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Ten years out of the closet: Understanding transgender reality over religious fiction

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understanding transgender reality

Ten years ago, on Feb. 16, 2013, I sat down in my living room to have one of the scariest conversations a child can have with their parents.

I had from a very early age struggled to understand how I fit into being a girl, yet at the same time knew that I wasn’t a boy either. I spent much of my childhood fighting the depression and anxiety that comes with gender dysphoria — the formal term for the distress a trans person experiences as a result of their gender and body being out of alignment — long before I knew any of the terminology surrounding trans people.

I was lucky enough to have a relative abundance of exposure to gay people, at least for someone growing up in small-town rural Indiana. I had gay relatives. Like any good theater-obsessed middle schooler, I watched “Glee” with my family as it was airing. My parents made consistent efforts to make sure my sister and I knew not to listen to the constant chorus of homophobia surrounding us, and raised us to constantly question authority when it sounded like hate and bigotry. When I told my parents about my first girlfriend, I was a little nervous, but ultimately confident that I wasn’t going to face any violence or be kicked out of my home.

Still, I had never met any trans people.

Being a queer teenager in the early 2010s was a unique experience, to say the least. Visibility and knowledge of being gay or lesbian or bisexual or pansexual was more mainstream than it had ever been. Gay characters in movies and television were finally starting to branch out from just being objects of ridicule or victims of violent crimes. The “It Gets Better” campaign was everywhere, sending a message to LGBTQIA+ youth that our lives had value, that people like us could be successful, happy, healthy adults someday. Today we often look back at media from those years and cringe at some of the ways gay people were represented, and much of that is certainly warranted. But I also think it’s important to remember that for the time, these depictions and efforts were absolutely revolutionary — especially for kids growing up in places where it seemed like gay people couldn’t possibly exist.

The internet also played a major role in this shift. Social media sites allowed me to, for the very first time, connect with a wide variety of other queer people, and begin to find educational resources. I remember the moment in the summer of 2012 when I stumbled upon information about transgender identities, and more specifically, information about being nonbinary. It was like finding the last piece of a puzzle that had slid under the couch. Finally, for the first time in my life, I had words to describe what I had known about myself since I was 4 years old. It was exciting, and also terrifying. As I researched and learned more, I realized how much more dangerous being openly trans could be. I was already facing bullying and harassment and violence for being openly gay, much of which was based on the idea that I needed to be saved as someone “actively living in sin.” I wasn’t sure if I could handle or survive what might happen if I came out as nonbinary. While my parents had made sure that I knew they loved me regardless of my sexual orientation, both before and after I had come out, they had never once said anything about gender identity.

I silently agonized over this revelation for months, while the symptoms of my dysphoria continued to worsen. My grades started slipping, I had worsening behavior issues in school, and my physical health rapidly deteriorated as I struggled to find the energy to take the steps to manage my chronic illnesses through the depression. Eventually, I realized I had to say something. That if I didn’t take that next step, I was going to continue to spiral. So, just two weeks after my 16th birthday, I told my parents that I needed to talk to them, and explained what was going on. I told them that I wasn’t a girl, and I didn’t think I could ever be a girl after trying for so long, but I also wasn’t a boy. I told them that I wanted to start using they/them pronouns, and change my gender presentation. I remember a beat of silence that seemed to last forever, and then my parents saying “OK, we love you, thank you for telling us,” followed by “We’re not sure what that means exactly.”

My parents and I learned what it meant to be a trans teenager together. We sought out what would now be referred to as “gender-affirming care,” though I don’t recall it ever being called that. We talked it through with my family doctor and therapist, who were supportive and made my wellbeing and health the number one priority, and gave me health care that aligned with medical standards. I had been on the pill since I started my period due to having Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, and when I explained that menstruation was a pretty major gender dysphoria trigger, my family doctor helped me switch to a form of birth control that stopped my periods completely. My therapist at the time helped me build a toolkit for coping with the gender-related anxiety and depression that was severely impacting my life.

I began to really dive into what gender presentation actually made me feel better. I had been wearing my hair short for years out of convenience for marching band and winter percussion, but my parents started letting me explore more masculine styles. I started wearing clothes from all sides of the store, mixing and matching feminine and masculine pieces to see what felt best. I bought a chest binder with some birthday money. Somewhere in the depths of Facebook there is a now private album of concert band photos that document me as a teenager in everything from floor length dresses to a shirt and tie and everything in between.

