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Two funerals and a legislative onslaught

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ba1c4911 0366 784a b448 709be44b10b7 Two funerals and a legislative onslaughtPhoto by Lena Balk on Unsplash

Content warning: This blog contains descriptions of violence against a transgender minor. Please take the steps you need to take care of yourself.

Last week, on Feb. 15, something remarkable happened. In New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a massive crowd gathered for a service, honoring the life of actress, transgender activist and sex-work advocate Cecilia Gentili. A woman who bravely dedicated her life to social justice and equality, she  brought a light, love and joy to thousands, which anyone viewing a photo of the service would be able to clearly see.

Although rituals surrounding death in the United States are often somber, this service was a bright and colorful send off to a highly respected community member. It brought together people from all walks of life, a beautiful representation of what it means to live in a diverse society. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a Catholic Church often referred to as “America’s Parish,” has been the funeral site for many prominent New Yorkers, from Babe Ruth to 9/11 first responders and was chosen at the request of Gentili’s friends and family, likely for its prominence in the face of the growing attacks on the trans community. The crowd was full of friends, family, government officials, collaborators and others who had the joy of knowing her. Though Gentili herself identified as an atheist, the memorial was presided over by a Jesuit priest, Father Edward Dougherty, who warmly commented that the only time he sees a crowd so colorfully dressed is Easter Sunday.

Under the eyes of an institution that has harmed and rejected trans people for centuries, Gentili once more inspired her community to stand up and say “We will not be silent, but joyful.” The service included music, dancing and raucous yelling, as well as beautifully queer expressions of gender. To the horror of the institutional powers that be, for a few hours, they lost their iron grip on the Church. In arguably the most well-known Catholic venue in the United States, atheists made room to celebrate a life well lived. Faithful Catholics publicly voiced their rejection of the politics of the hierarchy in favor of love and community. Queer people proudly and defiantly expressed their identity, all in honor of a woman who worked for decades to allow them to do so.

Cecilia Gentili came to the United States in the early 2000s as an undocumented sex worker from Argentina whose childhood was filled with unspeakable trauma, and was granted asylum eventually in 2012. Despite that trauma, or perhaps because of it, she became a legendary civil rights activist. Her work and efforts were critical in the passage of the New York state Gender Expression and Discrimination Act in 2019, as well as in successfully fighting back against the Trump administration when it sought to roll back trans protections in the Affordable Care Act. She founded Trans Equity Consulting to broaden transgender protections in the workplace. And she fought tirelessly for the rights of sex workers, writing in 2021: “I have spent the last decade of my life fighting for the decriminalization of sex work for adults, to heal all of those times I have been harassed, beaten and raped — not by clients but by law enforcement officials.”

She also was incredibly proud of being a “trans elder,” acting as a role model for countless trans and queer people, many of whom had never been able to picture an adult life where they are happy and loved, because they had simply never seen it. Trans people face markedly lower life expectancies, not because of anything inherent to transness, but because of violence and the impacts on mental and physical health caused by familial and social rejection. I was 22 before I met a trans adult over the age of 30.

As a trans activist myself, watching my community both mourn and celebrate Cecilia has brought to mind a lot of thoughts about my own life and legacy. I made the choice very early on to dedicate my life and career to fighting for social justice, civil rights, and liberation for all people. I started on my advocacy journey at 13 years old, and I truly cannot imagine doing anything else with my life.

That does not make it easy. Since starting my fellowship at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the battleground for both LGBTQIA+ rights and the separation of church and state have changed radically. Anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric and legislation are reaching a fever pitch in the United States. Fueled by Christian nationalist-funded pseudoscience, conservative fundamentalist theology, and constant fearmongering, state legislatures have already introduced over 400 bills targeting LGBTQIA+ people, communities, families and health care providers, as of Feb. 23. As a point of comparison, in all of 2023, there were roughly 540 bad bills introduced. To say that state legislatures are on track to beat that number this year would be an understatement.

Some of these bills are likely familiar to you all by now, such as bathroom/locker room bans and “Don’t Say Gay/Trans” bills. Some of them are altered versions of the bills dominating the current discourse, like gender-affirming care bans that take a page from the abortion playbook and prevent public funds being used to pay for trans healthcare for anyone, not just minors. Others are bills that we saw begin to pop up last year, but are now really taking off, like laws intended to define trans people out of the law or ban name and gender marker changes on ID documents. My own home state of Indiana shamefully introduced a bill that would act as a trigger law for the overturn of same-sex marriage, defining marriage as being between one “biological” man and one “biological” woman.

And there are newer categories of bills, such as online censorship bills that while masquerading as bills protecting children from “inappropriate” content are expressly being introduced to ban young people from exposure to any “transgender content.” If you think I am exaggerating, ask Sen. Marsha Blackburn, co-sponsor of the “Kids Online Safety Act,” who said in an interview about the bill that it is in part about “protecting minor children from the transgender in this culture.”

I cannot emphasize enough that these bills are neither coming from secular sources and nor are they based in reputable science or addressing a problem that exists in real life. Early last year, a series of leaked emails made it clear that the anti-trans legislative playbook is being written by Christian extremist groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation, for the express purpose of codifying a Christian fundamentalist understanding of gender and gender roles. Toward the end of 2023, the Southern Poverty Law Center also published a report showing the vast network of pseudoscience and misinformation production and its clear connections to the Christian right.

