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When Trans Athletes Win

We need to understand what’s happening to fuel all of these anti-trans bills.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Austris Augusts on Unsplash

We need to understand what’s happening to fuel all of these anti-trans bills.

By Zack Ford | The war on trans people’s right to exist has escalated greatly this year in state legislatures. By far, the most popular anti-trans legislation — in terms of both how many bills have been introduced and how successfully they’re becoming law — comes in the form of bills banning transgender student athletes from competing on teams that match their gender identity. And there’s something fascinating we have to reconcile about the success these bills are having this year: conservatives found more success advancing anti-trans discrimination by lowering the stakes of their arguments.

Think about it. Half a decade ago, everything you heard from conservatives was about bathrooms and locker rooms. The narrative was safety: “Women won’t be safe if they have to see a trans person changing!” It was offensive bullshit, of course, but as far as narratives go, “safety” is a pretty high-stakes one. But the new narrative is “fairness” — in sports of all things — and it’s a much lower-stakes claim. And, perhaps counterintuitively, I think that’s why it’s been more successful.

Many of the bills we’re also seeing are attacking the health care that trans kids deserve, which is very dangerous and high-stakes, so I don’t want to ignore it. But I’ll ask you to join me in setting those bills aside for a moment to consider just where this surge of anti-trans sports bills is coming from and why it’s so effective. At least 33 different states have seen at least one of these bills introduced, and seven states now have bans in place, including West Virginia, where the ban just became law this past week.

There was previously only one ban in place. Idaho was the first state to pass such a ban into law just last year, and Idaho’s ban is not even currently enforceable thanks to the ACLU’s quick victory in court challenging it. From one state in 2020 to at last seven so far in 2021 is a huge escalation, and we have to examine what’s happening there, because these sports bills are gateway bills. As we’ve already seen at a rapid pace in Arkansas, one kind of anti-trans discrimination begets another (including the bills targeting kids’ health care and the bathroom bills of yore).

So how is this lower-stakes argument for anti-trans discrimination accomplishing so much more for conservatives?

It’s because some trans girls won their races. Some Black trans girls.

Yeah, race is a factor too. Because of course it is.

Out Of The Locker Room, Onto The Field

If you think back to the surge of anti-trans advocacy we saw after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision in 2015, the focus was almost entirely on bathrooms and locker rooms. Overblown stories about simply seeing trans people in these spaces (like the Planet Fitness case in Michigan) were used to demonize all trans people (though really just trans women) as perverts and predators and justify discrimination against them. This arguably culminated in early 2016 with North Carolina’s passage of HB2, which mandated discrimination against trans people in public places.

While the effort to demonize trans people has by no means dissipated, the focus on such “bathroom bills” has seemingly diminished since then.

Before even getting into the reasons why that might be, it’s important to note that these anti-trans campaigns are not organic. More than any other conservative organization or individual, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBTQ hate group, is controlling the narrative and approach of anti-LGBTQ litigation and legislation. My buddy Josh Israel profiled ADF in 2014 as “The 800-Pound Gorilla of the Christian Right,” and it’s only grown since then. The strategic shifts we’ve seen in the attacks on trans people can easily be connected to ADF’s successes and failures.

As to why we’ve seen less of a push for bathroom bills, the first and foremost reason is surely how monumental the backlash to HB2 was. The bill itself was a reaction to Charlotte becoming North Carolina’s first city to pass LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections at the local level — you know, the kind of inclusive protection that dozens of major cities and states have that have resulted in none of the consequences conservatives fear-monger about. HB2 both banned such protections in North Carolina cities and prohibited trans people statewide from using public facilities consistent with their identities. Major corporations, artists, and sports leagues punished the state so heavily that HB2’s major champion, Gov. Pat McCrory (R), lost reelection in 2016 even as Donald Trump won North Carolina’s electoral votes.

Newly elected Gov. Roy Cooper (D) quickly worked to repeal the ban on trans people using facilities in 2017 and set an end-date for the ban on municipal LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. When that ban finally lifted last December, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, Durham, Greensboro, and Orange County all immediately followed Charlotte’s lead and passed their own protections. As a law, HB2 is now history, and the state has better LGBTQ protections than it did before its passage. It’s no surprise that conservatives have at least rethought their approach on such blatantly discriminatory bills given the massive net loss.

Secondly, Trump’s election helped ease the pressure conservatives likely felt to push for discriminatory policies at the state level by reversing all the federal protections introduced by the Obama administration. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reversed the Title IX guidance protecting trans students, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Title VII guidance protecting trans workers, HUD Secretary Ben Carson reversed the guidance protecting trans people seeking shelter, and Trump tweeted out a ban on trans military service — to name just the most prominent examples. There was no longer a “threat” to conservatives that the whole nation was going to be obligated by the federal government to abide by these LGBTQ protections.

