On Monday, it became illegal to talk about gender identity or sexual orientation in hundreds of classrooms throughout the state of Florida. This law is one of historic numbers of proposed laws and measures targeting trans youth in Texas, Arizona, Alabama, and more than one dozen other U.S. states. Tens of thousands of transgender children and teenagers currently live in states where lawmakers seek to exclude them from playing sports, eliminate mention of people like them in schools, or criminalize transgender-affirming medical care, and the introduction of these measures come despite growing social approval of transgender Americans.
We are social scientists who have studied transgender youth and their families for more than a decade. Social acceptance and affirmative support are the keys to mental health for transgender children. The prospective laws and policies propose the very opposite: encouraging the mistreatment of trans youth and inciting fear in compassionate adults.
In a desperate attempt to stop these damaging measures, children and families do what they must: out themselves to major media outlets despite the risks of prosecution, stand as plaintiffs in legal efforts to stop these laws, and share deeply personal traumas and intimate health histories on traditional and social media platforms.
In Idaho, where lawmakers debated a law making it a felony to provide trans-affirmative medical care, a trans teenager testified that the idea of going through puberty made her contemplate suicide. In Kentucky, a 12-year-old described her sadness at learning she could not join a field hockey team because she is transgender.
When the governor and attorney general of Texas recently directed the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provide teenagers with gender-affirmative medical care, a parent targeted by one of those investigations described the terror she and her child experienced at the idea they might be separated.
While purporting to protect these kids or their cisgender peers from abuse, these hearings are themselves abusive—and inappropriate. In Missouri, while testifying against a proposed anti-trans sports bill, a Republican senator asked a 14-year-old trans girl if she was “gonna go through the procedure?”—meaning this politician asked a child in a public forum whether she was going to have genital surgery.
These laws don’t merely compel vulnerable people to perform their terror and vulnerability for audiences of lawmakers, media and judges in hopes of reversing, vetoing or voting down these efforts. They force petrified children and families to lobby for human dignity. Even when the bills fail, or, in the case of Texas or Arkansas, a court prevents the laws or decrees from being enforced, they cause harm—by reinforcing the misguided notion that trans people are troubled and by signaling to trans children and their families that they are not welcome in their states or communities.
Trans youth who receive support from their families, peers and communities have similar levels of self-esteem and are not more depressed than youth who are not transgender. Perhaps the most surprising finding from our research is just how unsurprising the lives of trans youth can be, when they feel safe in their families and communities. It is when they lack support from their parents, lack access to appropriate facilities—such as bathrooms and medical care—and when they fear for their emotional, material and bodily safety that trans youth suffer.
Despite the near-consensus among experts on the negative impact of these laws, some politicians are mobilizing anti-transgender bias to gain favor with voters. The Texas decree came mere days before the state’s primary elections. Tennessee’s law banned medical transition for prepubescent children, even though literally no transgender medicine takes place before puberty. Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia signed a law banning transgender children from participating in sports, and then acknowledged that he was unable to identify a single instance of a transgender child gaining advantage in any competitive sport in the state.
So, why put these laws in place? Since political orientation is strongly correlated with perspective on trans acceptance, trans youth have become an expedient vehicle for showcasing one’s conservatism. This is most evident when you consider that that these mandates and proposed bills contravene the advice of every major medical, psychiatric and pediatric organization in the United States.
Trans kids testify at legislative hearings, because they fear they have no alternative. They have little interest in inviting reporters into their living rooms to discuss the latest tweet from a politician, and they certainly don’t want to read yet another story in the media about their own suffering. But they do these things to help themselves and their peers.
Our view is that trans youth should not need to publicly share their suicidal thoughts, discuss their genitalia with politicians, or develop emergency plans should they be taken away from their families, but rather should be given the same dignity that other children are provided. And adults should not need them to demonstrate their suffering in order to provide them with the same basic rights to health and happiness as their peers.
Some people are beginning to hear this message. Governor Spencer Cox of Utah vetoed his state’s efforts to outlaw trans girls’ participation in girls’ sports. In so doing, he likely placed himself at a political disadvantage; he’s a Republican, with a conservative base, and the Utah legislature eventually overrode his veto. Cox recognized the humanity of the trans kids in his state, writing in an official letter to legislative leaders: “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly.” Noting that there were just four transgender kids playing high school sports in Utah, Cox wrote that he hoped “we can work to find ways to show these four kids that we love them and they have a place in our state.” We hope that leaders of every party in every state will one day send that message to trans kids, too.