The child stared at me with a mixture of confusion and wonder. We were in a Gap store in Freeport, Maine, 20 years ago. I was trying so hard not to be a spectacle.
“Mom!” the boy cried to his mother, looking at me in my graceless wig. “Who is that?”
“That, honey,” she said, “is a human being.”
Trans people have been part of human history for as long as there has been history, and for as long as there have been humans. But with the exception of a few brave souls, until relatively recently, trans individuals were rarely in the public eye in the United States. People knew so little about us that when I came out, at the turn of the millennium, at least one person I tried to explain myself to thought that I’d invented the whole business single-handedly.
In retrospect, my transition was made somewhat easier in 2000 because there weren’t quite so many laws designed to make my life harder. Conservatives didn’t seem to fully understand that they were supposed to hate us.
All these years later, things are both better and worse. Better because so many people have had the courage to step forward and be known. And worse because social conservatives around the country feel affronted by our very visibility. How affronted? Enough for them to propose legislation that, they hope, will lead to our erasure. By mid-March, 82 such bills had been introduced in statehouses this year, from Maine to Montana.
On March 25, Arkansas’s governor, Asa Hutchinson, signed Senate Bill 354, which keeps trans girls from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.
Then yesterday, Arkansas became the first state to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors. Lawmakers overrode a veto of that bill issued by Mr. Hutchinson on Monday.
In issuing the veto, Mr. Hutchinson had said the bill banning medical treatment was a step too far. He called it “government overreach” into a difficult health care question, and said that the proposed legislation was the “product of the cultural war in America.” But it was his own Republican Party doing the overreaching. This skirmish is one in which conservatives have gone to battle against research backed by the Endocrine Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics — not to mention the lived experience of doctors around the country — showing that early medical interventions, including the prescription of puberty blockers for younger trans people, are both beneficial and safe.
Mr. Hutchinson had been urged to veto the bill by pediatricians, social workers and parents of trans children. The sponsors of the Arkansas bill criminalizing care bestowed it with the name the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, a title surely designed to make people think that treating trans kids is something straight out of science fiction.
But the procedures banned by this bill are neither radical nor experimental. Puberty blockers keep trans kids from suffering the permanent damage of adolescence in the wrong gender. They have been shown to lower the risk of suicidal thoughts, and it buys them time, should any be needed, to become more certain of the path they’re on. The effects of these medicines are reversible if treatment is suspended.
One Republican sponsor of the Arkansas bill told KATV that the bill “is giving kids a chance to grow up and then, if they make a different decision when they are older, that’s OK.” But by the time these kids are older, the effects of adolescence will have set in — breasts and periods for trans men, facial hair and deepening voices for trans women.
Treating trans kids isn’t the experiment here. The experiment is in making it impossible for these young people to become themselves.
In 2014, research published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found, in a longitudinal study of 55 trans people who had received puberty suppression treatments during adolescence, that treatment radically improved patients’ lives. The study concluded that years later, after gender reassignment, their “well-being was similar to or better than same-age young adults from the general population,” giving them “the opportunity to develop into well-functioning young adults.”
Moreover, a different study published in the same journal last year found that kids who are treated when they’re younger face significantly lower risk of self-harm, depression and attempted suicide. In other words, it is not the care, but its absence, that puts these kids at risk.
Forgive me if I fail to be convinced that the spate of anti-trans bills is motivated by conservatives’ sincere concern for women’s athletics, a subtle understanding of endocrinology or even the well-being of the children themselves. Instead, these bills are a way for conservatives to perform their scorn for people who are different from themselves.
This kind of performance doesn’t make transgender people disappear, of course. All it does, in the end, is demonstrate a lack of generosity and imagination to understand a soul different from your own.
I wonder if the sponsors of these bills have ever considered who these strangers are — who it actually is that they’re going to such trouble to hurt? Those, honey, are human beings.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, is a professor of English at Barnard College. Her most recent book is “Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs.”