Alabama Officials Throw Trans Youth Under the Bus
Governor Kay Ivey and her fellow partisans in the Alabama legislature have followed the lead of states such as Florida in running to the front line of the latest culture war. On Friday, April 8, 2022, Governor Ivey signed into law two separate bills that she and proponents claim is designed to protect impressionable transgender children from being manipulated into making life-altering decisions regarding their medical care.
One bill, SB184, misleadingly named The Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act, threatens medical providers with up to 10 years in prison for providing treatments such as puberty blockers, masculinizing/feminizing hormones, or genital reconstructive surgery (with the exception of circumcision) for minors under the age of 19. It also requires school faculty and staff to disclose to parents any information regarding their child’s perception that their gender identity does not align with their assigned sex.
The other bill, HB322, requires students to use only restrooms or locker rooms designated for the sex listed on their birth certificate. It also prohibits any classroom discussion or instruction relating to “sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards” in public K-5 classes.
Even if one gives the benefit of the doubt to those who pushed these bills, assuming they are acting in a good faith effort to protect children, it does not excuse the danger they have now posed to transgender youths across the state. For Governor Ivey and state legislators, as well most of their Evangelical constituents, for whom this bill was offered up as red meat in an election year, this is a purely theoretical issue. For them, this is not an issue that actually affects their lives – instead, it is another opportunity to assert and impose their religious beliefs in a society that they believe is increasingly slipping out of their grasp, real-life consequences be damned.
These leaders are fairly transparent about the fact that they are picking one particular religious paradigm – their own – to set as the law for all the rest of us to follow. Tim James, son of former Governor Fob James and hopeful for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, has an ad airing currently which calls a transgender female athlete “a man in a woman’s bathing suit” and ends with this call to action from the Christian scripture: “‘Male and female he created them.’ It’s time to fight back.” Governor Ivey’s statement upon codifying the bills into law said, “I believe very strongly that if the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.” For them, this is a religious crusade in which Christian principles outweigh the potential harm those very principles pose to trans kids. But for many families in Alabama, this is real life.
And among those families is my own. My brother, a senior in an Alabama public school, came out as transgender five years ago, at the age of 12. As someone for whom this legislation is personally salient, I do not appreciate the right’s imposition of their personal Christian beliefs on my brother.
Conservative antipathy toward transgender people, particularly transgender children, arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be trans and the experiences of such people. To their minds, transgender identity is not a naturally occurring experience that children can have without being coerced into it by liberal adults. As Governor Ivey put it in a post to her official Facebook page, “Enough of this woke radical nonsense that preys on our kids.” In a separate statement, she said, “There are very real challenges facing our young people, especially with today’s societal pressures and modern culture.”
With this framing of the issue, it is clear that Governor Ivey thinks that adults who dare to affirm what a child naturally and independently feels within and about themselves are predators trying to pressure them into some radical, woke worldview. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When my brother came out to me as transgender back in 2017, I was surprised, but certainly not upset. No one among our family or close friends was openly transgender. While I have been openly gay for almost nine years now, I did not pressure my brother into his identity. How could I have pushed him into having an experience that I do not personally understand? I have never experienced gender dysphoria, and I did not know that my brother was experiencing it until he told me that he was trans. In response, I simply asked him if he wanted me to start using different pronouns or a different name, and around whom he wanted me to use which words. I did not tell him that he had to change or do anything, I simply asked what he wanted so that I could respect his autonomy over himself.
Many conservatives simply cannot fathom that someone’s gender or sex could naturally fall anywhere outside of the neat, mutually exclusive boxes we’ve made for ourselves. That lack of understanding arises from their religious views, which, while protected by the constitutional freedom of religion, do not overrule those same individual liberties that others who may disagree with them hold. Nor do they align with what we know through biology and sociology – that while male and female do exist as sexes, there also exist sexes that fall somewhere outside or in between that binary. And that gender is inherently a social construct with no concrete, tangible meaning – so why bind people to something imaginary? Two X chromosomes do not bring a natural affinity for the color pink, baby dolls, or nail polish. But if someone with a Y chromosome enjoys these things, this simplistic paradigm pushed by the right would have you believe that it is unnatural, and indeed, the result of leftist indoctrination.
