For millions of students, this school year will be like none other — not only because of the pandemic. States and the federal government are pushing a spate of anti-trans legislation and policies aimed to ban trans students from participating in sports like their peers and to undermine their abilities to fully participate in school and public life. The Department of Education is backing these efforts by threatening to withhold funding from any schools that refuse to enact anti-trans policies.
These attacks come after a Supreme Court victory in June, which upheld the rights of LGBTQ people in the workplace by ruling that you can’t be fired or otherwise discriminated against simply because you are LGBTQ. One of the lawyers behind those cases is Chase Strangio, Deputy Director for Transgender Justice for the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project, recently named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year.
Why is the government going out of its way to attack trans rights?
To understand what’s going on, we have to go back a few years to the marriage equality victories at the Supreme Court in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges. There was an immediate backlash from anti-LGBTQ groups, who then zeroed in on expelling trans people from public spaces like restrooms and locker rooms. Now the conversation has shifted to trans participation in sports.
Our opponents are pushing a narrative that trans girls in particular are a threat to the survival of women’s sports, which is predicated on the view that they and the government should and do have the authority to say who is a woman. They’re also implementing and pushing policies that would subject any participant in girls’ or women’s sports to sex verification procedures where they have to prove that they’re “really a girl.” These groups don’t care about sports or women’s rights. They’re opportunistically looking for ways to attack trans people, and in the process, hurting all women and girls.
How did the conversation shift from restrooms to sports?
Well importantly, through organizing and advocacy we were largely successful in defeating our opponents in their efforts to ban trans people from restrooms and locker rooms. But in the restroom conversation we spent a lot of time talking about how no one had to worry about seeing anyone naked, suggesting that trans people are so ashamed of our bodies that we would hide them. This strategy, though successful, pushed off the conversation to another day about contexts where we have to directly contend with our bodies. In sports, the body is more salient, so there’s more work to do to overcome deeply entrenched thinking about sex being binary and the view that you can easily divide people into categories based on physiological characteristics.
Our opponents are incredibly good at distorting the conversation and spreading misinformation despite not having scientific evidence to back up these claims. Trans athletes have been able to participate in the Olympics, the NCAA, and other elite sports for many years, yet we’ve literally never had a trans person qualify for the Olympics and there are no examples of trans dominance in any elite sport anywhere in the world. So we’re obviously not responding to a practical reality. We’re responding to fear and misinformation, which is often true when it comes to trans people and policy in the United States and around the world.
What is the Department of Education doing about the attacks against trans students?
The DOE is taking the position that you must discriminate against trans students in order to receive absolutely essential services. At the same time, they have done absolutely nothing to assist schools in opening safely, or supporting families and children. Schools are in crisis right now, completely underfunded while needing to staff up to deal with the demands of remote learning and everything else we’re expecting educators to come up with in the midst of the pandemic. It’s so egregious on so many levels, and it’s sending an absolutely horrible message to trans students that the federal government will not protect you. We need to build structures of safety and inclusion for our students, not structures of punishment and exclusion.
How do you reconcile increasing trans representation in the media with what’s going on in the government?
It can be incredibly affirming to see people who look like you or look like a possibility of what you might want your life to be. I don’t want to take away the power of that, especially for trans kids, who can feel alienated from the world and from their own bodies. But the media can distort the realities of trans people’s lives, particularly for people who’ve never knowingly met a trans person and whose only reference is what they see on TV — which portrays glamorized, highly curated narratives that can undermine the urgency of what’s going on in the government and in the material reality of trans lives. If we don’t also do the work to support trans lives on the ground, then it could end up placing precariously situated trans people in the path of more violence.
Many of the clients in the ACLU’s trans rights cases are high school students. How does it feel to see youth leading the fight for trans rights?
The most incredible part of our work is working with our clients, who are so fierce in their advocacy for themselves before they even reach us. Our clients are putting themselves out there in this deeply personal way while the government is attacking their existences. And yet they find the ability to sustain their sense of joy and push forward. If people find a place where they feel connected to their body, the idea that the federal government will come and try to squander that is just that is just beyond illegal. It’s unthinkable.
How does that affect you as a parent?
Young people have an incredible amount of insight and we take that away from them if we impose overly structured categories that don’t have to be there. The binaries that we utilize make no sense for the human experience in a lot of ways, and the more we give people the space to experience possibilities without preordained structures of how things have to be, the more we’re going to see people create new and more expansive structures to exist within and beyond. It’s just inevitable. And I know that really scares people, which is why we’re seeing this backlash. But ultimately, we have always been here creating what is possible, and our lives and our magic are unstoppable.
The 2020 election is approaching, along with what could be a challenging legislative session. What can people do on the ground to support trans rights?
Look at the candidates and their records for presidential and senate candidates. In some places, our opponents are strategically using ads to try to get people to vote for anti-trans candidates. Michigan’s Senate race is a prime example. We need to create a counter narrative and support candidates that support trans people.
There are ways to help in our individual lives, too. Part of why some anti-trans policies succeed is because of misinformation and fear of trans people. We can try to reorient the people in our lives toward understanding trans existence in a way that neutralizes the weaponized narrative of trans people as a threat. We can also materially support and uplift individual trans people to ensure that our trans communities are surviving, thriving, and leading our movements with the tools we have developed over generations.