Anti-Trans Laws Hurt All Kids — Here’s How

From parental rights bills to book bans, anti-trans attacks have seriously harmful effects on cisgender kids too.

by Sam Manzella
Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Shutterstock

America’s 300,000 transgender youth are under attack. In 2023 alone, Republican lawmakers have introduced nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, more than any year in recent history. More than 80 of these bills have already passed into law, and the bulk of which target trans and nonbinary youth. States like Florida and Iowa have stripped their access to medically necessary gender-affirming healthcare; others, including Kansas and Missouri, have banned trans student athletes from competing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. Additional attacks include bills that would forcibly out trans students to their parents if they’re out at school or prevent them from discussing queer and trans issues in classrooms.

Policymakers typically push these bills under the guise of “protecting women and children” or “defending fairness in sports.” In reality, this year’s deluge of legislation is the latest in a series of ongoing, coordinated political attacks against the trans community. It’s been mounting since 2016, when GOP lawmakers in North Carolina advanced the nation’s first anti-trans “bathroom bill.” And with the 2024 presidential election on the horizon, advocates expect to see right-wing politicians double down on anti-trans attacks as a means of galvanizing voters.

Every child deserves the freedom to be their authentic self without persecution. And although transphobia may seem like a niche issue, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Attacks on trans kids hurt all children, including those who are cisgender by jeopardizing their rights, safety, and education. This is how.

1. They Create An Overarching Climate of Fear

First and foremost, every form of systemic oppression — from transphobia, to sexism, to racism — is interconnected. It’s no mistake that this wave of transphobic bills has cropped up alongside anti-abortion laws and book bans. The conservative politicians who back these harmful policies are one and the same.

A political attack on one marginalized group invariably affects others. To grasp this, it’s helpful to understand intersectionality, a term coined by feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the ways Black women experience intersecting dimensions of gender- and race-based oppression. If we examine systemic transphobia through an intersectional lens, we see that Black and Brown folks experience the brunt of transphobic violence, and anti-trans sports bans, for example, disproportionately impact girls and young women, cis and trans.

So, anti-trans laws don’t just harm trans kids; they create an overarching climate of fear and prejudice that endangers cis girls, queer kids, and children of color, too.

2. They Promote Prejudice In Athletics

At least 23 states have implemented anti-trans sports bans. Many of these laws explicitly target trans girls and young women, citing their “biological advantage” over cis competitors. (There isn’t much empirical research to support or refute this claim, but the evidence we do have indicates that trans women who have medically transitioned possess no clear advantage over cis women.)

Regardless, these laws promote prejudice in athletics — and that’s harmful to cis and trans girls alike. Case in point: This viral story from June, in which a 9-year-old cis girl was accosted at a track meet by a man who demanded that she “prove” she was assigned female at birth. He singled her out because she was wearing loose shorts and had short hair. As her mother told the man, per The Huffington Post, “Sir, you need to check yourself. This is a grade four and five elementary school track and field meet. No one is trying to rig the results.”

This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. In 2022, the parents of a teenage athlete in Utah launched an investigation into another athlete’s gender identity after she beat their daughter “by a wide margin.” The athlete who was investigated is a cis girl.

3. They Threaten Kids’ Independence

At least five states have laws on the books that force public school teachers and administrators to out LGBTQ+ children to their parents; six more encourage but don’t mandate these disclosures. These so-called “parental rights” bills threaten trans kids’ safety and independence. If a trans kid chooses to come out at school but remain closeted at home, they might be protecting themself from hostile family members. Even if their parents would be supportive, everyone should be able to come out in their own time, on their own terms.

For many children, school is one of the few places where they can freely express themselves. This is true for kids of all gender identities. But parental rights bills discourage kids from exploring what authenticity means to them, undermining their independence on a fundamental level. It’s not like young people have much legal authority to begin with, either.

Not to mention, some parental rights bills would also require teachers to post all educational materials on public websites so that parents can more easily challenge what’s being taught in schools. These policies instill fear in American educators, which may alter how they instruct on topics that right-wingers have deemed divisive, affecting cis students’ education.

4. They Make Children Afraid To Be Themselves

Researchers at The Williams Institute, UCLA’s LGBTQ+ policy think-tank, estimate that at least 1.6 million Americans are trans or nonbinary, including about 300,000 youth ages 13 to 17 (1.4% of this age group).

At the risk of stating the obvious, any child could turn out to be trans. Just because you assume your kid is cisgender doesn’t mean they are or always will be.

It’s easy to see how anti-trans laws — and the culture of hate surrounding them — may negatively affect trans kids who are closeted to their family or presumed to be cis. They may also make youth fearful of being openly trans, delaying their journey of coming into their authentic self. And that’s a shame, because gender exploration can be extremely joyful and fulfilling.

5. They Put All Forms Of Gender Nonconformity Under Scrutiny

If you’ve ever seen a man perform in drag or a woman wear a suit then you know gender expression isn’t the same thing as gender identity. Although many trans people alter their outward appearance to reflect their identity, experimenting with styles that buck conventional gender norms doesn’t make you trans, and many cis people do this as well. Unfortunately, in a transphobic political climate, these nuances are often lost on people.

Amid this year’s uptick in anti-trans animus, we’re seeing increased scrutiny of gender nonconformity across the board. This poses a danger to everyone regardless of gender identity. For instance, cis girls and young women who have conventionally masculine features like strong cheekbones or present in a masculine way, such as by having short hair, have been targeted by transphobes. (Due to racist perceptions of Black femininity, this happens disproportionately to Black girls and young women.) Similarly, cis boys who paint their nails or wear dresses may face harassment. It’s no wonder queer kids and children of color across America say they feel increasingly unsafe at school.

6. They Send A Harmful Message About Bodily Autonomy

Every major U.S. medical association recommends gender-affirming medical care for trans youth who are experiencing gender dysphoria. But this best-practice healthcare is under attack in at least 22 states, five of which have made providing it a felony.

Although these bans have an obvious impact on trans children, they’re also harmful to cis kids. That’s because they telegraph a dangerous message about bodily autonomy.

Healthcare is highly individual. Everybody, regardless of their gender identity, should have the freedom to seek out the medical care they want. These laws jeopardize that, reinforcing the notion that elected officials — not you, your family, nor your physicians — get to decide what is best for you and your body. It’s the same logic underpinning anti-abortion laws, which have swept the nation since last June’s reversal of federal abortion protections under Roe v. Wade.

7. They Jeopardize Kids’ Ability To Appreciate Different Life Experiences

According to the American Library Association, 2022 saw the highest number of attempted book bans of any year in recent history. In Florida alone, more than 300 books were stripped from public school shelves. State and local officials have kept the momentum up this year, barring schools and libraries from carrying books they deem “age-inappropriate” for kids. But the bulk of these banned titles tackle race or LGBTQ+ themes, betraying policymakers’ true agenda.

Whether conservatives are targeting books about Black or trans experiences — or both, in the case of popular titles like George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue — the effect is the same. Books bans limit the kinds of stories school-aged children of all gender identities can easily access. By restricting kids’ media diets, these policies compromise their ability to learn about and appreciate different life experiences. And without these opportunities, they may struggle to exercise empathy in real-life interactions with people who don’t look like them or share their identities. And in our exceptionally divided nation, empathy is already in short supply…as evidence by all these attacks on trans kids.

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