Let’s take a look at the specific measures taken by this legislation, the protections they purport to afford, and the actual harms they pose. Each measure is rooted in the idea that children who experience gender dysphoria need to be treated with correction rather than affirmation, and that affirmation is akin to child abuse. The prohibition on puberty blockers, hormones, and reconstructive surgery is rooted in the notion that their effects are irreversible, and that they could consequently do irreparable mental harm to a child who later wishes to undo their effects after the cessation of their gender dysphoria. The truth, however, is that many (though admittedly not all) effects of these treatments can actually be reversed if so desired.
Puberty blockers only block the hormones that cause physical development for so long as they are taken. Once a patient stops taking this medication, the body resumes producing whichever hormone, facilitating the once arrested development. Similarly, with hormone therapy, which provides the wanted hormones rather than blocking unwanted ones, physical characteristics such as muscle mass, fat distribution, and skin texture can be reversed by discontinuing the treatment. Although, with this treatment, reduced fertility or outright infertility may be irreversible after doing the treatment for so long, as well as the enlargement of certain sex organs.
As for gender affirmation surgery, reversal is possible in certain circumstances. It depends on the type of surgery performed. If existing tissues are reconstructed into a different structure, the original structure can often be reformed using that same tissue, yielding “satisfactory outcomes”. However, if tissues are outright removed, then reversal can be more difficult to achieve. It should also be noted that while there are instances of regret following these surgeries, their prevalence is low. In one study, among 7928 patients, only 77 came to later regret their decision – in other words, only 0.0097%.
These procedures are also only performed after a thorough and arduous medical process. Doctors will only agree to perform the procedure after one year of hormone therapy, and two years of psychiatric evaluation, because they want to ensure as best they can that these individuals actually want the treatment they think they want. It is also paramount to point out that, at least as far as it concerns gender affirmation surgery, this treatment was not available for minors in Alabama or even the United States, generally speaking, in the first place. The guidelines of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health do not recommend this surgery until the age of 18. Including a ban on something that already didn’t exist are just another scare tactic and a red herring.
Ultimately, yes, all of these treatments for gender dysphoria can have significant and sometimes lasting impacts on the lives of the patients who receive them. Given the weight of these medical decisions, I would argue that it is all the more reason for the government to stay out of these processes and instead leave it up to an individual, their family, and their medical providers. Medical professionals know best what is and isn’t appropriate treatment, which is why they set their own guidelines for age-appropriate care options. This is a point that one would think would not be lost on the party of small government.
While the impacts of these treatments can be lasting, the impact of forgoing them can be even more permanent. For one Gadsden police officer, whose daughter is trans, access to treatment helped her go “from being suicidal to accepting who she was.” To put it bluntly, going off of his point, I would rather have a regretfully infertile brother than a dead one. Who is Governor Ivey to make that decision for us?
As previously mentioned, these laws also prohibit students from using a restroom designated for a sex other than the one listed on their birth certificate (does this mean we should start keeping a copy of it on us – a gender passport, of sorts?). This is yet another intimate and difficult decision for many trans people, including trans youth. If a trans person outwardly presents as a gender other than the one assigned at birth, using the “correct” restroom can be dangerous. This is an experience that I have learned of anecdotally from my brother and other trans people in my life. Someone who was assigned female at birth, but who now presents as a man, maybe met with alarm or even aggression if they go into a ladies’ restroom. But now, if they use the restroom that is designated for their gender identity, they may face criminal, legal repercussions.
It’s ironic that the very people who fearmonger about “men in the women’s restroom” now literally require trans men to use the women’s restroom. The alternative to either of these choices is to allow trans students to use single-occupant restrooms. This third option can present its own problems. At my brother’s high school, the single-occupant restrooms are usually designated as staff restrooms. To keep students from going into these restrooms for nefarious reasons, they are sometimes kept locked, leaving my brother and other trans students there in the unique and unenviable position of having to hunt down custodial staff to unlock the restroom.
Imagine being between classes, having to urgently use the restroom, and your options are: using the restroom for your assigned sex and being verbally accosted for it, using the restroom for your gender identity and facing legal trouble, or having to run around to find one of a handful of people who can unlock single-occupant restrooms for you while you try not to have an accident. It is truly a no-win situation, and the State of Alabama has only worsened it for these students.
A particularly cruel component of the new laws is their requirement that school faculty and staff effectively out any trans or possibly trans students to their parents. It is one thing for a teacher to pressure a student to withhold this information from their parents, but quite another for a teacher to act as a trusted confidant for students who are not yet ready to bring it to the attention of their parents. Everybody’s coming out journey is different, and given the difficulty and risk in deciding when and to whom one comes out, it should be entirely at the discretion of each individual. I was lucky in that when I came out to my parents as gay at the age of 17, they didn’t bat an eye and worked their best to give me nothing but continued love and support. I did, however, come out to a teacher before I came out to them.
