Trans youth rights in jeopardy, advocates warn

Trans youth rights in jeopardy, advocates warn

By Jennifer Fernandez

GREENSBORO — Bills that would limit gender-affirming care, prevent trans youth from competing in sports and require schools to tell parents if a child wants to use other pronouns represent “an unprecedented attack” on trans rights in North Carolina, Ellie Harleen Isley told a crowd at a Trans Rights Rally in downtown Greensboro on Friday.

Ellie Harleen Isley speaks about trans rights at a rally in Greensboro, NC, on Friday, May 26, 2023. Isley, who identifies as a trans woman, said the many bills at the N.C. General Assembly represent “an unprecedented attack” on trans rights in the state. Credit: Jennifer Fernandez/NC Health News

The event, which drew about 80 people, was one of several held in the past few months in major cities such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville and Winston-Salem by Equality NC and the Campaign for Southern Equality. The rallies are a response to a flurry of legislation in the N.C. General Assembly.

One bill potentially affecting the rights of trans teens was heard Tuesday in the House education committee. It includes a single line that could have a big effect on trans youth wanting to participate in sports. Senate Bill 636 mostly deals with making adjustments to an earlier bill that placed more control over student athletics with the N.C. State Board of Education and the state superintendent, rather than with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association

One of those adjustments would be to add “biological participation requirements.” 

An earlier iteration of the bill more clearly defined that as interscholastic or sports teams being designated as based on biological sex and sex being recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.

Such limitations on youth trans rights drew people to Greensboro last week in protest.

“You’re not alone,” Isley, a trans woman from Kannapolis, told the audience at the rally. “You have people fighting for you.” 

Fighting anti-trans bills

The NC Queer & Trans Revolutionary Action Network (@nc_tran_ on Twitter and @nctranchapter on Instagram) handed out flyers outlining proposed laws in the state they said are targeting marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ individuals.

For example, the group said Senate Bill 49, known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights, would require school employees to give notice to parents if a young person wants to use a different name or pronouns, something the group said would effectively “out” queer, trans and questioning children to their parents. That will “only endanger and traumatize minors,” the organization argued. “This bill is dehumanizing and robs children of their own identities.”

School counselors have provided a safe space for LGBTQ children, but the proposed “Parents’ Bill of Rights” bill would take that away, Isley said.

The bill would also restrict instruction and discussion about gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality before fifth grade unless a child asks a question about it in the context of classroom activity. 

The bill has passed in the Senate and was referred on Feb. 7 to the House, where it has been in the rules committee since.

Through May this year, 555 anti-trans bills have been introduced in 49 states — including North Carolina. So far, 78 have passed. This marks the fourth consecutive record-breaking year for the number of bills curbing trans rights considered in the United States, according to Trans Legislation Tracker.

Most major medical associations in the United States have issued statements supporting gender-affirming care for youth as medically necessary and noting the harmful effects of denying that care, KFF Health News has reported. More than 400 medical professionals in North Carolina signed a letter in 2021 opposing legislation that was similar to bills now moving through the legislature.

Rallying support

At Friday’s rally, people held up signs supporting trans youth rights, some of them homemade. 

They carried messages of support: “Trans youth in NC deserve dignity and equality”

Pleas for acceptance: “We belong”

And outcries against injustice: “You have declared war on your own children”

As Savannah “Savvy” Murphy addressed the crowd, they shared their award-winning speech, “The Hatmakers,” that they wrote about being labeled a girl at birth but realizing as they grew older that gender is more than he or she.

“There is unconditional love and unmitigated love to be found in the world if we have the courage to share our truth and the space to be who we are,” said Murphy, 33, of Greensboro, who identifies as gender fluid.

Status of transgender bills introduced this session

  • Senate Bill 631 and House Bill 574, Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, would prohibit transgender athletes from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity and limit participation to teams matching people’s birth gender. Status: The Senate passed its version, and it was referred to the House rules committee on April 25. The House passed its version and referred it to the Senate on April 20, where it sits in the rules committee.
  • Senate Bill 636, School Athletic Transparency, is a wide-ranging bill that involves high school athletics. It includes biological participation requirements. Status: Passed Senate. Referred to the House rules committee on May 4.
  • Senate Bill 639/House Bill 808, Youth Health Protection Act, would prohibit health care and mental health care professionals from providing gender-affirming care. Status: Senate did not pass its version, but the House passed its version, which was referred to the Senate on May 4. It is in the Senate rules committee.
  • Senate Bill 49, Parents’ Bill of Rights, would require schools to tell parents if their child asks to use a different name or pronouns at school. It also would restrict instruction and discussion about gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality in kindergarten through fourth grade classrooms unless a child asks a question about it in the context of classroom activity. Status: Passed Senate. Referred to the House rules committee on Feb. 7.
  • Senate Bill 560, Medical Treatment for Minors Act, would prohibit health care providers from providing gender-affirming procedures to any person under 18 years of age unless certain criteria are met. Those criteria include visits to a psychiatrist for at least six months and the signatures of both parents. Status: Did not pass in the Senate before the crossover deadline, when proposed legislation must get through votes in one of the legislative chambers in order to be considered this year or next.
  • Senate Bill 641 and House Bill 819, Medical Ethics Defense Act, would allow a medical practitioner, health care institution or health care payer not to participate in or pay for any health care service that they object to on the basis of conscience, including religious, moral, ethical or philosophical beliefs. Status: Neither version passed in its respective chamber before the May 5 crossover deadline.

Next steps

With so much legislation gaining momentum, LGBTQ+ advocates say they will continue to fight for their rights.

They will also have to look at how to adjust if these bills become law, Murphy said.

If enacted, the sports ban will affect teens who may already be struggling to make connections, Murphy said. The LGBTQ+ community will need to “make sure they’re not isolated,” they added.

Emily Allen, who helped organize the Greensboro rally, said the LGBTQ+ community needs to keep holding events to help make their voices heard. 

They’ll also have to look at upcoming elections and help people more supportive of trans rights get elected. Getting young people to vote is a “very big thing,” Allen said.

Members of the group PFLAG, which stands for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, pose for a photo at a trans rights rally in Greensboro, NC, on Friday, May 26, 2023. Credit: Jennifer Fernandez/NC Health News

At the end of the rally, Kimberly Jones got up to speak.

“You are all beautiful. You are all handsome,” Jones told those gathered. “I love each and every one one of you.”

Jones, 28, of Greensboro, said later in an interview she always knew she was queer. She said she has been out as a trans woman for more than a decade. 

Hearing the recent rhetoric in the state and seeing the legislation affecting trans people was “disheartening,” but it also galvanized her, she said.

She shared that energy with the crowd, echoing a sentiment of strength and resilience by other speakers as she shouted: “They will never stop us!”

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