Guest Opinion: Time for trans people to stand up

  • by Gabriel Haaland
  • Wednesday March 29, 2023
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Gabriel Haaland. Photo: Gwen Park
Gabriel Haaland. Photo: Gwen Park

This is the worst year in history for anti-trans and anti-drag legislation. Full stop. This highly orchestrated trans and drag panic is brought to us by far-right extremists and strategists who literally want to stop us from living authentically as LGBTQ+ people, particularly those identifying as transgender. The playbook that these legislators, activists, and strategists are using to instigate culture wars through anti-trans and gender-affirming bans are similar to those used to attack reproductive rights and a person's right to choose. Like with the abortion playbook, restrictions targeting minors are a stepping stone to broader restrictions for adults. These attacks come at a time of extreme vulnerability for LGBTQ+ individuals and families now that a conservative, activist faction controls the U.S. Supreme Court.

The number of people publicly identifying as LGBTQ+ has doubled in size in the last decade, and the fanatic Christian right is doing everything it can to erase trans and LGBQ+ neighbors, co-workers, parents, and families in an attempt to drive us back in the closet. The ban on drag performances mainly sprang from objections raised by zealots, including the Proud Boys, to Drag Story Hour, which aims to teach children about gender diversity and acceptance with readings of age-appropriate books by drag artists. Far-right extremist and Christian conservatives frame drag performers as recruiters that expand the LGBTQ+ community, a new take on the old trope once used in a similar fashion against gays and lesbians. Whatever the reason, a recent Gallup poll shows that one in five Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ+. Moreover these LGBTQ+ youth are driving change in societal norms that are antithetical to the political agenda of the Christian right.

The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that more than 430 bills that seek to strip away basic rights, protections, and resources from trans people, nonbinary people, and drag performers have been introduced in 44 states. Christian conservative organizations are giving states model legislation to push through these efforts in order to overwhelm LGBTQ+ people and their allies by flooding legislative bodies with as many bills as possible.

Examples include Florida's Senate Bill 254 that would permit courts to remove trans children from affirming households if their parents allow them to access transition care. There are bills that ban gender-affirming health care and require transgender youth to detransition, and Texas' House Bill 4378, which would allow any individual to sue the organizers of — and performers in — drag shows if a child saw the performance. People who successfully sue over drag performances would be entitled to statutory "damages'' of $5,000, mirroring the Texan abortion bounty hunter law.

In this context, over the last year the New York Times, with nearly nine million subscribers, began platforming anti-trans extremists in its coverage. The reckless, bigoted reporting by the Times ultimately helped to fuel a trans panic in 2022 and continues to perpetuate disinformation about trans youth, providing a megaphone that has been used by politicians to harm transgender people in legislative hearings. More recently the Times hired evangelical Christian David French to be a staff writer for its Opinion section. Touted as a credible conservative, French, formerly an attorney for the anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom, shamelessly advocates for the erasure of trans people. According to GLAAD, French has a history of expressing his outward disdain for transgender people. In the past, he lamented "transgender entitlement" and once described a young transgender woman as a "man" who is "on the verge of mutilating himself," as Media Matters has noted. The Times continues to double down, despite universal condemnation by over 100 LGBTQ+ groups led by GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign.

Last week, the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club hosted a forum to kick-start the local conversation on how to counter these efforts locally and nationally. It included Sister Roma, Alex U. Inn, Michael Trung Nguyen, Jackie Thornhill, Pau Crego, and myself. We need many more conversations like this to educate ourselves and our allies on what is happening, what's at stake, and what we can do to fight back.

Ultimately it comes down to a fight over whether drag artists are helping children to accept themselves, or as rightwing Christians call it, "grooming." Why does this matter? Because of stigma and mistreatment, LGBTQ+ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. A 2022 JAMA study found that transgender and nonbinary youth who received gender-affirming care had 60%-73% percent lower odds of suicidality over the course of a year.

For Transgender Visibility Week, I would suggest a time-tested strategy like icons the late San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, gay rights activist Hank Wilson, and lesbian educator Sally Gearhart, and current leaders Cleve Jones, Gwenn Craig, and Tom Ammiano used during the fight over the 1978 Briggs initiative, a ballot measure that would have banned gay and lesbian teachers from California public school classrooms. (Wilson was a former teacher, as is Ammiano.) Right-wing Christians also argued at that time that these hardworking educators were "recruiting" children. LGBTQ+ folks, hand-in-hand with straight allies, partnered to tell their stories through speakers' bureaus. Ultimately, Proposition 6, as it was known, was defeated by LGBTQ+ people, labor unions, feminists, and other allies who organized a powerful grassroots movement. We can do something similar by working in partnership with these same coalitions and by telling our personal stories. To paraphrase Milk, "Every 'trans' person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all."

The Trans Day of Visibility, observed March 31, has never been more critical and vital to our community because "rights are won only by those who make their voices heard."

Also, please join this critically important rally and march to fight back. Organized by Sister Roma, Juanita MORE!, Alex U. Inn, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and others, "Drag Up! Fight Back!" takes place Saturday, April 8, with a rally at 11 a.m. and a noon march from San Francisco City Hall to Union Square.

Gabriel Haaland, who is trans, is a former president of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ+ Democratic Club. A former Bay Area resident, they currently reside in Asheville, North Carolina, with their dog Buddy, by way of the rain forests of Costa Rica where they previously lived after leaving the Bay Area.

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