Thirdly, ADF and similar conservative legal groups were losing a lot of their bathroom cases in court. ADF has a two-pronged approach; it helps draft, lobby for, and defend discriminatory bills, but it also challenges the laws that do protect LGBTQ people in court and defends schools and employers that want to keep discriminating. But there was a big wave of victories in federal courts for transgender students seeking or trying to maintain equal access to facilities in their schools, including in WisconsinIllinoisOhio, and Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court notably refused to hear ADF’s case in Pennsylvania after it lost its push for discrimination in the Third Circuit.

But the Supreme Court did hear a trio of cases about employment discrimination, including one about a trans woman, and delivered a massive defeat to ADF in Bostock v. Clayton County. Federal law officially now protects trans people from discrimination.

It’s no surprise we now see a new raft of bills with a new strategy, one that capitalizes on a case ADF found that follows a rather different narrative.

Introducing Race To The Race

There’s a lawsuit ADF filed in 2016 that never went anywhere, but that I’ve never forgotten.

Targeting a high school in the small city of Virginia, Minnesota, the lawsuit was ostensibly one of ADF’s many attempts to reverse a school’s inclusive policies for transgender students. It made all the usual false claims about “safety and privacy” for cis girls, but it also directly attacked “Student X,” a real trans student enrolled at the school.

You can go back and read my full reporting on the suit, but I want to draw your attention to this specific paragraph from the complaint:

Student X began dancing in the locker room while Girl Plaintiff A and others prepared for track practice. Student X would dance in a sexually explicit manner — “twerking,” “grinding” or dancing like he [sic]was on a “stripper pole” to songs with explicit lyrics, including “Milkshake” by Kelis. On at least one occasion, Girl Plaintiff A saw Student X lift his [sic] dress to reveal his [sic] underwear while “grinding” to the music.

A Sense Of Fairness

Before we get to the Connecticut case, let’s talk broadly about sports for a minute.

Objectively, sports aren’t fair.

We go to a lot of trouble to convince ourselves that they are, but they never truly are. Each person’s biology is different, so on a fundamental level, we can only approximate fairness.

We do that in a lot of ways. Gender is obviously one way we divide up sports in an attempt to make the competition more fair. Age is another factor, where we have everything from junior varsity to senior citizen leagues — to say nothing of sports like gymnastics where competitiveness is by default limited to a very narrow age range. Some sports like wrestling and boxing specifically consider physical attributes like weight. Through rules about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, we set limits about what exactly a person can do to their body to achieve a competitive advantage. And in college sports we even separate athletes into divisions with the primary difference being whether students can receive athletic scholarships, which —though we don’t generally think about it — inherently introduces all kinds of factors like career goals and finances into determining the fairness of athletic competition.

In short, a lot of thought has gone into how to approximate fairness in athletics. But we also acknowledge that we can only make things so fair. For example, we can’t really do anything about Michael Phelps. From his torso-to-leg height ratio to his massive wingspan to his double-jointed ankles and elbows to his reduced lactic acid creation, Phelps’ body naturally excels at swimming, and he capitalized on that with discipline and drive. When he swims, we all just stand in awe of what this cis white guy with a ton of biological advantages is capable of; he’s the best and hooray for what the human body can achieve! Of course he’s allowed to compete; his advantages don’t fit any of the disqualifying criteria we’ve established.

But not everyone just gets to be the best when they excel in athletics. In a lot of other cases, when someone does well, it raises suspicion instead of applause. Sports do not exist in a bubble and are not exempt from societal forces. The question “Why did that person win?” quickly leads to the question ‘“Did they have an ‘unfair’ advantage?” and attempts to identify what sets them apart. When trans people excel, just like when women excel and when people of color excel, such suspicion around their success very easily and inevitably turns into a proxy for discrimination against them. It’s one thing if someone is allowed to compete; it’s quite another if they’re able to win.

Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood were able to win. Both Black and both trans young women, they won a combined 15 track championships in Connecticut from 2017 to 2019. And ADF turned them into the symbol of the alleged unfairness of transgender inclusion in sports because of the opportunities they were supposedly taking away from cis white girls.

The Exception Does Not Prove The Rule

It’s no surprise that the question of whether it’s fair for trans people to compete has been asked. But it’s also been answered — for some time now. The International Olympic Committee, the NCAA, and K-12 athletic leagues across the country have long had policies allowing trans people to compete according to their gender identity with simple caveats regarding how far along they must be in their transitions.

