Tennessee legislature

Tennessee anti-transgender bill defeated by the voices of young trans people

A bill that targeted trans students in Tennessee by barring them from using facilities that match their genders died in committee today. As I wrote at The Nation recently, anti-trans legislation is currently sweeping the country, with bills targeting bathroom access in 16 states – and most of these bills put young people in their crosshairs. The legislation being pushed with the argument that “men” will target “women and girls” in bathrooms, something actual men have begun to do in an absurd attempt to prove that trans women are male predators.

This particular piece of legislative bullying aimed at already vulnerable trans youth in Tennessee was defeated by the voices of trans young people themselves. The bill died in a committee meeting where trans students testified about the impact it would have on them. Rick Womack, a Republican legislator, said he withdrew support for the legislation after hearing more about the issue. Republican committee chairman Mark White said after hearing testimony, “Maybe we’re making things a little worse than they already are.”

The defeat of this legislation through the voices of trans young people themselves is strikingly similar to the defeat a few weeks ago of a similar bill in South Dakota. As I wrote at The Nation, Republican South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard originally said he had not met a trans person and did not need to before considering an anti-trans bathroom bill passed by the state legislature. But, following public pressure, the governor switched positions and met with trans students. Daugaard said the meeting helped “put a human face” on the legislation’s impact. The governor ultimately vetoed the bill.

Chase Strangio, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who was on the ground fighting the Tennessee bill, told me, “Today in Tennessee we saw yet again the powerful impact of brave young transgender people and transgender organizers speaking out publicly and telling their stories. As in South Dakota, what made the difference was trans people sharing their truths and pushing back against the anti-trans rhetoric that casts us as dangerous deviants. Once the activists on the ground stood up to share their experiences, it became clear to the lawmakers that this was a solution in search of a problem and that dehumanizing trans people was not the right course.”

This wave of anti-trans legislation comes at a time when trans people are more visible in media than ever. There are those who claim that media visibility – including high profile awards bait films like The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyer’s Club that cast cis men as (caricatures of) trans women – is always a good thing because it raises awareness. But, as I have argued before, it seems instead that visibility – much of it repeating tired stereotypes, particularly when it is not controlled by trans people – has led to a harsh backlash. The number of murders of trans women in the US – almost all of them women of color and sex workers or profiled as engaging in sex work – was the highest on record in 2015, and the violence has continued into this year. And the wave of unnecessary legislation sweeping the country that does nothing but bully trans people is happening because conservatives see us as the current group to target with hate in order to whip up bigoted votes.

As Melissa Gira Grant wrote at Pacific Standard today, feminists are directly responsible for the ideas and arguments being used to push this legislation and set trans people up as conservative scapegoats. Transmisogynistic feminists like Janice Raymond developed the notion of trans women as violent men invading women’s spaces, ideas that were used to deny trans people access to healthcare and are now being deployed in legislation sweeping the country. And feminist writers in media have continued to push these arguments forward by suggesting trans people’s existence should be a matter that is up for debate.

This means feminists have a direct responsibility to combat these bills, and so far the outcry against this legislation from feminist corners has been quiet at best. Trans people are a small, marginalized group, and we need feminist solidarity as we continue to fight these attacks across the country, not least of all because feminism is culpable for helping to inspire this wave of hate.

The next step in this fight is in North Carolina, where tomorrow legislators will begin working to overturn Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Trans people in North Carolina need all of us to stand up to legislative bullying and for their basic rights.

“It was a powerful day,” Strangio said of the win in Tennessee, “and hopefully these victories can push us to be more responsive and accountable to the trans community in all our work.”

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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