply hopping on a trend or going through a phase.
“The arguments presented by the supporters of legislation that would ban access to transgender-affirming health care for youth center on the idea that people are ‘too young’ to understand their gender until they are adults,” Skidmore said. “They argue that trans kids are subject to some sort of ‘gender confusion’ that’s the result of peer pressure.”
As a transgender woman, Skidmore says, she has to frequently remind herself that cisgender people may not realize she spent decades thinking about gender.
“What looks from the outside as a person ‘deciding’ one day to be transgender is far more complicated,” she explained. “What we decide is to stop fighting against what we know to be true and have known for many years, even back into our childhood. We decide to be authentic in spite of a world that sadly remains frequently hostile to transgender people.”
Talk to any trans person about their experience, Wilson says, and they will enlighten you about how they are internally very clear on who they are. Yet the Religious Right refuses to accept those identities and wants to codify its own values in opposition – even if those impacted don’t adhere to such beliefs. Wilson says some Republican politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), seem to be fighting for a theocracy rather than a democracy, which she views as very dangerous.
Then, of course, there’s politics of convenience, Wilson adds. These are lawmakers and talking heads who perhaps aren’t so concerned with heaven and hell, but they see how transphobia whips up fear and frenzy and are seizing on the moment to gain political capital. Just like how some politicians jumped on the bandwagon of opposing same-sex marriage because it was politically advantageous, Wilson remembers.
Pro-equality organizations like the ACLU and Lambda Legal are already challenging the current scourge of discriminatory bills, Wilson says, but she worries about how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and right-wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation have stacked the federal courts with conservative judges.
“I think they believe they’ll be able to win a Supreme Court challenge and then say it’s the law of the land,” she observed.
Skidmore says she’s become very cynical as she’s watched the Republican Party embrace transphobia, especially when it’s for political gain.
“As long as it polls well in primary campaigns, they will continue to attack us,” she said. “It’s not because they actually care one way or another about transgender people, but rather politicians’ desires to raise money and affirm their brand rooted in bigotry against anyone different from themselves.”
Regardless of the reason for it, whether religious, moral or purely political, much of the Religious Right sees victories against LGBTQ Americans as part of their conservative legislative and judicial legacy.
Recent political changes have altered the landscape at the federal level. The Biden administration has repeatedly denounced anti-LGBTQ bills, and during a recent address to Congress, Biden even specifically voiced his support for trans youth under attack by these oppressive laws.
The Biden administration is also working to roll back Trump-era policies that threatened the rights of LGBTQ people. In May, the administration announced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was reversing a Trump policy that allowed LGBTQ people to be discriminated against in health care settings. While this means publicly funded health care providers and insurers can’t legally discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, there is confusion on whether this can stop states from banning gender-affirming care to minors.
Some measures pending in Congress, such as the Equality Act and the Do No Harm Act, could make it harder for lawmakers to get away with continuing this push for anti-LGBTQ legislation.
The political and legal fights will go on. But in the end, there’s only one way to cease this divisive culture war: Americans must put some teeth into what they tell pollsters and demand that far-right politicians stop using the rights of our LGBTQ family members, neighbors and friends as pawns for Christian nationalists.
Emily Starbuck Gerson is a native Texan and award-winning freelance journalist in the LGBTQ community.