That’s because studies have repeatedly found that the changes trans people make to their bodies set them up for fair competition with their cis peers. Trans women, the most common concern, lose most of the advantages often associated with male bodies. I really appreciate how Joanna Harper, author of some of these studies, framed the debate in a recent interview with OutSports (emphasis added):

For those who suggest trans women have advantages: We allow advantages in sport, but what we don’t allow is overwhelming advantages… Trans women also have disadvantages in sport. Our larger bodies are being powered by reduced muscle mass and reduced aerobic capacity, and can lead to disadvantages in quickness, recovery, and a number of other factors.

The bottom line is, we can have meaningful competition between trans women and cis women. From my point of the view, the data looks favorable toward trans women being allowed to compete in women’s sports.

To the extent that any sports are “fair,” allowing trans people to compete is fair enough. And there are trans people competing all over at varying levels of competition that we never hear anything about. There’s nothing to hear, and there are no complaints about their participation, because they aren’t winning.

But Miller and Yearwood’s ability to win — as both trans and Black in the very white state (75%) of Connecticut — drew attention. Then all ADF had to do was find a couple of cis girls who didn’t like losing to them to file a lawsuit attempting to overturn the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s entire inclusive policy for all trans athletes in the state. The message was clear: If inclusion means these two trans athletes can win, then no trans athlete should be allowed to compete.

At this point, I want to send you on a detour to read a recent piece by the brilliant Derrick Clifton. In it, he connects the way Miller and Yearwood have been targeted for their bodies to the long history of cis Black women being policed in the same way, such as Serena Williams, as well as Black women who are intersex or have other conditions like hyperandrogenism, including the saga of Caster Semenya. As he writes, “Black women in sports — whether they are cis, trans, or intersex — constantly encounter shifting rules and expectations as a reprimand for their successes.”

One of the things I didn’t even know until I read Derrick’s piece is that Chelsea Mitchell, one of the cis white girls who joined ADF’s suit, actually beat Miller in their last two races and had earned her own state championships. So the portrayal that these Black trans athletes were always superior and depriving the cis white girls of victories and scholarships wasn’t even true; Miller and Yearwood were merely competitive. It’s not a detail that has come up often.

The Biden administration had already withdrawn the support for the suit offered by the Trump administration, and about a week ago, a federal judge tossed ADF’s suit entirely. It was moot, he ruled, because Miller and Yearwood aren’t even students anymore and there were no other winning trans athletes to substitute into the case. Trans inclusion in Connecticut’s school sports appears to be safe for now.

But even if the case ends there, the damage has been done. Literally every time this issue is now discussed or written about, photos of these two Black trans girls become the symbol of unfairness in athletics. They are likewise the scapegoats for all of this new legislation — and it’s literally because there are no other examples.

A Cause With No Célèbre

In state after state, the lawmakers advancing these anti-trans sports bills have been asked if they can identify a single example of a trans student athlete in their state who could even be accused of benefiting from an unfair advantage. As this CNN report from this week highlights, they repeatedly answer “no” then pivot to highlighting the Connecticut case.

In an interview with the conservative site CNSNews this past week, ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb claimed, “We have seen increasing examples across the country of males [sic] dominating girls’ athletic competitions when competing as females, capturing championships and shattering long-standing female track records.” It’s telling that she specified track (as opposed to any other sport) but provided no “increasing examples” as to who or where these trans athletes are, and it’s no coincidence that the article featured a photo and two different videos of Miller and Yearwood.

Shortly after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) signed his state’s anti-trans sports bill into law this week, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle asked him the same question about why this was no necessary. He had no answer, and Ruhle proceeded to read him for filth about all of the other concerns he could be prioritizing in West Virginia instead of this purely discriminatory bill. It’s worth clicking through to watch the clip:

The pure cruelty of these bills is obvious. But the question remains: Why do conservatives feel less risk advancing them — and why have more of them prevailed — compared to follow-up bathroom bills? I have a theory.

Part of it, as I said at the top, is that the stakes feel lower. Thus, conservatives can try to sell the message that the discrimination is somehow less cruel or less consequential than, say, the outright banishment from public spaces dictated by bathroom bills. This is just about specific participation in sports, they can claim, and it’s only about fairness in competition, not about discriminating against trans people. It’s a false narrative, to be clear, but it’s one they can market differently than trying to paint all trans women as predators while erasing trans men from existence altogether.

But I also think there’s something a bit more insidious at work than just a less-discriminatory-sounding message, and it speaks to why these sports bills are the new vanguard for anti-trans legislation and the way they open the door for even worse bills.

