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A North Carolina native, Sailor Jones is a longtime organizer and community advocate who for more than two decades has fought for social justice in his state. As a member of the trans community, that fight has now taken on renewed urgency.
“This is my home. This is my North Carolina and I’m not going anywhere,” Jones said during a media briefing last week on the GOP-led war against trans rights.
North Carolina is among a slew of states that have already passed or are considering laws that would, among other restrictions, criminalize gender-affirming care and prohibit trans athletes from playing on teams that don’t align with their gender at birth.
There have been over 500 anti-trans bills proposed nationwide in 2023 alone, according to the website Trans Legislation Tracker. Of these, 70 have passed.
In Texas, a history of targeting groups on the periphery
Rep. Gene Wu (D- Houston) says Texas Republicans have carefully crafted anti-trans bills under the narrative of protecting children, a narrative many families in the state say, “makes our kids hate themselves and think about taking their own lives,” Wu said.
Advocates for trans rights and medical experts argue that denying care to trans youth can have severe mental and physical repercussions, and that such decisions should not be left to politicians but rather to individuals, their families and care providers.
Texas leads the country when it comes to anti-trans legislation, with 57 bills filed this current session, many of them sponsored by the same conservative Christian groups that fought to overturn Roe v. Wade.
A six-term state representative from Houston, Wu says the Texas legislature routinely attacks groups that are on the periphery, and he urges his Chinese American constituents to get behind the fight for trans rights as it may be them targeted next.
Indeed, Republican lawmakers in the state are pushing a bill that would prohibit people of certain national origins – including Chinese – from the sale or purchase of land.
Wu’s message to his GOP colleagues: “Leave people the hell alone… It’s no one’s business who I sleep with, who I love. It’s none of your business how I modify my body.”
A ‘chilling overreach of government power’
Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida, says that with marriage equality and same sex marriage no longer the wedge issues they once were, conservative lawmakers needed something else to rouse their base.
“They needed a new target. They needed something else that they could whip people into a frenzy with,” Smith said, noting that under Gov. Ron De Santis, the Sunshine State has gone into full attack mode, targeting everything from trans rights to reproductive care and even Micky Mouse.
“Perhaps the most chilling overreach of government power is a dangerous ban on life-saving medical care for trans youth,” explained Smith, referring to SB 254 which passed the legislature in early May.
The bill, she says, “overrules a parent’s right to seek medical care for their trans child. It criminalizes healthcare providers who provide that care consistent with the guidance of major medical organizations across the country, and it also restricts access to that care for adults, even those who have been receiving that care successfully for decades.”
Trans rights advocates have vowed to fight the bill, which reportedly came at the request of DeSantis.
There are also revived attempts at a bathroom bill that would restrict trans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, an effort Smith says has less to do with bathrooms and everything to do with “limiting the ability of trans people to be in public space.”
These laws indiscriminately target the roughly 1.3 million adults and 300,000 youth who identify as trans in Florida, noted Smith, adding there is a growing awareness among ordinary Floridians of the all-out war on freedom now being waged in their state.
“That is really the issue. We are fighting over the definition of freedom, and we are fighting over the definition of democracy. And everybody has a stake in that,” Smith said.
Same story, different state
“We’re seeing a lot of the same things that Representative Wu is seeing in Texas and Nadine has seen in Florida right here in the Tar Heel State,” Jones noted.
In 2016, North Carolina’s infamous bathroom bill started a national debate over the rights of transgender people. “It also set off a boycott by business and even celebrities to the State of North Carolina that helped ultimately blunt the types of bills we’re seeing today,” he continued.
So far, the business community has remained muted on these latest moves, a sign of their growing trepidation to wade into culture war issues, especially in the wake of the angry reaction among conservatives to a recent Bud Light ad featuring a trans influencer.
LGBTQ advocates have been tracking upwards of a dozen anti-trans proposals in North Carolina’s General Assembly. Many are like the ones Florida has already passed in education, healthcare, and sports.
“Several of these bills have already advanced through at least one chamber. The so-called ‘Parents Bill of Rights’ would require healthcare providers to get written parental consent before even treating trans young people,” Jones said.
Trans families ‘fleeing’ in the dark
Susan Maasch is founder of the Trans Youth Equality Foundation, a non-profit located in Portland, Maine that advocates for transgender and gender non-conforming youth and their families.
The foundation provides mini-grants to families fleeing red states. The maximum award is $3,000.
“We put the word out there, and we have heard from hundreds of people. So of course, we’re overwhelmed by requests and the stories are heartbreaking,” Maasch said. Most of the families come from Texas and Florida.
“They’re leaving their families, their friends, all their relatives. Some of them have lived in these states for generations and they are leaving everything that they know and doing it, you know, almost in the dark of night – fleeing really, in Uhaul trucks and cars, and whatever they can take with them,” she noted.
Families run because they can no longer access medical care for their trans children. Maasch says almost every state had a Children’s Hospital with a transgender clinic for children until a few months ago. But no longer.
“Now they’re being closed down and private practices are not seeing these children and not following through with their treatments. And so, there’s a great fear about that,” Maasch stressed.
Still, despite the political setbacks, Jones says the public understands that the current fight over trans people’s right to live freely is part and parcel of the larger fight over abortion, voting rights and the future of democracy in the country.
“They’re all inextricably connected,” he said.