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.
Wave of Anti-Trans Bills Sweeps the Country
By Kelly Bellin
More than 480 anti-transgender bills have been introduced in this year’s legislative session, across 46 states. At least half of them directly relate to schools, and even more target trans youth in some form. At the time of writing, only 10% of these bills have failed. Eighteen U.S. states now ban trans students from school sports; ten states ban gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth. Twelve more states are likely to adopt at least one of these major restrictions by the end of the 2023 legislative session.
It’s no doubt that the right wing is on the offensive and their main target is trans people. The hundreds of bills nationwide, while particularly taking aim at trans youth, are sweeping attacks on virtually all aspects of life:
- Trans sports bans, ‘forced outing’ bills, and the threat of having custody rights revoked from supportive parents of trans kids, all contribute to eliminating support structures for trans people.
- Bans on gender-affirming care remove access to the health care that is supported by all major medical organizations and is associated with reduced rates of suicide. Gender-affirming care literally saves lives.
- Bathroom bills, banning drag performances, and banning school curriculum which covers LGBTQ history are dangerous efforts to erase trans people from public life.
A 2022 poll from the Trevor Project found that 85% of trans and nonbinary youth have had their mental health negatively affected by the implementation of new anti-trans laws. A subsequent poll found that more than half of trans youth “seriously considered” suicide in the past year. More broadly, the tidal wave of attacks on trans rights promotes violence against trans people, as laws play a role in dictating public perception.
Why is this happening? For one, the Republican party has turned to scapegoating trans kids in particular to hide the fact that they have nothing to offer working people as economic crisis wreaks havoc on our lives. Under capitalism, igniting divisions among working class people is a crucial strategy during crisis; it’s a lifeboat for the ruling establishment.
The pandemic has shown millions that, in a crisis, we will be sacrificed for the profits of big business and the ruling class. There is no doubt that successful attacks on trans people will open the door further for attacks on all oppressed and working class people. Most importantly, the right wing relies on no movement coming forward to stop them.