How Republican Lawmakers in Tennessee Are Targeting Transgender Youth

· Updated on June 25, 2018

UPDATE (4/3/2018):

The Finance, Ways & Means Subcommitteedid not allowHouse Bill 2620 to advance.

ORIGINAL POST (3/27/2018):

Exactly two years ago I traveled to Nashville, Tenn. to join my ACLU colleagues and a group of amazing young people to testify against an anti-trans student bill then pending in the state’s House of Representatives. That bill would have barred students from using any single-sex facility that did not match the sex listed on the person’s birth certificate.

At the hearing, the father of one young intersex girl addressed lawmakers in a speech moving many to tears.

“I understand these bills are about protecting people who may be uncomfortable around people like my daughter,” he said at the time. “Whatever that discomfort is, they will survive, but trans and intersex young people will not.”

His daughter then spoke about how it was only through the process of coming into her own and living as a girl that she was able to find the confidence to thrive in school. Though her body did not match traditional expectations of what a girl’s body looks like, she explained that she was accepted by her peers and her school. Being seen in her truth allowed her to evolve out of a place of shame and experience high school like any other girl. She went from contemplating death to looking forward to her life.

Against all odds, we defeated the measure with several conservative lawmakers voting to kill the bill after hearing from these young people and their families whose lives would have been upended by the measure.

But our victory that day was short-lived.

In each subsequent legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers have continued to target transgender students for discrimination. This year they abandoned the blanket ban on restroom use by transgender students in favor of a more convolutedbut still insidiousform of discrimination.

The latest Tennessee anti-trans bill, House Bill 2620, encourages discrimination against trans and intersex students. It would require the state to defend school districts who choose to discriminate against transgender students by limiting access to single-sex facilities based on “biological sex.”

Though the bill itself does not bar transgender students from entering single-sex spaces, it encourages school districts to implement discriminatory policies by ensuring that the state will defend those districts in court from any lawsuit that results because of this unlawful action. And by referencing but never defining the term “biological sex,” the bill seeks to establish in law a notion of “sex” that is meant only to distinguish transgender students from their non-transgender peers.

Indeed, the term is deployed for the sole purpose of excluding transgender students from the protections that other students enjoy.

This notion that there exists some immutable “biological sex” that reveals one’s true gender has become the rallying cry of anti-trans forces who have been mobilizing at all levels of government to denounce trans existence. Their central message is that one cannot change the sex assigned to them at birth and that it is a product of biologyor in some cases, they argue, of divinity.

It is this notion of “biological sex” that animated President Donald Trump’s recently released memorandum concerning the implementation of his trans military ban, as well as North Carolina’s pseudo-repealed House Bill 2. These decisions have sweeping consequences for trans people, who are already being pushed out of high schools and universities at alarming rates. In a comprehensive survey of over 20,000 transgender people, 17 percent reported they faced such severe mistreatment at places of learning that they left school.

But “biological sex” as it is being used is an ideological construct, not a scientific one.

Does it refer to one’s hormones? Chromosomes? Body parts? Secondary sex characteristics? In most cases, the term is not defined. It is meant to appeal to our visceral sense of what is comfortable. The term amounts to a thinly-veiled code word for “not transgender” or “that which makes transgender people less real.” Yet it is a powerful euphemism that has gained significant traction across the United States; until we mobilize to stop this anti-trans rhetoric from continuing to take hold, the consequences will be disastrous.

When government officials situate trans people and our bodies as threats to be managed, it entrenches the anti-trans bias that leads to devastating discrimination and violence against our community. The idea that transgender people are hiding their “biological sex” is precisely what motivates many to act violently towards transgender people when they learn we are transgender. When young women of color like Islan Nettles are murdered on the street, it is because the sexualized gaze of their male attackers turns to rage when they realize that the object of their desire may have a body that does not conform to their expectations.

It is this beliefthat transgender bodies are dangerous or disgustingthat also prevents us from getting and sustaining jobs, from safely obtaining an education, and from existing in public life. For many transgender people, particularly those of color, this systemic discrimination leads to homelessness and incarceration.

This bill is part of a concerted effort to expel transgender people from public life and disseminate the message that we are fraudulent.

This latest iteration of anti-trans legislation in Tennessee is moving forward in the legislature. Even with substantial opposition from local civil rights group and the state’s Attorney General, last week it passed out of a House subcommittee and is being heard by the full committee todayon March 27. Now is the chance to stop the bill and send a message to people across the country that trans people are a strong and supported political base.

This is especially important because this is not the only anti-trans measure on the horizon. Voters in Anchorage, Ala. are currently voting on a ballot measure, Proposition 1, that would repeal local non-discrimination protections and bar transgender people from using single-sex municipal facilities. Later this year Massachusetts voters will consider a similar ballot referendum. Meanwhile at the federal level, the Trump administration is taking every opportunity to target and dehumanize transgender people.

Each fight is critical. From Anchorage, Tennessee, and Massachusetts to the White House, our safety depends on our continued vigilance and resistance.

The forces who want us to disappear are growing, but so too is the power of those who love us. We are real and we deserve to seen and affirmed in our humanity. We deserve to go to school without being bullied, to get jobs without being humiliated, to join the military; we deserve have families, to be loved, and to exist. Let’s stop HB 2620 from moving forward and move on to the next battle.

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