In late February, students at Danville High School in Kentucky staged an in-school protest during their free period against right-wing attacks on trans youth. Two student organizers, Sam Wilson and June Wagner, put together the action after first driving to the state capitol in Frankfurt for a “Lobby Day,” organized by the Kentucky Fairness Campaign. Their intention was to convince their local representative to vote against SB150, a bill that would drastically undercut trans student’s ability to express themselves at school.
Despite privately reassuring Wilson and Wagner that the bill wouldn’t pass, their representative – Senator Amanda Bledsoe – voted for the bill, and it passed.
“That’s what we learned – when it’s just you, they can just lie,” Wilson said.
The experience convinced Wilson and Wagner that they couldn’t rely on elected representatives to simply listen to them, and they began organizing a protest. In a high school of just 500 students, over 50 participated in the action – Wilson also noted that some teachers joined their after-school protest that same day.
But despite the activism of students across Kentucky, SB150 passed both the House and Senate in mid-March. In the process, it was expanded to include a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, a ban on schools discussing sexuality or gender identity, and a ban on trans students using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity, among other new stipulations.
The experience of queer Kentucky students isn’t a unique one. Across the country, student organizers are fighting a tidal wave of anti-trans legislation from well-funded, well-organized sources. Anti-LGBTQ hate groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom have put inordinate resources behind these bills for years, privately admitting in leaked emails that their real goal is to eradicate medical transition – and trans people – entirely.
In the face of this tsunami of organized bigotry, transgender youth organizers are having to learn what works, and what doesn’t, fast.
Lobbying Hits A Brick Wall – Act Up!
For trans students attempting to fight back, a common entry point is calling representatives, writing letters, or, as Wilson and Wagner did, attending “lobby days” organized by NGOs like the Human Rights Campaign to speak to representatives in person. In an ideal world, ‘representative democracy’ would mean that elected officials aimed to protect the safety and autonomy of everyone they represented – but in the zero-sum game of a capitalist political system, this is rarely if ever the case.
However, that doesn’t mean that confronting representatives is wholly useless. Activists in some states have been able to delay or entirely defeat bills by packing public comment sessions, boldly exposing the cynical way Republicans are using trans youth as part of a political game. This is most effective when it’s paired with a militant strategy of protests and walkouts outside the legislative halls.
Activists in the ACT UP movement of the 1980s coined the phrase “inside/outside” to describe this approach. They would intervene into meetings of medical boards and other government bodies to fight for access to cutting-edge HIV/AIDS medication, and when they were shut down, they’d immediately move to rallying outside the building, shutting down roads with die-ins and similar actions.
Ultimately, if right-wing politicians are to be dissuaded from enacting sweeping legislation aiming to eradicate transgender people from public life, it won’t be on the basis of moral appeals – it will be on the basis of enforcing political consequences for doing so.
Building A Fighting Force
Queer youth in Republican-controlled states have heroically taken up the fight against attacks on transgender people. Unfortunately though, the fact that this movement is relatively siloed among LGBTQ students and their parents is ultimately a weakness that must be overcome.
Attacks on transgender people are one part of a despicable social agenda that attacks all working-class people. The ADF, which has written and lobbied for these anti-trans bills, is a primary force behind the court case in Texas aiming to ban medication abortion. They were also a leading force behind the Dobbs Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade.
The focus on students and controlling the curriculum that teachers can bring to their classrooms benefits the long-standing goal of Republicans to whittle public education down to the bones and run education for profit through the expansion of charter schools. Teachers and healthcare workers, both of whom are under attack alongside transgender youth, should fight for solidarity resolutions in their unions and mobilize their members to student protests and walkouts.
An essential part of building a movement that can win is broadening the struggle, and sharing lessons across state lines. While statewide networks of organizers are emerging to coordinate actions against specific bills, these networks would benefit enormously from reaching out to each other to discuss specific tactics and even organizing regional and national days of action.
From the riots at Stonewall, to the militant die-ins of ACT UP, to the fight for marriage equality, queer people are given nothing for free. As new generations of LGBTQ people are thrust into a fight for our legal right to exist, success will depend on us out-organizing our opponents, on the basis that freedom for queer people benefits the whole working class.