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You’ve met Hannah Leffingwell here before: Hannah is finishing a French Studies and History dissertation at New York University and taught at The New School’s Eugene Lang College this semester. She has published here at Public Seminar and in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Today, Hannah takes on anti-trans legislation and its effects on young people who live outside the states where transphobia is dominating the legislative agenda. And if you know someone who needs to read this post or would be informed by it, please:
While teaching a queer history seminar to undergraduates a couple of weeks ago, I asked each student how they were doing. Usually, we start class by brainstorming. But I could tell everyone was tired. I was tired. The news had been particularly bad that week, with more and more anti-trans bills passing in state legislatures across the country.
Most of my students identify as queer, as do I. The weight of the news was palpable in the room, like a hurricane hovering just off the coast.
Even though few students spoke explicitly about the anti-trans bills, their stories about being stressed and overwhelmed suggested pervasive loneliness and trepidation. In a room full of queer students, they seemed to feel isolated, even from each other. In New York City, where they are probably safe from anti-trans laws, they seemed on edge.
My hunch that their collective state of mind was linked to the political situation turned out to be true. Assigning an essay about anti-trans legislation, I asked my students to reflect on the personal ramifications of these bills. Their responses broke my heart. They used words like “terrifying,” “heartbreaking,” “hopeless,” and “fearful.” They described how worried they were for their trans friends, family members, and partners. They explained how worried they were for their personal safety and their ability to travel, gather, access healthcare, and meet their basic needs.
They said that sometimes they were frightened even to go outside.
As the school year ends, I am more certain than ever that our education system is in an unprecedented crisis. From preschool to graduate school, students are experiencing heightened levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Yet, at the same time, state legislators are stripping away teachers’ ability to support and uplift these students, legislating what books they can assign, what pronouns they can use, and what they can or can’t teach.
This is true even for the very young. My wife, who teaches music in kindergarten through third grade, often tells me that she has never seen so many children this anxious at this young age. Children of the pandemic, her students are preoccupied with sickness, death, and uncertainty: students who spend the whole class hugging a pillow in the “peace corner” and never calm down—students who don’t know how to deal with the constant threats they face every day just for being alive.
Their anxiety is matched only by that of the adults tasked with caring for them. Because of gun violence, every single teacher who has stepped into a classroom in the past decade has had to decide whether we are willing to die for our students. For queer educators and educators of queer kids, this trepidation has only expanded in recent years because, increasingly, we must weigh the benefits of providing the education our students deserve against the consequences of providing it.
Though some anti-trans bills introduced in the first four months of 2023 are unlikely to become law, especially in progressive states like New York, the proliferation of these hateful bills will have serious implications for my students’ futures. As we have seen with the anti-abortion movement’s successful state-by-state campaign to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the coalition behind anti-trans legislation is bigger than any one bill. Republicans believe their efforts will ultimately pay off with a nationwide ban on gender-affirming care. As the President of the American Principles Project put it, the ultimate goal of this ad-hoc anti-trans coalition is to “eliminate all transition care, starting with children because that’s ‘where the consensus is.’” Meanwhile, legislation targeting LGBTQ+ topics in school curriculums and libraries has metastasized, unified around one singular goal: overturning free speech decisions from the 1950s and 1960s that made books about queer people available in the first place.
In addition to the discursive violence of these highly mediatized debates about LGBTQ+ people, anti-trans bills passed this year will have immediate, life-threatening consequences for some trans people. This is especially true for laws that criminalize trans healthcare—and sometimes require physicians to forcibly de-transition trans youth. The Human Rights Campaign projects that barriers to gender-affirming care will soon affect more than 50% of trans youth in the United States. This is a terrifying statistic when paired with data that suggests more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.
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Along with gender-affirming care bans, state legislatures are passing laws that would make it a crime for trans people, adults or children, to enter bathrooms that align with their gender. These bills extend to locker rooms and athletic facilities in schools. In addition, they are tied to regulations that require athletics programs in public schools, colleges, and universities to maintain separate same-sex teams based on “biological sex.”
These laws, aside from making school a living hell for many trans kids, aim to eliminate the idea that people have a gender in the first place. Kentucky’s SB145, for example, defines “biological sex” as the sex “indicated on the student’s original, unedited birth certificate issued at the time of birth,” or as determined during an annual medical examination “establishing the student’s biological sex at the time of birth.” Florida, which has in many ways led the nation in these regressive laws, has recently seen a package of anti-trans bills signed into law that use the language of “biological” sex to legislate everything from drag performances to bathroom use, effectively turning Floridians who are trans into second-class citizens. Sports, sexual education, and drag may be the explicit targets of these laws, but the legal erasure of trans identity is the ultimate result.
Then there are bills that target trans students’ right to be called by their names and pronouns at school. These bills prohibit any policies that would require school personnel and students to use pronouns “that do not conform to a student’s biological sex as indicated on the student’s original, unedited birth certificate issued at the time of birth.” These bills, besides codifying “biological sex,” assert that students and employees of state-funded institutions have a right to discriminate against trans people. These bills frame the people who willfully use children’s birth names and incorrect pronouns as “victims” who need legal protection.