The premise of all anti-trans prejudice is to convince people to reject the legitimacy of transition: Ignore the decades of research and 95+% success rate of affirmative treatment and surgeries; ignore the mental health benefits of transitioning and mental health consequences of not transitioning; and ignore the very reality of the lives transgender people live and instead regard them only as the sex they were assigned at birth. Any skepticism of transitioning is a victory for transphobia.

In the context of sports, conservatives can carve out this diabolical little niche that convinces people that even if transgender people transition, they’re still going to have these physical differences that they can’t change. Those differences — those so-called “advantages” — are an essential part of their existence, and no matter what gender defines how they’re living their lives, it’s unfair to let them compete as such because of those relic differences. It’s an emphasis on the imperfections of transition, a tether that ties trans people to their sex assigned at birth without overtly rejecting the legitimacy of their transition.

Like everything else in transphobia, it doesn’t even have to be true; it only has to be believable by people who don’t have any foundation for understanding trans people’s experiences. Competitive advantages based on race aren’t true either, but a lot of people still believe in such myths as well, which compounds the believability that these Black trans girls are somehow undeserving of their success and a barrier to cis white girls’ apparently more deserving success.

What this results in is that many people who might otherwise be supportive of protecting trans people from discrimination can be convinced to make a small exception for sports under the guise of “unfairness” that’s no fault of the trans athletes themselves. A perfect example is Caitlyn Trump-would-be-good-for-trans-people Jenner — whose contributions to the trans community have largely been in spite of herself — saying this weekend that she doesn’t think trans inclusion in sports is fair. Again: It’s a false narrative, but a sellable one.

These anti-trans sports bills thus achieve the goal of instituting transphobia and rejecting the full legitimacy of trans identities in our laws while simultaneously appearing not to engage in overt transphobic discrimination.

But hey, now that conservatives already have folks thinking about trans kids and already signing onto one form of discrimination, they have a receptive audience for selling their other false narratives about what health care should look like for trans kids. And from there, they can continue to escalate back toward the ultimate goal of bathroom bills. It’s exactly what happened in Arkansas over the past couple months:

By lowering the stakes from safety to fairness, conservatives found an easier entry point to get more people on board with anti-trans regulations. Their goals haven’t changed, but they found a new approach to get their foot in the door for mandated discrimination. These anti-trans sports bills are clearly a gateway to additional transgender discrimination, and they should be subjected to the exact same level of backlash as the worst discriminatory bills we can imagine.

In other words, the stakes aren’t lower. They’re as high as they’ve ever been for trans people’s right to exist as themselves in this society of ours. “Fairness in sports” is just a façade for justifying a form of transphobia.

And a final thought: We have to own that true inclusion includes an equal opportunity to win. Any trans athlete who has the bravery to compete and the discipline to succeed deserves any championship title that they earn — fair and square.

I’ll be revisiting the legislation that’s been targeting health care for trans youth in a future newsletter. Stay tuned.

Zack Ford is the former LGBTQ editor at ThinkProgress.org and currently serves as press secretary at Alliance for Justice. His views are his own.

The preceding piece was originally published at Fording the River Styx and is republished by permission.

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Farewell to a Genius: a tribute to Sondheim

The genius of Sondheim is that he used the brilliant flame of his imagination to lead the way into a new world

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President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Stephen Sondheim Nov. 24, 2015 (White House photo by Pete Souza)

PALM SPRINGS – When I learned of the passing of Stephen Sondheim, I was playing a game.

Like so many of us nowadays, I spend more of my downtime than I care to admit mindlessly distracting myself by manipulating pixels on a handheld screen, so although I wish I could say it was the kind of brain-challenging, devilishly clever game of which of Sondheim himself was famously a fan, it most definitely was not.

Brainless as it may have been, this was what I was doing when the notification banner suddenly popped up. Short and to the point, it was a breaking news alert: “Stephen Sondheim, master craftsman who reinvented the musical, dies aged 91.”

At first, I went through the reflexive mental process of acknowledging that, although I felt a pang of sorrow, there was comfort in knowing he had lived a phenomenally lengthy life of success and accomplishment surely beyond his wildest dreams.

It was true that I loved Stephen Sondheim as much as it was possible to love any human being I had never actually met, but this was an inevitable event for which I had stoically prepared in advance. I couldn’t find it within myself to be sad.

It was shortly thereafter that I realized this was a loss I was going to feel for the rest of my life.

Like many little gay boys of my generation, I grew up being exposed to musical theatre through the old cast albums my parents owned. “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” “Cabaret” – the songs from these and so many more classic shows made up a big portion of the soundtrack to my childhood, fanning the flames of a lifelong love that continues to this day.

