Not a 'two-sides issue': Transgender people exist. Why is there a debate over whether they should have rights?

Susan Miller

In the U.S., 1.4 million adults identify as transgender.

Some dazzle in films and on stage. Some light up sports arenas. Some smash barriers in elections to public office.

And many are like the people Sean Ebony Coleman knows, “those folks in the Bronx just getting on the 2 train,” the ones whose security isn’t assured by high-profile visibility, whose rigors of daily life revolve around housing, food, a living wage. 

“Everything everyone else is concerned with, we are concerned with, too,” said Coleman, founder and executive director of Destination Tomorrow, an LGBTQ center in the Bronx.

But those people are navigating 2021 amid a noisy debate over rights that has dominated headlines in the months leading up to Transgender Awareness Week this week, a debate that at its core undercuts the humanity of someone who is transgender.  

“It’s easier to take away someone’s rights if they don’t exist,” Coleman said.

The year has been a tough one in many ways for transgender people. Anti-transgender legislation brewed in state legislatures, including at least 75 bills that would block trans youths' participation in sports and 40 that would deny youths gender-affirming medical care, according to the Equality Federation and the Movement Advancement Project, which track state laws.

In October, Texas became the latest state to join the fray when Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that restricts transgender students' participation in school sports. The law, which takes effect Jan. 18, effectively bans transgender students from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identities.

School board meetings have seen fiery uproars over books and trans-inclusive policies. A Virginia school’s equity initiative allowing transgender students to use the bathroom matching their gender identity even roiled the state’s recent governor’s race.

For a transgender person to feel like their very existence is being debated – or denied – is devastating, says Jay Brown, a senior vice president with the Human Rights Campaign.  

“It is very dehumanizing,” he said. “Like you are standing there as a person and you exist and people are talking about you as if you don’t.”

The transgender community “for a long time has been a go-to source for fearmongering when it comes to politics,” he said. “A lot of folks still don’t know us. And in the absence of knowing us there are misunderstandings, doubts and confusion. Some of that is at play and being politicized.”

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Coleman, whose nonprofit provides services that help reroute individuals from needing emergency care, agrees. Many people don’t recognize that the transgender community is “part of the American fabric because for so long we had to hide our gender identity.”

People rally at the Capitol in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 6, 2021, against a bill that would  ban transgender students from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identities.

Transgender youths in the crosshairs 

The focus on trans youths by some elected officials has been particularly troublesome, said Brown, who recalls the same “scare tactics” that targeted young people coming out as gay and lesbian in earlier years.

"Most of us now believe that gay kids exist,” he said. “We have got to catch up to the reality that trans kids do exist, too.”

A new study in Transgender Health from researchers at The Trevor Project, which provides crisis and suicide prevention services for those under 25, underlines the importance of a climate of acceptance for young people.

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Among the findings:

• Transgender and nonbinary youths who reported gender identity acceptance from at least one adult in their life had 33% lower odds of reporting a past-year suicide attempt.

• Transgender and nonbinary youths who reported high gender identity acceptance from their parents had 43% lower odds of attempting suicide.

• Transgender and nonbinary youths had 33% lower odds of attempting suicide when recognized by school professionals.

The study should “should send a clear message to all people who know a transgender or nonbinary young person that they can have a profound impact by simply being accepting,” said Amit Paley, Trevor Project CEO and executive director.

Putting transgender youths in the crosshairs has real-life consequences on the mental health of those already grappling with high rates of discrimination and bullying, Paley said. “Words and actions matter, especially from those in positions of power. We urge all adults with large platforms to consider the weight of their words.”

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Media has role in spreading awareness

There are more young people coming out than in previous generations, and people are more aware there are more than just two genders, said Serena Sonoma, communications coordinator for LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

But there are still those who don’t know a transgender person and that’s where the media plays a role with accuracy, inclusion and respectful coverage, they said. Journalists help shape “how people know and understand the unfamiliar.”

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While op-ed columns are a different dynamic than a news story, commentary that reflects anti-trans voices can have a toxic impact, Sonoma said. “Op-eds can insult people’s dignity and cause harm to vulnerable people. … Unchecked facts, lies and misinformation shouldn’t be spread freely on public platforms.” 

Simply put, Sonoma said, there should be no firestorm over someone’s rights. “A person’s existence and basic humanity are not something that can be a two-sides issue to begin with.”