Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Montana State Capitol protesting anti-LGBTQ legislation on March 15, 2021, in Helena.
Editor’s Note: Allison Hope is a writer whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
It’s not enough to love our trans family and friends behind closed doors.
“Telling me you love me in private is not enough. Anything less is a detriment to my survival. Your silence is just another nail,” said J.D. Melendez, a friend who is transgender, on social media recently.
“I need my loved ones to be bold. Show the courage I show by just existing,” they said.
Take the time to speak up around Transgender Day of Visibility, which falls on March 31 each year, a time when we acknowledge and honor the rich lives and experiences of trans and nonbinary people.
The designation, created by trans advocate Rachel Crandall of Transgender Michigan in 2010, started as a clapback to the limited coverage of trans people in media, and stories that were wholly focused on the violence trans people faced. We must take the vision that Crandall started and help amplify it across our channels, normalizing trans lives and experiences through our cisgender networks.
If you say you are an ally, then you can’t merely be a bystander. You must speak up. There has never been a more critical time to be vocal in support of trans rights and against the attacks on the minds and hearts and bodies of our trans friends and family. Allies must combat disinformation when they see or hear it — on social media, around dinner tables or at water cooler conversations at work. Those who purport to care about trans people or about freedom of expression must contact legislators who are peddling these draconian anti-trans bills and tell them to stop. Allies need to validate trans lives to their parents and children and create dialogue that makes space for gender expansiveness and beats back at the policing of gender.
There is plenty of work to be done: In the first three months of 2023, state governments have introduced more than 400 bills that target the LGBTQ community, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. These include measures removing and threatening to block access to livesaving health care for trans people, cutting off their ability to use restrooms and facilities safely, play sports, have identity documents that match their gender, and even in some cases the right to say that they exist.
Opponents of SB99, a bill banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, line up out the door of the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 27 in the State Capitol in Helena, Montana.
One particularly egregious bill under review in Florida threatens to remove children from homes where gender-affirming health care is being considered. More than 144,000 trans youth have already lost access to gender-affirming health care as a result of new laws or risk losing access because of pending legislation, according to a new Williams Institute study.
“I feel more hurt by the silence of my loved ones and the people who claim to support us than I am about them coming for us. I expect that of them. I didn’t expect this from y’all. Y’all broke my heart,” Melendez said. “It broke my heart.”
Trans people continue to face disproportionate rates of violence (four times more than cisgender people, according to a 2021 Williams Institute study), but shifts in culture have enabled broader and more affirmative representation that illuminate the beautiful multitude of trans experiences. The trend of increased exposure might be hopeful if only it hadn’t been met with state-sponsored attacks and misrepresentative coverage. As allies, we must help to dispel the disinformation by speaking up, shutting down false narratives, and combating ignorance with facts and affirmation.
Trans people are not OK. Lift up their voices and faces and humanity to demonstrate that they are people deserving to live their lives in peace just like anyone else. Members of the trans community desperately needs the loud voices of allies willing to go to the mat on their behalf, whether it’s fighting for them at local school board hearings, city hall or the state legislatures.
Part of the persistent problem is that the number of people who know someone who is trans remains low (42%, an increase of five percentage points in the past five years, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey), and lags far behind the number of Americans who know someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual (nearly 9 out of 10, according to a 2016 Pew survey).
For those who aim to restrict trans rights, it’s easier to stand up at a school board meeting and condemn an invisible person who you don’t share a dinner table with — or a classroom or a playground. It’s easier to legislate against people you have never met. So long as trans people remain hypothetical, it will be harder to help people understand their humanity and their critical need for safety and equal access to basic civic life.
That’s in part because trans people are a very low percentage of the overall population (about as many as there are redheads) — but also because trans people are sometimes invisible, whether deliberate or not. They remain more invisible than necessary because self-proclaimed allies stay silent during the very moments when we need to speak up.
And it’s not just adults. Our trans kids need us. They are being forced to use bathrooms that don’t match their identities and getting banned from sports. They are being denied lifesaving gender-affirming health care, including mental health counseling and hormone blockers that the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have endorsed.
Minnesotans hold a rally at the capitol to support trans kids in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 6, 2022.
How would that make you feel as a parent of a trans kid whose sole job is to put your child’s well-being before all else? How might you feel that elected officials are making the rules without input from or thought given to how this impacts the people they purport to say they are protecting? Imagine being a teacher in a school that has banned all mention of gender identity and you are forced to misgender a student — or forced to hide books or curriculum that mention LGBTQ people or identity. What type of world do we want to live in?
One doesn’t need to look any further than US school history books to see the disingenuity of these efforts to squash gender diversity. In ancient Rome, men wore togas, dresses, wigs and makeup for centuries, including nobility and government leaders. Drag as a form of entertainment has been in existence as early as Shakespeare’s actors cross-dressing when they played female roles because women weren’t allowed to act.
There is nothing inherently threatening about a person choosing between a skirt or pants, a purse or a brief case, a truck or a doll. There is no pattern of harm caused by trans people or drag queen performances. Conversely, many trans and gender expansive children have been harmed by policies that deny them access to be their true selves. The threat comes from people who think they have a right to violate the enshrined constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression.
Trans is not synonymous with drag. The former is about gender identity; the latter about expression. The attacks on any deviation from strictly male or female identity are only growing in number and severity. It doesn’t matter who is getting targeted in the barrage of freedom-squashing bills, though. An attack on one person is an attack on us all. The silence of moderates is deafening. If you think those who want to restrict the rights of others won’t come for you next, then you haven’t read the history books very closely.
The haters tend not to distinguish between a trans person and a drag queen; between two dads or a nonbinary teen; between a boy who just likes to wear dresses or a teacher who wants to hang a rainbow flag to create an affirming space for students. At their most extreme, people who want to restrict trans rights want all of us LGBTQ folks gone. Detractors of trans people are in power in greater numbers and take bolder actions, and they are erasing all people in the LGBTQ community in tiny and substantive ways, with every piece of legislation, every epithet, every pulpit or sound bite or snark.
Trans people and drag queens aren’t the problem. And blustery politicians who would rather throw their most vulnerable constituents under the bus than get to work are most definitely not part of the solution. As allies, people who aren’t trans can help — and remember, our trans friends and family are listening.