Arkansas’ transgender law makes it America’s worst state for trans kids

It was when the governor of Arkansas vetoed his state’s bill to criminalize trans health care on Monday that it really hit me: The only thing protecting trans children right now is our anger. That anger is likely to run out.

There are more than a dozen proposed bills in state legislatures intended to effect the same changes, and the next bill may not generate the same uproar.

On Tuesday, Arkansas became the first state to ban gender-affirming health care for minors. Yet there are more than a dozen proposed bills in state legislatures intended to effect the same changes, and the next bill may not generate the same uproar. For one thing, it won’t be quite as new. With each bill, and each cycle of outrage, the thought of children being hurt won’t shock us quite so much. Many of the cisgender people who were passionate about this case will turn their attention to some other, fresher outrage; every partial victory will feel like proof they’ve won and permission to move on.

None of this should be that surprising. Trans children have been the subject of a very loud moral panic for years. You may already know the greatest hits: Abigail Shrier’s book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze That’s Seducing Our Daughters,” in which she argues that transmasculine teenagers are deluded victims of “peer contagion,” or Jesse Singal’s notorious Atlantic cover story “When Children Say They’re Trans,” a sympathetic piece on parents who “convinced” their children not to transition.

Arkansas governor calls trans youth healthcare ban ‘vast government overreach’

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This rhetoric has consequences, and we’re seeing them. In the U.K., the Tavistock v. Bell decision found that teenagers were unable to consent to gender-affirming health care, even though they are considered competent to consent to most other forms of medical treatment. This effectively bans trans health care for children. On March 26, Tavistock was largely overturned when a court found that parents could consent to gender-affirming care on their children’s behalf.

In the U.S., we have the onslaught of bills intended to create the same ban. The bill in Arkansas was vetoed, but the General Assembly voted to overrule the governor, making the state the first to ban gender-affirming treatments and surgery for transgender youth. Chase Strangio at the American Civil Liberties Union has already promised legal action against the Arkansas bill, but the groups mobilizing to prevent these children’s transitions are not going to stop with one defeat, or even one big victory. If Arkansas is currently the worst state in America for trans kids, it won’t be for long.

This is not about who is “right.” If facts could win this, trans people and their allies would be winning.

This is not about who is “right.” If facts could win this, trans people and their allies would be winning.

“Transition,” for children, is not some risky medical decision entailing hormones and surgery. For the most part, it isn’t a medical decision at all; most trans children only need appropriate outfits and haircuts, and teens will also take fully reversible puberty blockers until they’re old enough to decide on surgery.

Denying children transition, however, is a major, irreversible, seriously body-altering process with lots of risk involved: It forces kids through the wrong puberty, keeps them in dysphoric pain through the already vulnerable years of adolescence and makes their adult transitions much harder. This assumes the children survive to adulthood. Many will not.

Yet inflammatory rhetoric has been allowed to seep into the nation’s bloodstream as anti-trans activists astroturf state after state with identical bills targeting these kids. When I say the only thing protecting trans children is adult anger, I mean it: Their lives and futures hinge on some (probably conservative) elected representative looking outside his window or at his social media feed and thinking, “Wow, if I actually make this stuff illegal, people will be really mad.”

Though I’m not a mind-reader, it seems clear that the governor of Arkansas almost certainly signed that veto because there was a national uproar over the brutality of the policies his state was enacting. He had a rational belief that the political cost he would incur outweighed the political benefits of siding with transphobes. Countless children’s lives depend on men just like him doing that same math and getting the same results.

The relentless catastrophes of the Trump years showed us exactly how carpet-bombing campaigns like this one play out: Bills criminalizing trans health care will keep coming, one after the other after the other, until almost no one registers the headlines any more, until some other big cause or crisis arrives to divert our attention. And then, when we’re all exhausted and everyone has stopped getting angry, the bills will pass and more children will probably die.

Trans people will obviously fight this until the end. Yet trans people are a tiny minority in this country, less than 1 percent by some estimates, and the success of any political fight depends on lots and lots of cis people caring too. It depends on cis people acting as if their own lives are at stake.

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So here is what I will tell you: They are. If you are a parent, any one of these kids could be your kid. Any caring parent to a trans child is feeling some extremely deep terror right now. There’s nothing more painful on this planet than losing a child and nothing that frightens a good parent more than believing someone will hurt your child because you weren’t able to protect them. Even if your child isn’t hurt or killed, someone else’s will be. But you can get in there and fight for them, rather than making them carry it all alone.

Everyone who survives to adulthood incurs a certain obligation to children, especially those of us whose own childhoods were not ideal. If you suffered for lack of a safe adult, you know exactly why you need to be that safe adult now. Every child on this planet deserves someone who will speak up for them and defend them from bullying, whether that bullying comes from a peer or a parent or the great state of Arkansas.



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There are so many adults in this country who want to harm trans children. Sometimes it seems like the bigots outnumber the allies, but I have to believe they’re just more visible than us right now. We have to get loud enough to drown them out; we have to make ourselves seen, in huge numbers, every time one of these bills comes up. Everything depends on our anger. All the protection these kids receive will come because we refused to quiet down or look away.