I was applying for a scholarship for LGBT students which required a letter of recommendation from a teacher, so I found a teacher I trusted and told her what I needed. She told me she was proud of me and wrote a glowing letter, turning a scary situation into a really encouraging experience. I could not imagine the next day if I found out that the state required her to tell this information to my parents. And I’m one of the lucky ones. For many LGBT youth, coming out to parents or family can literally be dangerous.
Violence under the guise of upright discipline is used as a corrective tool for some parents who feel that queer identity is incompatible with their moral code. Even if homophobic or transphobic parents don’t use physical or verbal violence, the act of trying to correct, rather than affirm, the gender identity of trans people, particularly trans youth, brings about very consequential negative mental health outcomes. This law has now stolen from trans youth an important pillar of support, perhaps the only one some of them had. Not only that, it could potentially put them in the crosshairs of their parents’ ire. It is yet another example of the State of Alabama making a monumental decision for trans students.
The law also bans classroom discussion or instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity that is not “age-appropriate.” But this is purposefully ambiguous and seeks to be a solution to a non-existent problem. On this aspect of the law, Governor Ivey has said, “We don’t need to be teaching young children about sex. We are talking about five-year-olds for crying out loud,” although the ban goes up to 5th grade (the same grade, by a curious coincidence, in which I recall my Alabama public school separating boys and girls for “the talk” about puberty and heterosexual sex – in a straightforward, age-appropriate way, of course).
One might think, based on her message, that elementary teachers have been giving explicit step-by-step instructions on how to perform various sexual acts. But that is not the case, nor is it what the actual language of the law addresses – it explicitly confronts discussion or instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity.” Clearly, one can discuss being gay or trans without getting into explicit sexual details – I’ve done it here and somehow managed not to share any details about my sex life. But such details are not actually the concern of lawmakers. Instead, they want to curtail open, frank discussions about queer people and issues, which can be done in age-appropriate ways, in order to erase or at least ignore the existence of such people in the state’s public classrooms.
A student with two dads or two moms may be prevented from talking about their family because the State has deemed that as inherently sexual since it relates to the topic of sexual orientation. This aspect of the law singles out LGBT youth or youths with LGBT families in a way that it does not for students born into the nuclear family structure. Billy can’t talk about his moms, but Anne can talk about her mom and dad having another baby.
The Alabama legislature made sure to use the final days of this year’s regular legislative session to fire up their conservative Christian base at the expense of the healthcare, safety, dignity, and autonomy of transgender children. They have outlawed sometimes medically necessary gender affirmation healthcare, demonstrating that they think they know better than doctors and families what is best for trans kids. They have ensured that something as basic and common as finding a restroom to relieve oneself becomes a choice between safety and criminal offense. They have prohibited teachers from even mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity unless that discussion comes in the form of outting a student to their parents.
To the proponents of these laws: it is okay if you don’t understand what it means to be transgender, or queer, whatever that looks like for any one individual. It is even okay for you to take and maintain your particular moral position on these issues. It is NOT okay, however, for you to enforce your moral position on everyone else under the guise of protecting children. Especially when these supposed “protections” are detrimental to the safety and well-being of those same children. You should be working to make the lives of all of your citizens – even ones with whom you don’t morally agree – easier and better.
Instead, you have done your best to make life harder for the most vulnerable among us, all to satisfy your base. What you have done is morally reprehensible, and I encourage you to take a look at those whom you’ve endangered and listen to them. You have positioned yourselves as my brother’s biggest bullies – and this Big Bubba doesn’t take that lightly. I hope you go to sleep at night knowing that because of your actions, transgender youth are now even more likely to face abuse from their parents, harassment from their peers, worsened depression/anxiety/suicidal ideation – and now they can’t even talk about it at school because it’s been deemed an inappropriate topic.
These actions are completely antithetical to your supposed principles of limited government intrusion into the personal lives of citizens. Be consistent. Go to bat for marginalized groups the same way you do for the Christian hegemon. If you can’t do that, butt out!
Andrew is a Decatur, AL native and former student of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. Covering the issues impacting Alabamians from all walks of life, holding the powerful to account, and speaking up for marginalized members of our communities. There are no alternative facts – only truths and lies.