I was aware of Sondheim at the time – but I wasn’t impressed. Naturally, I loved “West Side Story” – already a movie buff, it was one of my favorite Hollywood classics – but I had no interest for shows like “Company,” “Follies,” or “A Little Night Music,” which were about boring grown-ups going through boring grown-up things and taking it all far too seriously.

It wasn’t until later, when I discovered “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as a teen, that I was hooked. Here was all the over-the-top, period-costumed spectacle I adored about musical theatre wrapped up into a deliciously gruesome tale of people being slaughtered and served up as meat pies, and Angela Lansbury was the star. I couldn’t resist it, and as I listened for the first time to its dizzyingly complex songs, I finally “got” Sondheim.

Simultaneously, the old-fashioned favorites from my youth began to lose a little bit of their luster for me. Compared to this darkly beautiful masterpiece, in which somehow even the most reprehensible actions and characters were imbued with a comprehensible humanity, they seemed suddenly quaint and unsophisticated, relics of a world that was quickly fading away.

This was true, of course, for an entire generation. The genius of Sondheim is that he used the brilliant flame of his imagination to lead the way into a new world where musicals didn’t have to be brain candy, where they could make the kind of observations and revelations about the fathomless depths of human experience that had previously been the sole province of the so-called “legitimate” theatre.

But you don’t need me to tell you that: if you’ve read any of the countless obituaries and tributes published in the wake of his passing, you already know it, if you didn’t already.

In writing this tribute, it was suggested I might offer up a “thoroughly LA” take on the life of this icon – and since I normally write mostly about film and television, that certainly is fitting. I could point out that the boundary-pushing genius which helped Sondheim transform the Broadway musical was the very thing that made him a hard sell in Hollywood. His work was inherently theatrical, a delicate balance of razor-sharp reality and high concept conceit, and, to be fair, even the greatest of filmmakers would likely be challenged to capture the right blend on a screen.

“West Side” was a multi-Oscar-winning hit on film, but it was already a cultural sensation by the time it was made, and other early adaptations of his work (“Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music”) failed to make quite as big a splash. Later, high-profile screen versions were made of “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” – but for devotees, despite their relative financial success, these were pale shadows of the master’s originals. Still, Sondheim made an impact on Hollywood in other ways; most memorably, he won an Oscar for writing “Sooner or Later” for Madonna to sing in “Dick Tracy.” He also contributed songs for movies like Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” and even co-wrote (with longtime friend Anthony Perkins) the twisted screenplay for “The Last of Sheila,” a wickedly inventive comedy-mystery from 1973 that has achieved cult status even outside the Sondheim fanbase.

But really, Sondheim was not of Hollywood, or of LA, or even of New York, though his sensibilities were a considerably better fit there. The truth, the insight, the intelligence, and the boundless curiosity about life that permeated all his works prove that he was beyond belonging to a particular place or time. 

Of course, die-hard Sondheim fans – and trust me, there are more of us than you think – need no proof that his was a universal voice. That’s why we are all so eager to talk about him, to drop quotes from his lyrics into as many conversations possible, and to tell you which Sondheim song is their favorite and why they think it’s the best of all.

And which is mine? I tend to fluctuate, depending on where I am at in my life at the time. It’s often tempting to count the devastating “Ladies Who Lunch,” an existential crisis set to music, at the top of the list. At other times it’s “Finishing the Hat,” a confessional lament about the emotional isolation of being an artist, or “I’m Still Here,” an oft-recorded celebration of show-biz survivors that’s been embraced by other kinds of survivors as well. Like a lot of us who were around in the 80s and 90s, I also feel a deep connection to “No One Is Alone,” the heartfelt ballad of comfort adopted as an anthem during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis.

Yet there’s one song I keep coming back to, over and over. “Someone in a Tree” was composed for “Pacific Overtures,” a show about the opening of Japan to Western commerce in the 19th century. In the song, concealed observers watch a treaty being negotiated behind closed doors, yet they can report no relevant information about what takes place in the meeting because they only see it from their limited viewpoints.

In lesser hands, the situation might be nothing more than fodder for an extended comedy of errors, but for Sondheim it becomes a springboard into a Zen-like meditation – “It’s the ripple, not the sea, that is happening” – about the importance of perspective.  It’s a breathtaking achievement, and at one point in his career the composer himself once cited it as his favorite among all his works. If I had to pick one, it would be mine, too.

That’s because perspective is probably the greatest gift of the many that Sondheim gave me: he opened my eyes to a world of infinite viewpoints, where even the most mundane or ridiculous or horrific or devastating moments can be seen as beautiful, and where every single human experience has meaning, if only you can find the right angle from which to look at it.

