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Anti-LGBTQ bills are on the rise nationwide. Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Standing up to anti-LGBTQ bills is not a choice, but a necessity

AL DÍA recently spoke to David J. Johns of the National Black Justice Coalition about the future of the fight for equal LGBTQ rights in legislation.

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2021 isn’t even halfway through, and it is already a record-breaking year when it comes to anti-LGBTQ legislation. So far, 33 states have introduced more than 100 bills that intend to diminish the rights of transgender people, with the majority of them directly impacting minors.

Many of these pernicious bills are swiftly advancing through state legislatures. On April 6, Arkansas became the first state to prohibit access to gender-affirming medical care to transgender minors, a move that the American Civil Liberties Union said would “send a terrible and heartbreaking message” to trans youth across the country.

Something even more troubling about the dangerous law in Arkansas is that Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed the bill, but as he predicted, the House voted to override it.

In addition to bills that are seeking to ban gender-affirming medical care — which have the potential to be life-saving — numerous state legislatures, such as Tennessee and Mississippi,  are pushing bills that aim to ban trans girls from participating in school sports teams that match their gender identity.

Perhaps the most alarming type of anti-LGBTQ bills being pushed are those that seek to protect conversion therapy, the practice of attempting to change or suppress an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity through harmful techniques.

Republicans in North Carolina, Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma have quietly started to launch such bills through their state legislatures, and many advocates are on edge as they process this unprecedented and threatening new tactic.

David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), recently sat down with AL DÍA to share his expertise on the oppression already facing transgender youth and how these laws will exacerbate it.

Johns offered a few explanations for this sudden wave of anti-trans legislation. The first reason is simply a continuation of the oppression that trans people have always been facing, even before the term “transgender” was constructed.

“[It is an] attack against stigmatized minority communities in particular, attempts to control their bodies, to limit their ability to show up and self actualize and engage with social democratic institutions like the medical industrial complex,” Johns said, stressing that nothing about this anti-trans movement is new.

Increased visibility

Over the past decade or so, the movement for transgender rights and representation has grown exponentially.

Public figures such as actress Laverne Cox, advocate and TLC reality show star Jazz Jennings, and author Janet Mock have greatly impacted the nation’s general understanding of what it means to be transgender, and are slowly changing the landscape of popular media.

Last July, Brazilian model Valentia Sampaio became the first openly-transgender model to be featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Two popular celebrities, Elliot Page and Halsey also announced their new gender identities.

Page, star of the Netflix show The Umbrella Academy, appeared on the March 20-April 5 issue of Time, coming out as a transgender man, and singer/songwriter Halsey quietly came out as nonbinary by updating her pronouns to “she/they” on Twitter and Instagram.

According to Johns, with this increased visibility, comes “increased responses connected to hate and lack of understanding and lack of a desire to share and hold space,” for trans people. 

With most social justice movements, progress is meaningful, but slow. It is taking some time for the general public to begin to not only understand and acknowledge the beautiful diversity of trans identities, but to use this understanding to recognize gaps in equity and fill them. 

The country has yet to “address the fact that it’s not really fair that LGBTQ students in public schools don’t have the same protection as their non-LGBTQ peers,” said Johns, who as an elementary school teacher, finds this absurd. 

Misconceptions and lies

Johns said that lawmakers are attempting to regulate political identities that an overwhelming number of adults, including these elected officials, do not even have a solid comprehension of. 

“And now you’re exposing them to kids who were just trying to figure out who they are in the spaces they’re forced to move in,” Johns said. 

“What is happening in terms of legislatures is that [lawmakers] are advancing bills that are solutions in search of problems, in a desire to respond against what feels like a shift in power, access and equity,” he explained. 

Many of these lawmakers attempting to pass legislation banning trans children from participating in sports and from accessing gender-affirming health care, claim to be doing so with an intention to protect the well-being of these children and promote fairness.

Johns and the NBJC, along with all other advocacy groups that stand for the rights of trans people, know this is a devious lie used to mask the insidious nature of this type of legislation.

“A number of bills are focused on fundamentally changing the relationship that individuals and their families have with medical providers, which just makes no sense to me at all,” Johns said. “Many of these bills are about trying to restrict access to public spaces, in particular bathrooms and locker rooms. And many of those bills are explicit in trying to prevent young trans people from playing sports, namely girls. The suggestion that this is about fairness doesn’t pass any test.” 

NBJC is an organization that seeks to bridge the gaps between the movements for racial justice and LGBTQ+ unity, so Johns focused on the ways that this nation continually attempts to dehumanize both marginalized groups and how these forms of oppression intersect. 

“There’s this clear preoccupation with the way that Black women and girls show up in the world. And all of this is playing out with attempts to justify the murder of a 15-year-old girl, in terms of Ma’Khia,” Johns said. “And it’s for those reasons that I find it so hard to accept when members of the state legislature say with a straight face that they believe this is about fairness or equality, especially at a time when there are a number of actual crises right now affecting people.”

Resilience personified

People with trans and nonbinary identies have always existed, but the understanding of their existence and identities have never been truly been explored nor accepted. 

The earliest record of oppression of a transgender individual in the U.S. dates all the back to the early 1600s. It’s now 2021, and while progress has been made, the same oppressive forces are still seeking to repress any identities that disrupt the socially-constructed binaries of gender. 

But Johns finds hope and optimism in the mere fact that not only have trans people always been around, they will continue to be, and they will never stop defending their rights and thrusting their diversity into the spotlight. 

Johns is confident in the fact that modern advocates are already bringing trans rights to the forefront of social justice movements, through running for office, writing books, starring in shows and movies, directing documentaries, forming organizations that serve the community, and more. 

“The desire to ensure that this country lives up to its foundational principles of being a space where people can live freely and fairly is one that I accept will happen over time. And there are signs that progress is being made,” he said.   

Things psychologists already know

While discussing the impact of the legislation seeking to ban trans youth from accessing gender-affirming medical care, Johns argued that lawmakers, along with many medical professionals have not yet caught up with what the psychology industry has found in regards to gender.

The American Psychological Association recently released a resolution where they make clear that gender is a “nonbinary construct that allows for a range of gender identities and that a person’s gender identity may not align with sex assigned at birth.”

The resolution, which was released in February, stated the fields of psychiatry and psychology have a long history of pathologizing individuals who question their gender identity. 

The APA, along with American Counseling Association, World Professional Association for Transgender Health and other healthcare organizations “have established empirically-supported practice guidelines that encourage clinicians to use gender-affirming practices when addressing gender identity issues.” 

A joint effort

In terms of supporting trans children, who are now very much at risk for increased mental health problems and suicidal ideation, there are many different avenues that people can take. 

Firstly, Johns stressed that children are very capable of being excellent advocates for themselves, but this will require all of us to create the spaces for them to feel safe enough to speak up. 

Johns explained that for some people, they will need to “increase their competence and compassion, and build personal relationships with people who can help them as they help themselves.” 

Advocacy may also involve people examining their own privileges and points of power and influence and figuring out ways in which they can use these platforms to encourage change. 

Another relevant tactic is through applying pressure to companies and corporations to oppose unjust laws — just as Georgia-based brands did in standing up against voter suppression. 

“When that level of pressure is applied, we've seen shifts happen. But the point really is that there's something for everybody to do better with everybody to get into the arena and otherwise contribute to opportunities to ensure that we can all be free and safe and Americans,” Johns said. 

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