CW: discussion of transphobic and anti-intersex legislation and rhetoric, mentions of suicide
2023 has seen onslaughts of legislation that work to tighten around the trans and queer community and our allies. This February, more and more extreme legislation was introduced, culminating in the first drag ban (SB003) officially being passed in Tennessee’s House on Feb. 23 (and signed by the governor on March 2) and Oklahoma’s House passing a near-complete gender-affirming care ban (HB2177) on the last day of the month. But let’s be clear: “drag bans” are a barely-veiled ban on existing as trans in public. The language used in Tennessee’s bill is intentional; “adult cabaret performers” are naturally something the general public may want out of public spaces where children may be present, but the inclusion of “male or female impersonators” is nothing more than a way to criminalize existing outside of the cisnormative binary, either intentionally or unintentionally.
We can talk about how this is reminiscent of the cross-dressing bans of the mid 1800s, used to ensure society wasn’t accustomed to the presence of masculine-presenting women alongside trans and gender-nonconforming individuals. We can talk about how this is a slippery slope that could lead to a return of feminine people being required to wear skirts and being forced into a patriarchal ideal of femininity that views women as dainty and fragile. I will not talk about this. At this moment, the white, cisgender, straight mother in jeans will not be charged with a misdemeanor for picking her kid up from school. The Tennessee bill specifically notes that they are concerned with sex “impersonation” that “appeals to a prurient audience.” This Southern mother is not prurient, although she may be sexualized by Southern men. Her sexualization lies in the idea of a “good” woman being chaste and pure until she is “won” by a man.
Trans and queer people’s sexualization lies in existing. This sole act, the pure perceived audacity of assuming the right to life that we are clearly not supposed to want, is enough to promote violence and fetishization. This is how political moderates can be swayed by oppressive bills — over the last few years, we have seen a change in language to position non-cishet people as both sexual objects and undesirable, as both children unable to properly consent and adults grooming our youth. These are not unintentional words and ideologies that happened to be effective; our current political environment is a result of a deliberate rhetoric adopted by the general (conservative) public that starts with more “acceptable” identities to oppress and constantly shifts to be more and more restrictive.
Starting with drag enables people who may think themselves as allies to support conservative, anti-trans ideology. After all, you can remove a performance wig and dress and revert back to a more “acceptable” presentation, right? But when it is a conservative politician, “drag” is anything they don’t believe is cisnormative. When people start by framing bills as being “anti-groomer,” there is automatically a moral argument to it, despite the false framing of queer and trans communities as aforementioned groomers. This has been an ongoing shift, which has become increasingly transparent as previous ideologies have gone through with even a modicum of approval or acceptance. Increased gerrymandering, common in many states with these anti-trans bills such as Florida, and other acts of voter inequity, allow minute amounts of support to translate into large gains for oppressive bills.
Oklahoma’s bill has moved outside of drag and into general gender-affirming care but is still using the idea of needing to defend children from some imaginary trans agenda. In fact, in a news release, Oklahoma Representative Kevin West is cited as saying the bill “is about protecting our children from those who would seek to profit from their gender confusion.”
To be fair, a majority of HB2177 is concerned with treating minors. Yet, reading through the actual bill, Sections 1(e) and 1(g) sneak in prohibitions for minors and adults. These sections are responsible for blocking publically funded facilities from gender-affirming treatment and insurance coverage for all ages, respectively. This just shows that, while lawmakers work under this idea of needing to care about youth, it will never simply be about the children.
Currently, bills such as HB2177 provide exceptions in the case of “medically verifiable” disorders, primarily those indicative of being intersex, but this only exacerbates the invasions of privacy and violations intersex people face. These allowances are for “normalizing” procedures that may not be beneficial to intersex minors physically or mentally. Legislators’ emphasis on children being unable to medically consent becomes irrelevant when children and people as a whole exist outside of the restrictive boxes they put matters of sex in gender in. Executive Director of interACT, Erika Lorschbough, said for the Human Rights Watch, “When lawmakers propose and pass explicit exceptions for surgeons to operate on intersex bodies before the patients themselves can consent, it makes it clear that these bills are about erasing bodily diversity, not protecting anyone.” You cannot claim to be about and for the children when you do not protect all children, including trans, nonbinary, intersex and otherwise gender non-conforming children.
Florida and Texas have entirely moved outside of their previous legislation focusing on the children. This is the main point of these restrictive bills — the end goal was never about the children. These legislative introductions aim to end with the complete removal of trans and gender non-conforming individuals, either by people following the laws or by death.
Texas’s bill (SB1029), filed Feb. 17, states that “the medical community has a conflict of interest” regarding gender-affirming treatments and surgeries because they create “lifelong patients” and are actually promoted for monetary gain. With this reasoning, the bill seeks to prohibit any public funding for this care, prevent some health plans from covering gender-affirming care and introduce increased liability by removing malpractice insurance’s coverage for these procedures. This is no longer about the already flimsy idea of ensuring youth aren’t mutilated (when trans children do not undergo permanent procedures in the first place), this is about claiming that all trans individuals should not receive life-saving healthcare because doctors cannot act in trans patients’ best interests.
In the first two months of 2023, Texas has introduced over 70 anti-LGBTQ+ bills. While many were challenged and prevented from becoming law, they continue to stigmatize, politicize, and marginalize trans existence. This and other bills, like Texas’s abortion ban, use loopholes to ban providing healthcare while technically not criminalizing receiving said healthcare.
This can be seen outside of Texas with examples such as Florida’s “Reverse Woke Act” (SB952), which disincentivizes providing gender-affirming healthcare coverage by holding employers offering coverage liable for providing coverage for detransition care, even if they are no longer employed by that company. While only a small percentage of those who transition regret transitioning or decide to detransition, the idea of having to coverage detransition care regardless of relative cost compared to any transition procedures and status of employment is financially unsustainable for many businesses, both for those too small to risk the costs and those big enough to afford it but that primarily care about their cost-benefit analyses showing that it may not be worth it.
This bill once again does not criminalize being trans; instead, it targets the methods trans, non-binary and otherwise gender non-conforming individuals use to receive this care. These bills result in trans death: Gender-affirming healthcare results in lower odds of youth suicidality, and even simply using the correct names and pronouns results in reduced risks of suicide. Lawmakers do not need to criminalize receiving healthcare or having different pronouns and names to stigmatize being trans. Lawmakers do not need to even pass some of these bills to make trans individuals feel as if death is the only option and to cause community-wide despair that can result in queer in-fighting (exemplified by literally everything about the LGB Alliance). Lawmakers, politicians and bigoted citizens as a whole need only to disseminate this ideology and suggest that intense, often puritanical, legal restrictions should come into fruition to enact harm.
Anti-trans and anti-queer ideology is a python wrapped around our collective neck, hung so loose that at first people were able to forget its presence, as we accepted its weight around our shoulders as an unchangeable facet of existence in the US. It has now tightened into a choker that feels impossible to remove; it may even feel like we never had an existence with the python looser against our throat. This python, no matter how strong it may seem, should not be accepted as our inevitable fate. We can, and must, fight to regain our breath, regain our voice and eventually create the safety trans and queer individuals need to exist.