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John Paul King is the Los Angeles Blade’s Arts & Entertainment editor and featured A&E columnist

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Evangelical Christian groups flout the law – again

Christian Right groups promoting anti-LGBT practices in the US and abroad, despite bans, is nothing new: they’ve been doing it for decades

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Graphic design by Inge Snip via openDemocracy

By Chrissy Stroop | PORTLAND – In recent years, 40% of American states, along with more than 100 municipalities, have begun banning mental health professionals from providing so-called ‘conversion therapy’ to minors (defined in the United States as people under the age of 18).

The American Psychiatric Association, which first expressed its “strong opposition” to this harmful practice in 1998, reiterated its position in 2018 – at a time when anti-LGBTQ sentiments were flaring up amid a general right-wing backlash against democratic norms and civil rights gains. The American Psychological Association has also provided a helpful list of talking points in support of legislative efforts to ban ‘conversion therapy’.

Whether such bans are observed or enforced, however, is another matter.

Targeting minors

A new investigation by openDemocracy has revealed that one of the US’s most prominent anti-LGBTQ organisations, the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, has continued to promote ‘conversion therapy’ to minors – even in areas where bans are in place. An undercover reporter posing as a 17-year-old “struggling with same-sex attraction” found Focus-affiliated therapists who were willing to “help” her “change” her sexual orientation in Virginia and Colorado, both states that ban ‘conversion therapy’ for minors.

In addition, openDemocracy discovered that Focus on the Family’s list of approved counsellors includes “dozens” of “licensed professionals who offer specific treatment for ‘homosexuality issues’, ‘gender identity issues’ or both” and “have children and adolescents as clients, including in states where ‘conversion therapy’ is banned”.

Practitioners seeking Focus’s imprimatur must have a “state mental health credential”, which means that the group is not only flouting state and local ‘conversion therapy’ bans, but also demanding that licensed therapists flout the established standards of their fields in favour of fundamentalist Christian ideology that treats queerness as “sin”.

Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by Dr James Dobson, who believed corporal punishment was required of Christian parents, and who was far more influenced by eugenicist thinking than most evangelicals would prefer to admit. He soon established himself as a public figure, first as the conservative Christian disciplinarian answer to the nurturing style of parenting promoted by the likes of Dr Benjamin Spock, and then as a power broker in the increasingly authoritarian Republican Party.

The group has some unpleasant friends. The Family Research Council (FRC) – designated an anti-LGBTQ “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center – was integrated into Focus on the Family in 1988, as its advocacy arm. They officially split into separate organisations again in 1992 (in a move to protect Focus’s tax-exempt status as a religious non-profit), but Dobson remained on the FRC’s board.

Disregard for legal norms

Focus on the Family’s extreme anti-LGBTQ animus is, of course, not unique on the Christian Right – and neither is its disregard for legal norms. For example, Liberty University, a hardline evangelical institution founded by culture warrior extraordinaire Jerry Falwell, Sr., once penalised law students who argued in an exam that an “ex-lesbian” mother should obey court orders requiring parental visiting rights for her ex-wife. The reason the mother – who was, in fact, not so hypothetical – was supposed to engage in “civil disobedience” was to “protect” her child from exposure to “the homosexual lifestyle”.

As documented by an FBI affidavit, the real-life mother behind the exam question had actually kidnapped her child and fled the US for Nicaragua, where she was staying in the beach house of a Christian Right activist. Which leads to the issue of the US Christian Right’s international reach.

Evangelical missionaries have contributed to the rise of reactionary politics in Latin America, and they are also well known for disregarding laws put in place to protect uncontacted Indigenous peoples. So we should not be surprised that – on top of the new revelations about Focus’s disregard for ‘conversion therapy’ bans in the US, openDemocracy has identified mental health practitioners with links to Focus and Exodus Global Alliance (another US Christian conservative group) accused of providing ‘conversion therapy’ in Costa Rica.

Although ‘conversion therapy’ is not yet banned in Costa Rica, it does represent a pernicious export from the US Christian Right, whose influence in Latin America is both longstanding and harmful. Focus’s presence in the region, via its Enfoque a la Familia offices, dates back to 1985.

American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith

Having grown up in this type of dominionist Christianity, I can’t say I’m surprised by openDemocracy’s findings. At the same time, it is immensely important to document the ways in which American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith.

They exploit bad-faith ‘religious freedom’ arguments to push a theocratic (and de facto white supremacist) agenda, and evade the law (whether local, national or international) when it doesn’t give them free rein to dominate others. If there’s one thing that should be very clear after the 6 January insurrection against the US government – which was undoubtedly driven by the religious right – it’s that right-wing Christians are willing to give up even a plausible veneer of support for democracy in order to hold on to power.

