Transgender Children Across The U.S. Are Fighting For Their Lives (Again)

More than 30 states have introduced laws that include banning trans kids from school sports and criminalizing parents for providing gender-affirming medical care.
Erik McGregor via LightRocket via Getty Images

Asher McKinney-Ring stepped up to the podium on the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly on Wednesday and took a deep breath. McKinney-Ring is only 15 years old, but the transgender high schooler appeared calm as he argued against North Carolina’s HB358, a bill that would restrict trans kids like him from participating in school sports.

“Words cannot explain how painful and exhausting it is to wake up every morning knowing that my rights to normal childhood experiences like school sports are being debated by elected officials that I’ve never met and that my existence and identity are not protected by law,” he said.

“We are not a threat. We are children,” he said. “And we just want to experience life normally like the rest of our classmates.”

At least 33 state legislatures, including North Carolina, have introduced anti-transgender laws so far this year. And it’s only April. The bills range from banning transgender children from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identities to criminalizing parents or doctors for providing gender-affirming medical care.

“The goal is to eradicate trans-ness,” said Chase Strangio, an attorney and deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union. “These bills are being pushed through on theories that claim that it’s harmful to be trans, that trans people aren’t real and the state should come in to stop people from living their authentic trans selves.”

These bills will be deeply harmful to trans children if passed. Some are threatening to define gender-affirming treatment and medical care as child abuse: Texas’s SB1646 would make it a crime for parents to allow their transgender children to get gender-affirming medical procedures. The Texas bill would make it legal to remove trans or gender-queer kids from their homes if their parents affirmed their gender identity.

“We are not a threat. We are children. And we just want to experience life normally like the rest of our classmates.”

- Asher McKinney-Ring, transgender high school student in North Carolina

In recent weeks, other anti-trans bills have become law. In March, Arkansas became the first state in the U.S. to enact a law that makes it a criminal offense for a doctor to provide gender-affirming medical care for a trans youth. Arkansas’s HB1570, or the “Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act,” will go into effect this summer. Nine other states are pursuing bills similar to the one in Arkansas; some will penalize doctors for providing gender affirming medical care, while others will punish parents.

If that weren’t enough, Arkansas has other bills pending in its legislature, including a health care ban for trans kids, a ban on sports for trans children, an anti-trans restroom policy and a bill that allows school employees to misgender trans children.

Other troubling bills include Alabama’s SB10, which makes it a felony for doctors to offer gender-affirming medical care to trans kids younger than 19. The bill goes further than others by including language that would force teachers and other school employees to out trans kids to their parents if the child shows any gender nonconforming signs.

In Tennessee, Republican lawmakers proposed a bill to increase training for those who administer medication to children but then gutted it to instead swap in an amendment that prohibits health professionals from offering gender-affirming medical care.

Missouri introduced an amendment to its constitution in February that would ban trans kids from participating in sports. Adding a constitutional amendment would trigger a public debate and discussion that could be even more traumatic for trans kids and the parents of trans children.

These laws go against recommendations from some of the most respected medical organizations in the country, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association.

Jan Newton crosses the street to attend a March 30 rally at the Alabama State House in Montgomery to draw attention to anti-transgender legislation.
Jan Newton crosses the street to attend a March 30 rally at the Alabama State House in Montgomery to draw attention to anti-transgender legislation.
Julie Bennett via Getty Images

Transgender children, parents of trans kids, advocates, health professionals and others are testifying in front of state legislative committees across the country, pleading with their lawmakers to not pass these harmful bills. The most poignant and heartbreaking testimony is coming from children.

“I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices,” Kai Shappley, a fourth-grade transgender girl in Austin, testified in front of Texas lawmakers earlier this week. “It makes me sad that some politicians use trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist.”

“God made me. God loves me for who I am, and God does not make mistakes,” she added. When Shappley asked the group of Republican lawmakers if anyone had questions for her, she was met with silence.

There are several deeply troubling issues with all of these proposed bills, aside from denying trans kids their humanity. These bills will have a lasting effect on trans and gender-queer kids who are seeking vital medical treatment. If these bills pass, at least 45,000 trans youth are at risk of losing care, according to a new study from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

Transgender kids already face higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies than their cisgender peers because of social isolation and bullying. In 2019, 1 in 3 transgender kids reported they had attempted suicide, and nearly one-third reported being a victim of sexual violence, according to a study from The Trevor Project, an organization that offers crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth.

Many proponents of these anti-trans bills paint a scary dystopian future where, as they say, “biological men” will take over women’s sports. Not only is this baseless and fundamentally wrong, it also just isn’t feasible when you look at the numbers.

Transgender people make up less than 1% of the U.S. population, and that number is even smaller for transgender kids and young adults. Beyond that, there aren’t that many trans kids who play sports, much less trans kids playing sports at competitive or elite levels. For example, in the last two years, only 10 transgender high school athletes in the entire state of North Carolina have requested to participate with the team that best aligns with their gender identity. In other states pursuing similar anti-trans sports bills, lawmakers are having trouble finding examples in which they felt transgender girls unfairly won due to their gender identity.

“I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices.”

- Kai Shappley, a transgender fourth-grader in Austin, Texas

Although many supporters of these anti-trans bills are cisgender women, these policies will likely hurt cis girls just as much as they hurts trans girls. There’s a long history of attempting to control women’s and girls’ bodies, specifically Black women’s bodies, and this type of legislation will be an extension of that, Strangio said.

“We can expect this to be highly intrusive, highly discriminatory systems of policing,” Strangio, of the ACLU, said, “that authorize private individuals to accuse people of being too masculine and authorize the state to surveil, control and scrutinize the body of women and girl athletes.”

For example, Louisiana’s HB542 explicitly allows students, coaches, teachers and other administrators to file a complaint that a specific athlete is too good, which opens her up to a level of scrutiny over her gender. However, there is no direction on how the state will determine and adjudicate such a claim. It’s not hard to see how this will quickly make more masculine-presenting cisgender girls vulnerable to such complaints.

Strangio added that the country is at a critical point — and people need to realize just how slippery this slope is. “People need to educate themselves to understand the nature of the threat that’s at play. If anyone is being lulled by the idea that this is limited to sports or even limited to health care for trans kids, they have another thing coming to them. These efforts will quickly expand well beyond that.”

One father of an 11-year-old transgender girl put the entire debate into perspective on Wednesday when speaking on the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly.

“We keep talking about what would be fair in sports and what would be fair for girls competing against other girls. I think my right and my daughter’s right and the right of transgender people everywhere to be recognized as ourselves in our lives — it’s not fair for me not to have that, and it’s not fair for [my daughter] not to have that,” said the father, who is also trans. “And I feel like that might be a bigger issue of fairness than somebody else’s right to fairness in middle school soccer.”

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