Rainbow Rant: Winning the argument for transgender rights

Leveling rational arguments against transphobia is important, but there are also costs to engaging in the debate

Joy Ellison
Protesters and supporters gathered in front of the Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2019, as the justices heard challenges from New York, Michigan and Georgia involving workers who claimed they were fired because they were gay or transgender. The court ruled in their favor in June.

This has been an unprecedented year for transgender people, and not in a good way. A record-breaking 82 anti-transgender bills have been introduced into state legislatures across the country, including Ohio. At the same time, 13 transgender people have already been murdered this year, putting 2021 on track to become the deadliest year yet. 

Transgender children and youth are in the line of fire. Republican politicians are targeting the rights and safety of transgender young people, passing state legislation that would restrict their access to athletics, health care and safe schools. 

It’s a frightening time to be a transgender person and a sobering time to write an LGBT opinion column. In the ecosystem of journalism, I’m a mosquito at best, but I’m also one of a handful of transgender writers with a regular, paid opinion column. That makes me a mosquito with responsibilities. Sometimes I feel as though I can’t possibly shoulder them.

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It is imperative that we stop this wave of anti-transgender legislation, because it’s no exaggeration to say that the lives of transgender children are at risk. Protecting them will take everything we’ve got: lobbying, lawsuits, protests, civil disobedience and good old-fashioned persuasion. As a writer, the arguing falls to me, but I’m not sure I can do it. 

Persuasion is important. Lately, I’m worried that progressives are bringing people over to our side through social pressure instead of laying out persuasive arguments. Social pressure is an important part of all social movements, and it’s a fine enough way to lobby elected officials. There are consequences, however, to browbeating one’s loved ones. I worry that we’re rapidly reaching the limit of the kind of social change that can be accomplished through memes and moralizing. There are strong reasons for supporting transgender rights, so why not make the case? 

That’s what I told myself when I sat down to write this column. The trouble is, I’m not at all certain that rational arguments will carry the day.

Before I go any further, let me say that it is easy enough to refute the anti-transgender legislation sweeping through state legislatures nationwide. 

These laws fall into three categories. The first aim to prevent transgender girls and women from participating in school sports. That’s the battle here in Ohio. H.B. 61/S.B. 132 is called the Save Women’s Sports Act, but the proposed law saves nothing from no one.  

The assumption behind these bills is that transgender girls and women cannot be allowed to compete in women’s sports because they have an unfair advantage over cisgender competitors. However, no such advantage exists, which makes it easy enough to dunk on the authors of these bills. The facts are so firmly on our side that without much effort, I look like the Michael Jordan of debate. 

Medical experts agree that if a transgender girl transitions before puberty, her hormonal balance will fall in-line with those of cisgender girls. Transgender women who transition later lose any strength or muscular advantages that testosterone may have provided them. 

Don’t believe me? Consider then that transgender women have competed in the Olympics since 2004 and have shown no distinct advantage over their cisgender counter-parts. We have no reason to believe that the situation will be any different at the high school or college levels. 

That argument is a slam dunk. 

Preventing transgender girls and women from competing in sports solves no problem, but it does real harm to transgender people. Being forced to prove one’s sex can be humiliating, especially for children. Jazz Jennings recently spoke about her experience being banned from girls’ soccer as an 8-year-old, saying, “The ban made me feel excluded, had no merit and negatively affected me and my family.” Being able to participate freely and fully in sports is a matter of dignity. Transgender people, especially children, deserve to play, just like everyone else. 

Nothing but net. 

I can even get fancy and turn this argument into a Harlem Globetrotter’s showstopper with a simple fake-out. Women’s sports are valuable. They’re threatened by many things, such as wage discrimination, predatory coaches and sexist attitudes. No one knows that better than Billie Jean King, the women’s tennis star who defeated sexist-blowhard Bobby Riggs in a tennis match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.” King and her organization, the Women’s Sports Foundation, enthusiastically support the participation of transgender girls and women in women’s sports because they see these athletes for what they are: girls and women. 

H.B. 61/S.B. 132 won’t save women’s sports. It would be best if the Ohio state legislature saved us all from the inevitable lawsuits that would follow its passage. 

Take that, transphobes. 

The second category of anti-transgender laws being proposed would make it illegal for doctors to provide transgender-related care to minors. Arkansas just passed a law like this and the Ohio state legislature has flirted with it. I’ve argued against these laws before, pointing out that they take medical decisions out of the hands of doctors and families. They also place transgender children at risk because suddenly cutting off hormonal therapy is physically dangerous and denying transgender children of medical care increases their likelihood of suicide. 

That’s another easy three-pointer, but I have to admit I’m not happy shooting these baskets. The lives of transgender children aren’t a game and Republicans are hardly playing fair. I may have all of the facts on my side, but that hasn’t stopped them from scoring the only points that matter: votes. 

When we come to the third category of proposed anti-transgender laws, my feelings of unease grow. These laws aim to protect the right to discriminate against transgender children. Arkansas, for example, is considering a law that would protect teachers who refuse to use the chosen names of transgender children. 

This is no longer a basketball game, but a boxing match. I can counter with the argument that transgender children thrive when their names and identities are respected, but what good is that argument when I suspect I’m fighting someone who doesn’t care about the well-being of transgender children? 

Compared to the Republican party, transgender people are lightweights. In the ring of public policy, we’re hopelessly outclassed. No matter how many blows I land, I’m going to leave this fight bruised and bloody.

Leveling rational arguments against transphobia is important, because while some people simply hate transgender people, many more are uninformed and persuadable. There are costs, though, to engaging in the debate. Transgender people are forced to argue that we exist, that we know who we are, and that we deserve justice, or at least to be left alone. One can only argue for one’s life so many times before the fight takes a toll. 

More importantly, there is no argument that will bring back the murdered members of our community. It’s hard to believe that rational debate will prevent their deaths, either. 

The uncomfortable fact is that many lawmakers are impervious to rational arguments and emotional appeals. Both medical professionals and transgender youth have testified against anti-transgender laws, laying out eloquent arguments, presenting mountains of facts and sharing oceans of personal experience. Then lawmakers looked these teenagers in the eye and voted to hurt them. 

I worry about the transgender youth who testify against these bills. Can they fully understand what they are undertaking? Do they have the support they need to survive the experience? I fear that some will die by suicide and that others will give up all together after witnessing how little some lawmakers care for them. I’m certain that most of them will never forget the experience of arguing for their lives, because I haven’t forgotten the arguments I engaged in when I was their age.

I never testified in front of a legislature as a high school student, because I didn’t have the kind of adult backing that would have made that possible. Instead, the cafeteria was my Senate floor. I argued for queer and transgender rights with students and teachers alike, advancing simple claims that are now increasingly held as common sense. I’d like to believe that these conversations made a difference, but all I know for certain is that I still remember the ignorant and hurtful things that were said to me. I want to believe that I’ve healed, but the scars are apparent.

I’ve found peace by refusing to engage with homophobes or transphobes, but I can’t sit out the current fight. Transgender children need adults like me to support them. I dare to hope that some cisgender people might take the arguments I’ve laid out and join in the fray. We could use the backup. 

How will we survive the rising tide of transphobia? I don’t know. I’m certain this fight will be costly. I hope it will be worth it.