By Katelyn Burns
It’s been a difficult time to be transgender in the US recently. Republicans have turned our very existence into election fodder and the conservative media ecosystem is seemingly obsessed with us, our healthcare, and our demonization.
In a very short period of time, our society went from attempting to learn the etiquette around using trans peoples’ pronouns, to it being socially acceptable for numerous conservative media members to call for our elimination. Even some previously supportive liberal allies have decided that we’re expendable as long as our elimination helps them win elections.
It’s difficult to describe to outsiders who aren’t paying attention just how swiftly the political situation has shifted under trans people’s feet in this country. It feels like dark days are certainly ahead for American trans people.
But there are rays of trans hope poking their way through the ever-darkening cloud of conservative hate.
First and foremost has been a relatively unexpected boost from the federal court system, which had temporarily blocked anti-trans bills in Florida, Tennessee, Indiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee from taking effect. Though two of those laws have since been allowed to go into effect by circuit courts, even conservative judges have had difficulty justifying the worst bills conservative state legislatures managed to pass this past year.
In mid-June, Robert Hinkle, a Clinton-appointed federal district judge, made two important determinations in his written ruling granting an injunction temporarily blocking Florida’s ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth. He declared that gender identity is real, pointing out that even the state’s preferred doctor witnesses, who spoke during a seven-day trial, all admitted that gender identity exists as a concept. He also found that the law, which in recent weeks began affecting access to care for even adult Floridians, is likely to be found unconstitutional because it specifically targets a distinct minority without a viable state interest.
In a ruling that temporarily blocked a similar bill in Indiana, a Trump-appointed federal judge found that gender-affirming care for trans youth provides a positive effect on mental health. “There’s evidence that puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy reduces distress for some minors diagnosed with gender dysphoria,” Hanlon said in his ruling in mid-June. “The risk or irreparable harm, therefore, supports a preliminary injunction.”
It’s not all good news on the legal front however, on July 8, a conservative-majority 6th circuit panel allowed the care ban in Tennessee to go into effect. A few days later, the federal judge allowed Kentucky’s ban to go into effect as well, citing the previous ruling in favor of the state of Tennessee. Even the Tennessee ruling favoring conservatives was tepid, with the majority openly declaring that they do not know if their own ruling is correct.
In the end, all of the federal court machinations over these laws will end up before the Supreme Court, where trans rights face a likely uphill battle. Even on that front, there is reason for slight hope. Despite the 6-3 conservative majority that represents the court’s current ideological makeup, there are still two conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch, who ruled in favor of LGBTQ employment rights in Bostock v Clayton County. Those two conservatives could potentially have a sympathetic ear and could join with the three liberal justices in further trans-related cases, however unlikely that scenario seems at first glance.
Beyond the current court situation, there are some state legislative developments that should encourage trans people and give us hope. At the forefront of that are the trans-safe refuge laws that have been passed by blue state legislatures.
These bills offer legal protection to trans people and caretakers of trans youth who move to the state to escape red-state persecution. In other words, if a family with a trans kid from Texas were to move to California, which passed a refuge law last year, California would not honor extradition or investigation requests from Texas law enforcement agencies who may be investigating the family for providing their trans child with gender-affirming care.
So far 11 blue states and the District of Columbia have passed such laws, and they’ve been key in facilitating the burgeoning internal trans refugee crisis in the US. According to a Data For Progress report, 40% of trans Americans have considered moving to a safer, bluer state to escape state legislature persecution.
While this type of legislation certainly won’t help every red state trans person, it shows that there are government officials at varying levels who aren’t ready to give up on us. Just this week, Wisconsin Democratic governor Tony Evers made a big deal on Twitter for vetoing a transphobic bill passed by the state’s gerrymandered state legislature.
Ultimately, political hope for trans people should come from the existence of politicians like Evers, or even in electing candidates who themselves are trans. Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride has perhaps the best shot in recent history to become the first-ever openly trans congressperson as she recently announced a run for the newly vacated seat in her state.
Electing more trans people would mean the GOP would be forced to work opposite people like us while they systematically try to legislatively stamp us out of society. But beyond just electing more trans people, there are early signs that the Republican obsession with trans people is backfiring electorally.
One early prognostication indicator for the election appetite of the country is how the parties perform in off-cycle special elections, and so far, it seems like Democrats are significantly overperforming expectations heading into the 2024 presidential election year.
Last week, in Wisconsin’s 24th Assembly district special election, Republican Paul Melotik won over their Democratic challenger by 7 percent. However, the district in question is historically very red. During the last election, it went Republican +23. That Democrats came within seven points of winning such a red district in a low-turnout special election is incredibly encouraging — and is a sign that Republican transphobia is an election-losing issue.
Historically, this has almost always been the case, despite many centrist attempts to tie Democratic losses to support for trans people. In 2016, in a red wave election that put Donald Trump in the White House, the patient zero of Republican transphobia, former North Carolina Governor (of HB2 bathroom bill infamy) Pat McCrory lost his election and Republicans haven’t been able to reclaim the governor’s mansion ever since, despite gerrymandering a vast majority in the state’s legislature.
In 2022, a whole string of anti-trans politicians saw their election campaigns falter and fail, with the notable exception of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is now in the midst of one of the most pathetic runs for president from a legitimate contender in recent memory. Truly Jeb Bush vibes there.
Republican transphobia failing to land with everyday voters shouldn’t be all that surprising. Most voters don’t know a single trans person, which serves as a double-edged sword of its own. Not knowing a trans person helps the GOP lie about and demonize trans people for a wide audience, but at the same time, basing your party’s entire political agenda around a demographic that most people simply have no interaction with means your platform will have little to no relevance to voters’ everyday lives.
Ironically, it may be that our small numbers as a people that offers us the political salvation we’re all hoping for. None of these instances of hope are all-encompassing, after all, there are no magic bullets in civil rights struggles. But taken together, they all add up to hope for trans people. And we could all use a little hope right now.
Katelyn Burns (she/her) is a freelance journalist and columnist for MSNBC. She was the first openly transgender Capitol Hill reporter in US history.