enjoy living in Kansas. Specifically, Lawrence, Kansas, where I can attend a watercolor painting class at the local plant shop on Wednesday, the weekly drag show on Thursday, and a vintage clothing pop-up on Friday. But despite the beauty of the rolling Flint Hills, there is something ugly happening in the place I call home. Growing hostility towards the transgender and non-binary community is being codified through policies and perpetuated through violence that threatens our basic human rights.
Rights activists see such rollbacks of hard-fought progress spreading across the US, and we’re bracing for new attacks that will test the country’s purported commitment to equality. The fight is the most grueling for those of us who are from Black and other marginalized communities.
In the last year, violence claimed the lives of at least 25 transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US, with violence disproportionately affecting Black transgender women. These numbers are most likely underrepresented, as attacks against the LGBTQ+ community often go undocumented.
Black and Brown trans people should be able to live as their most authentic self without fear of transphobic violence and discrimination.
To add to the growing animus, some states chose to attack transgender rights through legislation rather than protect them. This past June, the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, declared a state of emergency after more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced in 41 states. Hundreds of these bills specifically targeted transgender people.
Some of these anti-LGBTQ+ bills would limit the ability to update gender information on identity documents like driver’s licenses and birth certificates, weaken nondiscrimination laws and protections in employment, and restrict free speech and expression through book and drag performance bans. State bills also attempt to restrict access to medically necessary health care including bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth, prohibit access to public accommodations like public bathrooms, and prevent trans students from participating in school activities like sports. While introducing a bill doesn’t mean it will pass, 84 of these draconian measures made it out of committee and have been signed into law.
Even the introduction of these bills perpetuates harmful stigmas and allows misinformation to spread. I have witnessed how harmful the introduction of these bills has been on members of the trans community I am a part of. In Kansas, 14 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced and four were passed into law in the last legislative session. During that time, my trans friends and peers pleaded with conservative lawmakers to respect their dignity and protect their autonomy over their own bodies. Medical experts testified that the mere act of introducing these bills causes great harm to the mental health of transgender people across the state.
One bill, misnamed the Women’s Bill of Rights though it limits protections for transgender women, passed and went into effect on July 1st. In response, LGBTQ+ activists in Lawrence refused to rest until the City Commission enacted a sanctuary city ordinance, increasing protections for trans people. Despite the immense fear transgender people were feeling in this moment, their message rang loud and clear: LGBTQ+ people have the right to live without fear, and we are not going anywhere.
Make no mistake, allowing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation to be passed sends a message that legitimizes homophobic and transphobic sentiment.
There are some hopeful signs. Legislation to outlaw the LGBTQ+ panic defense was introduced in nine states as well as in the US House and Senate this year. Under that defense, people charged with violent crime against LGBTQ+ people can get a reduced sentence or evade criminal liability by stating that the victim’s real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity prompted the violent act.
As violence against the LGBTQ+ community continues to increase, it is important now more than ever for lawmakers in statehouses across the country and for the federal government to strengthen protections for trans people and especially for the most vulnerable members of this community—Black and Brown trans women. Lawmakers should be recognizing and protecting LGBTQ+ people’s equal dignity under the law. Legislators should support active efforts to quell discrimination, like Kansas’s HB 2178, and codify LGBTQ+ protections. The US Government should also meet its human rights obligations to respond to foreseeable threats to life and bodily integrity, and to address patterns of violence targeting the LGBTQ+ community.
While activists continue to fight for LGBTQ+ liberation, I am reminded to celebrate the small wins. I remain hopeful when I see young LGBTQ+ people organizing and exercising their right to protest in the name of egalitarianism. They remind me that pride is not something solely limited to the month of June, but a badge of honor we always carry with us.
Bria Nelson is a Researcher and Advocate on Racial Justice and Equity Issues with the Human Rights Watch U.S. Program. Bria is an attorney and concentrates their research on racial justice and equity issues across the U.S., with a particular focus on reparations for enslavement and its legacies.
As a movement lawyer, Bria has also worked to mobilize response and advocacy after the public murder of George Floyd, including undergoing an intensive fellowship training program with Law for Black Lives, an organization focused on grounding movements in Black queer feminism, abolition, and anticapitalism.