Trans Rights in America: Progressing or Regressing?
The rights of transgender Americans have lately been a major subject of debate between policymakers and candidates for office. The spotlight has particularly been on transgender youth and their access to gender-affirming care, which includes Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), puberty blockers, and gender-affirming surgeries. While significant progress has been made for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole in the past two decades, many freedoms granted to the transgender community have been scaled back throughout the past five years. From Former President Trump’s (now overturned) transgender military ban to current state laws that have restricted access to gender-affirming care, the topic of transgender rights is becoming more influential every day, especially as the 2024 election approaches.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a prominent LGBTQ+ advocacy group, has been diligent in reporting the state laws regarding transgender rights. They stated that “the attack on gender-affirming care is relentless and changing every day,” given that state laws are changing so frequently. In 2022, according to the HRC, 35.1% of transgender youth (aged 13-17) live in states that have already passed bans on gender-affirming care. So far, 20 states have passed laws that have either banned or restricted gender-affirming care for minors in 2023 alone.
Beyond gender-affirming care for minors, rights previously granted to transgender Americans were repealed, such as the right to serve in the military. In April 2019, the Trump Administration's transgender military ban went into effect, which not only prohibited openly transgender people from enlisting in the military but also required active members of the military who are transgender to be discharged. While this ban was later reversed by Biden in January 2021, we are still seeing its impacts today, as the sentiments established towards transgender Americans by the Trump Administration are still prominent in Republican legislation.
New bans for transgender rights have now been passed at the state level rather than the federal level. In May 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) passed legislation that focuses on transgender youth by banning gender-affirming care for minors and restricting the discussion of pronouns in schools. These bans also impact transgender adults by forcing them to use the bathroom, correlating with the gender they were assigned at birth rather than the gender they identify/present as. DeSantis has targeted the LGBTQ+ community and educators in prior legislation, including the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which restricts the discussion of human sexuality in schools and bans on drag shows. According to the Movement Advancement Project, Florida’s LGBTQ+ population (aged 13+) was approximately 886,000 in 2020. In comparison, Florida’s total population was reported to be around 21 million, meaning that this legislation directly impacts approximately 1 out of every 24 Floridians, not to mention parents and educators. With DeSantis running for the presidential election, it’s possible that these Floridian bans could become nationwide legislation.
While Florida has perhaps been the most infamous state regarding legislation restricting transgender rights, it is certainly not the only state to do so. Earlier this year, Texas passed a ban on puberty blockers and hormone therapy for minors, despite state district court Judge Maria Cantú Hexsel (D-TX) writing that the ban restricts the ability for Texan parents to “seek, direct, and provide medical care for their children.” Beyond only banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth, the bans in Alabama, Florida, Idaho, North Dakota, and Oklahoma have made it a felony crime for medical professionals to provide best-practice medical care (following a standard procedure to achieve the best possible outcome regarding patient care) for transgender youth.
Despite the recent bans and restrictions for transgender Americans, multiple states have passed legislation that expands the rights of the transgender community. Currently, 22 states (and Washington D.C.) do not require healthcare provider certification to change the gender marker on a driver's license, meaning that one can simply request to change it at the DMV/MVA without any paperwork. Additionally, 22 states (and Washington D.C.) provide residents the option to use “X” as a gender marker, meaning that they do not identify as male or female, with Illinois planning to implement this policy in 2024.
Beyond inclusive gender markers, the transgender community has been protected under the law in various states in other methods. At the moment, 11 (blue) states (and Washington D.C.) have “shield laws” protecting access to gender-affirming care, meaning that transgender residents from other states where gender-affirming care is banned may travel to these states to receive it without the recipient or healthcare provider receiving civil or criminal charges. States with these protections in place have been dubbed “safe havens” for transgender Americans. It’s also important to note that in addition to gender-affirming care, “shield laws” are applicable to abortion and reproductive healthcare access.
In July of this year, the Supreme Court let a ruling stand that declared people who experience gender dysphoria are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Gender dysphoria is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics”. It is often experienced by transgender or non-binary individuals. However, the Supreme Court avoided the topic of transgender rights, as they declined West Virginia’s emergency request to lift an appeals court’s injunction, which allowed a transgender girl in middle school to compete on the girl’s team. Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent, which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, said that the case “concerns an important issue that this Court is likely to be required to address in the near future.” After Roe v. Wade was overturned by the ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health in 2022, many Americans are nervous about how the Court will rule on LGBTQ+ rights, primarily regarding the nationwide legalization of gay marriage and access to gender-affirming care.
Although the past year has shown significant regression in the fight for transgender rights and protections, it's important to remember which freedoms are still protected in which states. While there’s no way of knowing what the future holds, this issue has emphasized the importance of civic engagement and state elections.