This pseudoscience campaign has reached far beyond the fundamentalist Christian bubble. Groups posing as reputable organizations with deceptive names like “The American College of Pediatricians” (not to be confused with the American Academy of Pediatrics) put forward poorly designed studies and misleading messaging with the clear intent of stoking anti-transgender bias in the public mind. These organizations deliberately misinform the public and misrepresent data, such as in their use of the infamous “Swedish Study” to claim that receiving gender-affirming care leads to a 19 times increase in suicidality. While this study is cited by nearly every anti-transgender advocate, these claims have been debunked, not just by trans advocates, but also by the author of the study herself. The truth is, the study doesn’t discuss suicidality, and though published in 2011, uses decades-old data. What the study actually measured was the rate of mortality from all causes from 1973-2003, and did not address risks associated with gender-affirming care at all. While the study did find that there was a higher rate in all-cause mortality for trans people during that period, there are myriad factors that go into that. The data covers trans people living at the height of the AIDS crisis, who were at an increased risk of substance-use disorder and homelessness due to housing and employment discrimination, and who were suffering from a lack of support due to social rejection of trans identities. In short, it is neither the smoking gun these groups want it to be, nor, I would argue, a gun at all.

I’ve written before that we need to always keep in mind that just because the leaders of the Christian nationalist movement hold radically different values does not mean that they are unintelligent, particularly when it comes to strategy. You likely know to avoid information from groups with names like “Jesus and Gun Lovers Against Women in Pants,” so these groups with seemingly scientific or secular-sounding names play a vital role in this movement to trick less radical Christians, people from other faith traditions and nonbelievers into supporting their cause.

Lawmakers, on the other hand, are absolutely not hiding their intent. In some states, gender-affirming care bans have been named “Millstone Acts,” a direct reference to a bible verse that calls for the death of anyone who would lead children away from Jesus. We’ve seen trans people be publicly called “demons” on the floors of state legislatures. The organized attack on transgender rights is an attack on secular democracy.

Of course, not all of these bills will pass, but that does not mean we do not have cause for alarm. Even if not a single one of these bills became law (and to be clear, some already have), these politicians are still using their influence to signal to their constituents that transgender people are evil and dangerous. These lawmakers, allied with other prominent anti-LGBTQIA+ voices, such as Chaya Raichik, “Libs of Tiktok” account runner and appointee to the Oklahoma State Library Committee, are creating a culture of fear and loathing that poses a very real threat to the safety of every LGBTQIA+ person in this country.

On the same day that Cecilia Gentili’s memorial took place, another funeral for a trans person put the devastating result of this rhetoric on public display.

On Feb. 8, 16-year-old Nex Benedict, a nonbinary student at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, died after being brutally beaten by other students in the girls’ restroom.

According to eyewitness accounts, Nex was unable to walk to the nurse, yet no ambulance was called, nor were police notified until Nex was admitted to the hospital, where they died the following day. While an official cause of death has not been released as of writing, a family friend said that it was most likely due to the head trauma they experienced in the beating.

The Owasso public school system had previously been a target of Chaya Raichik, who in 2022 set her and her following’s sights on an eighth grade teacher who posted pro-LGBTQIA+ comments on TikTok. The negative attention brought on by Raichik then led to that teacher being let go by the district. According to Nex’s family, the bullying that they experienced for being nonbinary leading up to their death began in earnest following Raichik’s targeting. A motive for the beating has not been released by law enforcement, but it is clear at the very least that a heavily anti-LGBTQIA+ environment exists within the district. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Harvard Law instructor and trans advocate Alejandra Caraballo summed up the situation quite succinctly, commenting that “this is the inevitable result of the anti-trans moral panic.”

Nex was a child.

They were a child who, according to their family, loved animals, the Walking Dead, reading and video games. Nex deserved to grow up. And since we can no longer make that possible for them, the next best thing we can do is make sure that their memory lives on in the fight against these bills and this rhetoric.

We owe it to Nex, and to every child, dead or alive, gay or straight, cis or trans, to ensure that religious hatred and pseudoscience do not overtake this country.

I turned 27 this month, which as a trans person, feels like a strange age to be. In terms of chronological age, I am not old by any means. In fact, I actively refuse to engage in the strange cultural dread over approaching my 30th birthday. But in the trans community, I often feel much older. When I consider the lives of Cecilia and Nex, however, I can’t help but to see parts of myself reflected back at me that put things into perspective. Looking to my past, I see that 16-year-old nonbinary kid, playing video games and figuring out my life, just trying to make it through high school. Looking to my future, I can only hope that I have lived the kind of life that inspires the same level of joy, celebration, resistance and sense of community that Cecilia’s did. In the meantime though, I hope you join me in honoring both Cecilia and Nex by continuing the fight to protect LGBTQIA+ rights, and in the process, defending secular democracy and the separation of church and state.

I still believe that we can win this fight. With some exceptions, the anti-LGBTQIA+ bills have not done well once challenged in court. We still have the power to loudly express our opposition to laws that only serve to harm people, and to refuse to vote for the people who introduce them. And we certainly still have the power to engage in our local communities, and have difficult conversations with our friends and neighbors with the end goal of creating environments that embrace the beauty of a diverse, pluralistic society.

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