They will wield that power to harm marginalised people, however and wherever they can, and it is well past time for us to begin holding them accountable.

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A prominent ex-evangelical writer, speaker, and advocate, Chrissy Stroop is (with Lauren O’Neal) coeditor of the essay anthology Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. A senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, her work has appeared in Dame Magazine, Foreign Policy, Playboy, Political Research Associates, and other outlets, including peer-reviewed academic journals.

Holding a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Stanford University, Stroop is a Senior Research Associate with the University of Innsbruck’s Postsecular Conflicts project. In 2019 Chrissy came out as a transgender woman and began her journey of medical transition. She resides in Portland, Oregon.

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The preceding article was first published at openDemocracy and is republished by permission.

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Impact of Transgender Day of Remembrance must be felt year-round

“We mourn the disproportionately-targeted Trans lives stolen from us by hate & prejudice. There’s a long road ahead to equality and justice”

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Photo by Max Huskins

LOS ANGELES – One of the most difficult days in the calendar for Trans, non-binary and queer identified people is every November 20. Primarily because it marks a day to honour and remember those human beings who have lost their lives due to violence, hate and extremism.

This year is no different as it has marked yet another deadly year for the Trans community, especially for Trans women of colour.

Globally of the 375 trans people murdered worldwide in the last year, nine out of 10 (96%) were trans women or transfeminine people, and more than half (58%) were sex workers. The average age of those murdered is 30 years old; the youngest being 13.

Bamby Salcedo, founder of the Los Angeles-based [email protected] Coalition wrote in an email, “We mourn the disproportionately-targeted Trans lives stolen from us by hate and entrenched prejudice. There is a long road ahead to true, lived equality and justice for our Trans community.”

She continued; “In Los Angeles County, and our country as a whole, diversity is our strength. It is what sets America apart from most other countries in the whole of human history, and it has inspired millions of dreams at home and abroad. 

Our immigrant Trans siblings and their well-being are essential to the integrity of the American Dream. We must do everything in our power to ensure that their rights and dreams are equally protected.”

Salcedo was also advocating for the critical point of who we as the LGBTQ+ community, elects to public office and their commitment to the Trans community matters. “We need leaders who understand and empathize with the unique, intersectional challenges we face,” she wrote.

The purpose of her email was to endorse and then advocate that the community back a particular candidate running in a local race. Yet the issues and points she raised bears repeating.

In Washington today, the White House reviewed the actions of the Biden-Harris Administration and released a report highlighting over 45 key, early actions the Administration is taking to address the root causes of anti-transgender violence, discrimination, and denial of economic opportunity, including:

  • Taking steps to expand the availability of accurate Federal IDs for transgender and gender diverse Americans. Building on the State Department’s announcement that it will offer a third gender marker on U.S. passports, the White House is convening an interagency policy committee to advance a coordinated federal approach to expanding access to accurate and inclusive federal identity documents for transgender and gender diverse people.
     
  • Expanding access to gender-affirming care as an essential health benefit. In 2021, the Biden-Harris administration approved the first ever application from a state to add additional gender-affirming care benefits to a state’s essential health benefit benchmark plan.
     
  • Advancing health equity research on gender-affirming care. NIH will increase funding for research on gender-affirming procedures to further develop the evidence base for improved standards of care. Research priorities include a more thorough investigation and characterization of the short- and long-term outcomes on physical and mental health associated with gender-affirming care.
     
  • Ending the HIV crisis among transgender and gender diverse communities. The White House Office of National AIDS Policy will identity transgender and gender diverse communities as a priority population in the revised National HIV AIDS Strategy which will be released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2021.
     
  • Expanding resources for transgender and gender diverse youth in care. The Children’s Bureau at HHS will highlight the needs of LGBTQI+ children and youth in announcements for mandatory and discretionary funding that supports youth in or transitioning from foster care. 
     
  • Advancing research to address the harms of so-called conversion therapy. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will update its 2015 publication Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth to reflect the latest research and state of the field. 
     
  • Advancing safety and justice for transgender and Two Spirit missing and murdered Indigenous peoplePresident Biden signed an Executive Order on Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People. The Executive Order acknowledges that LGBTQI+ Native Americans and people who identify as Two-Spirit people are frequent targets of violence. The Executive Order directs federal agencies to work hand in hand with Tribal Nations and Tribal partners to build safe and healthy Tribal communities and to support comprehensive law enforcement, prevention, intervention, and support services to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, including for transgender, gender diverse, and Two-Spirit Native Americans.
     
