It’s only four months into 2021 and more than 100 anti-transgender bills have been introduced across 33 states. Despite claims that the laws will “protect children who are too young” from making decisions about their gender, these efforts only put transgender children at even greater risk. At best, these bills are a matter of straightforward discrimination, banning trans youth from participating in sports and other extracurricular activities. At worst, they seek to drive trans children into the closet permanently and prevent them from transitioning at all.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and other professional organizations all condemn these laws. The need for affirmation and support to maintain trans mental health is underscored by research around gender identity. For young children, this transition is purely social—using a different name and pronouns, and dressing in a gender-affirming way. For children starting puberty, it might mean taking puberty blockers for a few years. Contrary to the fearmongering of anti-trans lawmakers and proponents, if at any point a child realizes they are not trans, they can simply stop with no lasting changes.
Conservatives have attempted to muddle the issue by claiming that parents and doctors are pressuring children into taking cross-sex hormones or altering their bodies surgically at young ages. In fact, most doctors will wait until at least age 16 to prescribe hormones, and the Endocrine Society recommends waiting until age 18 for any kind of surgeries.
These laws are designed to erroneously conflate social and medical transition, and criminalize any attempts by supportive adults to affirm the trans youth in their lives. The “problem” they claim to solve doesn’t exist. Their only aim is to inflict psychological damage on trans and gender-nonconforming children as well as threaten and prevent adults for affirming their children’s identities.
While the majority of these bills target youth below the age of 18, the religious right and other anti-trans proponents have proven that any restrictions they manage to pass won’t be confined to children for long. In just a few short weeks, the speed at which these bills have been proposed across multiple states clearly indicates their attempts to set legal precedent, with the goal of eventually outlawing gender-affirming care for all age groups nationwide.
Almost as soon as Arkansas’ bill banning transition care for minors passed, state Republicans introduced new legislation to deny trans people of all ages access to public restrooms. Bathroom bills do nothing to protect cisgender women from predators, but do put trans and gender-nonconforming people at daily risk of harassment and violence.
In North Carolina, a new bill has already been introduced that would ban treatment for any trans person under the age of 21 and require state employees to notify parents in writing if their child displays any gender-nonconforming traits. This means that legal adults might be unwillingly outed to unsupportive families if a stranger suspects they might be queer, in an attempt to “protect” them from accessing services, coming out of the closet, or transitioning.
For many trans people, this will come as no surprise: When actor Elliot Page came out as transmasculine at age 34, a flood of op-eds appeared treating him as if he were an impulsive teenage girl incapable of making his own decisions. The conversation around who is “mature” enough to make decisions about their bodies seems to have no end. First they say trans children should wait until 18, then 21, and then even adults in their 30s are deemed incompetent to direct their own care. This is the same kind of reasoning used to deny cisgender women agency over their reproductive choices.
Using misinformation to poison the well of public opinion is a mainstay of both the anti-trans and anti-choices movements. The anti-trans movement employs tactics similar in attacking trans rights to those used by the anti-choice movement to chip away at abortion access, and by extension Roe v. Wade. Much like the bills targeting transition care and trans-affirmative support for children, conservatives pushed bans on “partial birth” abortion—a misleading political term referring with no precise medical definition. Both the “partial birth” abortion bans and bills to deny transition care effectively leave the courts to determine which procedures are legal, based on confusing and inaccurate descriptions crafted by legislators, not doctors.
Additionally, the same “religious exemption” laws allowing pharmacists to deny birth control prescriptions and hospitals to deny care to women experiencing miscarriage can also be used to deny preventive and emergency care to transgender patients. Even before any laws are placed into effect, they contribute to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion that can be deadly for transgender patients. In 2017, a survey found 22% of trans people avoided medical care due to fear of discrimination. Doctors refusing to give appropriate treatment for common issues that have nothing to do with transition is so rampant it even has a name: “trans broken arm syndrome.” Religious exemption laws will make this situation even worse. In some high-profile cases, trans people denied emergency care by EMTs have even died.
The current slate of laws is shocking due to the sheer number of proposed bills, but while they are cruel, they’re also limited in scope. This is only the first step, and it’s still possible for trans activists and allies to push back before they become established precedent. Activists are engaging in efforts to convince lawmakers not to pass these bills and combat misinformation among the general public. But if these bills pass successfully and are not overturned in court, they will continue to shift the goalposts until it is no longer safe for any trans people to exist in public, regardless of age.