And, of course, there is the spate of new bills modeled after Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, recently extended by the Board of Education to prohibit teaching gender identity and sexual orientation through the twelfth grade in public schools. Kentucky’s SB150, passed after Republicans overrode Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s veto, is one of the most egregious examples. It requires written parental consent for students to take part in any course, curriculum, or program on the subject of “human sexuality.” In addition, it prohibits instruction on human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases through the fifth grade and “any child, regardless of grade level, enrolled in the district” from receiving “any instruction or presentation that has a goal or purpose of students studying or exploring gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”
Though most of these laws target K-12 education, Republican lawmakers also attack higher ed. So far, along with college-level trans sports and bathroom bans, legislators have focused on prohibiting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in colleges and universities. West Virginia’s HB 3503 and Texas’s HB 3164, introduced this year, prohibit university administrations from funding DEI initiatives. They define these broadly as programs that promote a “particular, widely contested opinion regarding unconscious or implicit bias, cultural appropriation, allyship, transgender ideology, micro aggressions, group marginalization, antiracism, systemic oppression, social justice, intersectionality, neo-pronouns, heteronormativity, disparate impact, gender theory, racial or sexual privilege, or other closely related concepts.”
A particular, widely contested opinion. That is how these Republicans have chosen to frame the existence of trans people in the eyes of the law: as a controversy whose adjudication is coercive, harmful, and up for public debate.
Tenured professors have written about the change in their students over the past few years: they view them as less willing to converse with classmates, prone to us-versus-them thinking, more likely to express suicidal ideation, and in greater need of mental-health accommodations. Many look back wistfully on the good old days (which may never have existed) when conversations were free-flowing, students spoke unselfconsciously in class, and “principled neutrality” kept university administrations and politicians out of the classroom.
I understand this grief, even though I believe strongly that we should not confuse nostalgia for history. Many are sincerely concerned by the mental health crisis on college campuses and are honestly invested in improving university life. But I worry that a good-intentioned preoccupation with the supposed cultural deterioration of university life has only served to fan the flames of a “culture wars” narrative, one beloved by conservatives precisely because it frames systemic oppression as a set of personal problems.
The mental health crisis on college campuses cannot be solved by resuscitating the past, by teaching our students how to turn in their work on time, converse with people they disagree with, and think critically. It can only be solved by widespread, systemic change to the society our students live in—a society that has become unlivable for so many of them.
Instead of grieving some imagined past, we should talk to our students about their grief—the real, vivid, and embodied loss, not just of people, but of hope. We should talk about the students we will never get to teach because legislators have decided their lives are not worth saving. We should talk about the children who will never get to be adults in a college classroom.
I feel more certain than ever that trans youth are the canary in the coal mine of the American education system. Something is terribly, terribly wrong when school is as much a source of suicidal ideation as self-discovery, when a student can be put in a position where she is told, over and over again, that she does not exist and that this lesson is good for her.
For those who still think that anti-trans legislation does not affect them or that these laws only matter for a small handful of trans students, I implore you: reach out to your queer and trans students now. Ask them how they are doing—how they are really doing. Ask them what they want to be when they grow up. I promise that once you hear their answers, you will no longer think this is someone else’s battle to fight.
I know I cannot protect my students once they leave my classroom. But I can offer them the recognition that their fear and suffering are real. That we, as their teachers and mentors, believe them. That we will nurture them and bring them up to adulthood. That we will fight like hell for their survival.
We are learning everything we can about the harm being done to them and will do everything in our power to fight for their lives.
Montana has become the first state in the nation to ban TikTok completely: Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed legislation this week which will, he claims, “protect Montanans’ private data and sensitive personal information from being harvested by the Chinese Communist Party.” Because, ya know, the CCP is all about looking in the digital windows of one of the most rural states in the nation. But try enforcing it. As Amy Beth Hanson and Haleluya Hadero write at the Associated Press, numerous civil liberties organizations have called the law unconstitutional, and users are now suing. Furthermore, “Montana residents could easily circumvent the ban by using a virtual private network, a service that shields internet users by encrypting their data traffic, preventing others from observing their web browsing. Montana state officials say geofencing technology is used with online sports gambling apps, which are deactivated in states where online gambling is illegal.” (May 18, 2023)
The New Republic’s Michael Tomasky and Felicia Wong interview Danielle Allen, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University and a candidate for the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts. In this podcast, How to Save a Country, also transcribed on the site, you can learn what Allen learned about Democracy as a candidate (full disclosure: I worked on her brief campaign.) “Democracy is valuable if and when it also delivers for people in real ways,” Allen argues. “And a sense of just the powerful and painful disparities that we are watching from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic here in Massachusetts; I was in this protected bubble in Harvard and, just a couple of miles away in Chelsea, we had some of the highest mortality rates in the country, and I saw that disparity is flowing directly from governance problems, from failures in our state government. I just honestly got angrier and angrier and angrier.” (May 18, 2023)
Showboating GOP Representatives keep screeching about impeaching Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, but whatever he is doing, he is doing it well. Despite dire predictions of “chaos” on the border after the pandemic-era Title 42 ended, contacts between migrants and border patrol are down by almost half. As Rebecca Beitsch reports at The Hill, “Ahead of the lifting of Title 42 on May 11, border encounters were around 10,000 individuals per day, a total that is now averaging around 4,400 people each day, with figures the last two days under 4,000,” a decrease of 56%. (May 17, 2023)
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