Caiden Michalec: What can still be done for trans youth

Gov. Cox attempts to cover his transphobia with a mask of “concern” and I see through it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flags at City Hall in Salt Lake City on Nov. 17, 2020, mark Transgender Awareness Week.

I came out as transgender in 2017 when I was 21 years old, and began receiving gender-affirming care that same year. Sometimes I try to make sense of how different my life would have been if I had made that self-discovery just a few years earlier, like so many young people do. When I look at our current politics, I feel like I narrowly escaped.

Escaped life, maybe. In reality, I was just four years out of high school where my place as a three-sport varsity athlete would have been questioned. I was four years past adolescence, where debates about my changing body would enter the daily news cycle. Just four years past the point when policymakers and politicians would have complete control over my and my family’s health care decisions, and maybe four years past whether or not all of that would have made life seem worth living.

Attacks against trans people have intensified in recent years, the spread of misinformation seemingly contagious amongst the right-winged conservatives who have proposed and passed anti-trans bills into law across the country. Utah has been no exception — our very own Gov. Spencer Cox was the first in the country to sign SB16 earlier this year, effectively banning gender-affirming healthcare for youth.

In 2022, Utah HB11 was passed, which initially banned girls who identified as transgender from playing school sports. I can acknowledge that concern about the discriminatory nature of the bill came from both sides of this divisive issue, and at the time, that was reassuring. It led to the formation of a “fallback commission” that would instead measure the girls’ bodies to determine if they could compete. It was originally stated that the commission would include “a physician who has worked in gender identity health care”, providing some hope that these cases would at least be evaluated by someone with sympathy for their experience. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when Dr. Hruz (a doctor with a history of discrimination against trans patients and involvement in anti-LGBTQ hate groups) was recently selected as the physician that would fill the role. But I can be appalled.

The response from Gov. Cox about the selection is equally as unsettling. Cox’s willingness to “give the benefit of the doubt” to a physician like Dr. Hruz is contradictory when paired with his statements earlier this year regarding the passing of SB16. Back in January, Gov. Cox stated “Legislation that impacts our most vulnerable youth requires careful consideration and deliberation…” So, while our governor is willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a dangerous and unethical physician, he is not willing to give the same to the extensive evidence-based research that shows transgender youth benefit from gender-affirming care and participation in sports, and even more so to the parents of trans youth who are making careful, private healthcare decisions for their children under the guidance of gender-affirming and evidence-informed physicians. Gov. Cox attempts to cover his transphobia with a mask of “concern,” and I see through it.

Yet again, Utah politicians have blood on their hands. The research surrounding gender-affirming care is clear, and they have heard the statistics. Trans youth are more at risk for suicide and mental illness than their peers. The percentage of transgender people who regret transitioning is 1% (in contrast to myths of high detransition rates that serve as a major argument for conservatives). Playing school sports has academic, physical, and mental benefits. The data exists. Our politicians are ignoring it. More than ignoring it, they’re replacing it with harmful misinformation bred from their own discomfort.

While the protectors of trans youth fight for them in courthouses across the country and continue educating those in power, more can be done. Trans youth deserve hope. The implementation of specifically targeted programs that support and uplift transgender students in schools is necessary for their individual development and survival in an era when politicians try to make them invisible (beyond a “safe place” sticker). This burden cannot solely fall on the families of trans youth.

Our school systems need increased budgets for more social workers that will work with students and their families to help them navigate gender identity-based challenges (without referring them to poorly funded or inaccessible resources). We need state-funded programs that provide trans youth with representation, that educate individuals, their peers, families, and communities, and provide them with alternative options when these laws get in their way.

Trans youth need to believe that their visibility doesn’t end with the passage of repressive bills. These laws will not erase us.

Caiden Michalec

CJ Michalec is an MSW student at the University of Utah. They are a passionate advocate for mental health awareness and advocating for marginalized groups. They are from Michigan, and have a history of working with LGBTQ+ youth across the country in various settings.