  • Advancing data collection and research on the needs of transgender older adults. To advance equity for transgender and gender diverse elders, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) will establish a technical advisory panel to advise on possible questions for the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

To address the crisis of anti-transgender stigma and violence, during Pride Month the White House established the first Interagency Working Group on Safety, Opportunity, and Inclusion for Transgender and Gender Diverse Individuals (Working Group).

The Working Group, which is led by the White House Domestic Policy Council and Gender Policy Council, is charged with leading a coordinated federal approach to advance safety, economic opportunity, and inclusion for transgender and gender diverse people in the United States and around the world.

To inform the priorities of the Working Group, throughout the fall of 2021 the White House convened 15 listening sessions with transgender and gender diverse people, advocates, and civil rights leaders from across the country and around the world.

Today’s report shares findings from these listening sessions and uplifts the voices and advocacy of transgender and gender diverse people throughout the United States and around the world.  

Today’s actions to honor the lives of transgender and gender diverse people lost to violence build on historic steps by the Biden-Harris Administration to advance LGBTQI+ equality and civil rights for transgender and gender diverse communities. Since taking office, the Biden-Harris Administration has taken critical steps to advance equality for transgender and gender diverse Americans:

  • Signing One of the Most Comprehensive Executive Orders in History on LGBTQI+ Rights on His First Day in Office. Within hours of taking the oath of office, President Biden signed an Executive Order Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation. The Executive Order established that it is the official policy of the Biden-Harris Administration to prevent and combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, and to fully enforce civil rights laws to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. The President directed all federal agencies to implement fully all federal laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, to include sexual orientation and gender identity. This Executive Order is one of the most consequential policies for LGBTQ+ Americans ever signed by a U.S. President. As a result of that Order, agencies have already taken key steps to advance equality for transgender and gender diverse people in housing, healthcare, education, employment, and credit and lending services.
     
  • Fighting for passage of the Equality Act. President Biden continues to call on the Senate to swiftly pass the Equality Act, legislation which will provide long overdue federal civil rights protections to LGBTQI+ Americans and their families, while strengthening some key civil rights laws for people of color, women, people with disabilities, and people of faith. As the White House has said, passing the Equality Act is key to addressing the epidemic levels of violence and discrimination that transgender people face.
     
  • Reversing the discriminatory ban on transgender servicemembers. In his first week in office, President Biden signed an Executive Order reversing the ban on openly transgender servicemembers serving in the Armed Forces, enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform. President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, America’s strength is found in its diversity, and an inclusive military strengthens our national security As a result of his Executive Order, the Department of Defense issued new policies which prohibit discrimination against transgender servicemembers, provide a path for transgender servicemembers to access gender-affirming medical care, and require that all transgender servicemembers are treated with dignity and respect. Patriotic transgender servicemembers are once again able to openly and proudly serve our Nation in uniform.
     
  • Signing and Leading Implementation of a Presidential Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Around the World. President Biden directed all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons. His Memorandum establishes that it “shall be the policy of the United States to pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, and to lead by the power of our example in the cause of advancing the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons around the world.”
     
  • Ensuring Transgender Americans Can Access Emergency Shelter That Dignifies and Respects Their Identity. The Department of Housing and Urban Development restored protections for transgender individuals seeking emergency shelter and homeless services. HUD reaffirmed its commitment that no person be denied access to housing or other critical services because of their gender identity.

The cycle of violence against the Trans community must be broken. While the Biden-Harris Administration is working on solutions and policies at the federal level, it is critical to continue the push at the state and local level as Salcedo pointed out.

More-so though there is a need to break the cycle so that less lives are lost to hate and extremism and that begins at the local level. Emphasis needs to be placed on unconditional support and advocacy- not just showing up to a candle-lit vigil to mourn and grieve another Trans life lost.

Advocacy should be to the community supporting sex workers, advocacy should be to show full throated support of Trans youth to be able to play the sports or participate in activities that mesh with their gender identity and not the societal determined “birth gender” construct. Advocacy should be to counter the lies and misconceptions about Trans people and to embrace their existence as human beings.

“Dehumanizing rhetoric has real-life consequences for the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color but especially Black transgender women. As we have seen an unprecedented number of bills introduced in state legislatures attacking transgender youth and trans adults, the moment we are in is clear. They have attacked transgender people’s right to health care, right to exist in public, and right to live openly, with the ultimate goal of dehumanizing and erasing their lives and experiences,” Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said.

The year long impact of the Transgender Day of Remembrance must be to honour those lost and prevent further uncessecary loss of life by taking those measures outlined and to create the awareness that Trans people are just that, people.

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Troy Masters is the publisher of the Los Angeles Blade and Brody Levesque is the editor.

 

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