I was, within reasonable guidelines set by my parents and my school’s dress code, given the freedom I needed to explore and learn and find out what made me finally feel like me. I cannot emphasize enough that these choices quite literally saved my life.

It took a while for my family to adjust to they/them pronouns, and while some of my teachers did try to understand, more point blank refused. I had amazing friends who also did their best to support me through this process, even though it made them targets of bullying just as much as I was. There’s a saying amongst many LGBTQIA+ people that “There’s no hate like Christian love” and if the amount of vaguely threatening bible verses shoved into the slots of my locker and passive aggressive invitations to youth bible studies are any indication, there’s plenty of truth to that statement.

Throughout all of this, I constantly repeated the mantra of “It gets better.” I kept holding on to the idea that society was making progress, and that when I was older I wouldn’t have to spend all my time explaining who I was to people. This was also the time that I first became an activist, and began entertaining the idea of going to law school after college. I thought that if I kept speaking up and pushing, surely it would be far easier for the kids who came after me.

A decade after that conversation with my parents, I’m sitting here in my office at the Freedom From Religion Foundation trying to wade through the flood of anti-trans legislation that’s come down in the past month and a half.

Hundreds of bills have been and continue to be introduced in state legislatures across the country, primarily targeting the rights of trans youth to receive life-saving health care, play on sports teams, and safely exist in their schools and communities. Trans adults are being targeted through bans on drag performances (though drag as an art form is not done exclusively by trans people, many of these bans are written in a way that would ban any trans person from giving any type of public performance). Other legislative assaults include state constitutional amendments that define us out of the law, “Don’t Say Gay/Trans” bills — and, in at least one state, there has been a bill introduced that would make it a sex crime for a trans person to even enter a bathroom if there is a minor present.

Attacks on LGBTQIA+ communities have always been rooted in religion over reality, but never have legislators said the quiet part out loud quite this much. Bills in Oklahoma and South Carolina were titled “Millstone Acts” — a direct reference to Mark 9:42 (“whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea”) in an effort to ban gender-affirming care to anyone under the age of 26. In Arkansas, state Sen. Gary Stubblefield, during a hearing on a bill to restrict drag shows, said that “as a Christian I believe … for example in Deuteronomy 25, I believe the bible, I believe that if the bible says ‘if a man dresses like a woman, and a woman dresses like a man’ it is an abomination to God.” (He actually meant to reference Deuteronomy 22:5.) In other states there are bills that are explicitly attempting to allow religious health care providers to full-stop discriminate against trans patients. Christian nationalist organizations like the American Principles Project and the Alliance Defending Freedom have outright stated that their goal is to eliminate the rights of trans people in the United States.

While some of these bills will fail to pass, many of them will, and in fact, already have. Utah and South Dakota have both passed gender-affirming care bills for minors — with the South Dakota bill going as far as to forcibly detransition any minor on puberty blockers or hormones.

This isn’t just at the state level. Here at FFRF we’re seeing an increase of complaints about public school students being exposed to transphobic and homophobic preaching at school events and school board meetings, religiously motivated restrictions on drag story times, and more. My entire legal fellowship, in fact, centers on the fact that there is a massive intersection between LGBTQIA+ and Establishment Clause issues (although a year and a half ago when we were first developing the project, we couldn’t have possibly predicted just how necessary it would become).

I’ve shared the story of the early years of my gender transition here, because unlike the sensationalized stories of genital surgeries being performed on minors, or claims that children are being given hormone replacement therapy like candy, my story represents the actual reality of the majority of trans youth with affirming parents in the United States, and what these laws are attempting to ban. Gender transitions happen slowly, with the assistance and guidance of healthcare professionals who go through years of schooling in order to understand the science that allows them to give appropriate care.

Gender is a complex and beautiful thing, and people who we would, in the modern western context, refer to as trans, have existed for all of human history. We’re not some modern trend, or threat to society. There are no roving bands of transgender missionaries trying to recruit your children. We’re just people who want to live our lives without fear of violence and discrimination.

There is no reason for it to be more difficult for trans people to exist now than it was ten years ago. Every child deserves to have the love and support I got to explore their identity and learn who they are. We have a responsibility to these kids to stand up against religious organizations and politicians that have chosen to vilify them and make them pawns in their ongoing quest for power and control. It could just save their lives.

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