The week before Christmas, my 4-year-old came down with the awful stomach virus going around her school. After being sick for hours, she fell asleep on my chest around one in the morning. I knew we would be up again soon and that it would be one of those nights without sleep — nights that feel so much less daunting four years into parenting.
While lying in the dark of her room and watching her take slightly labored breaths while twirling the tail of her stuffed monkey in her sleep, I was struck by how simple everything felt. To her, I was just dad, taking care of her. To me, she was my kid who I would protect and love through anything. Nothing else mattered.
In those moments, I wonder what the lawmakers who demonize transgender people would say to our family. Do they truly believe that my child should not feel loved and protected by me because I am trans? It is unbearable to me that the world would try to hurt my child because she has a transgender parent. How cruel. And what about the parents who have held their trans kids in those similar moments? What do we say to them and their abiding love for their children? The message they are receiving in this hostile anti-trans climate is that their children do not deserve protection, safety, and care. Those same children that we welcome into the world with promise and hope somehow become rejected and disposable.
There are real people hurt by laws like North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (H.B.2) and the newly proposed bills being filed in state legislatures across the country. These laws and their defenders claim that transgender people pose a threat to others because, they suggest, we simply wake up and declare one day that we are a different gender. Or that our bodies are different and make people uncomfortable, so we should not be allowed to share spaces with our fellow citizens, colleagues, and peers. But that is not how it works.
No one wakes up one day and decides to struggle in a world that hates you. There is nothing fake about the truth of our lives. And for most of us, we have gone through deep, painful, and traumatizing years of denial before accepting that we cannot change who we are. And when we come out on the other side of that pain and self-discovery with full lives and loving families and brilliant visions, it is devastating to be confronted with the kind of vitriol we are seeing from lawmakers across the country.
Yes, our bodies may be different than what you might expect based on our gender, but why is that igniting a movement against us? The human condition is diverse and complex and that complexity and diversity makes it beautiful.
Do you think it matters that I have scars across my chest when my child lies there needing the love of a parent? Do you think anyone notices them when I am fully clothed in a restroom? Or when I change in the stall of a locker room? Is it worth passing laws that tell my child her father does not belong in society? Or worse, telling children who are coming to terms with their truths that society would prefer they did not exist?
Indeed, those scars from surgical care that no doubt saved my life are a reminder of how lucky I am to have had access to health care, which has allowed me to grow into a happy, healthy person. Those scars are not, as opponents of trans people have argued, an “adverse outcome” of “experimental” surgical care that I have come to regret. They are, as many scars are, evidence of life-saving treatment. They are reminders of my truth and my survival.
Because I have had access to health care, a loving family, and community, I have had the good fortune to survive into adulthood. This is sadly a privilege that far too many trans people never realize — particularly women and femmes of color who are targeted by systems quite literally designed to erase and kill them.
I take seriously my obligation to give back to my community and through my work as an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, I spend my days fighting against the many proposed and existing laws that institutionalize the message that trans people should not receive the protection of the law or, worse, that we should not exist at all.
Every day, I read briefs and hear arguments that boil down to the suggestion that it would be simpler and better if transgender people did not exist. One so-called expert defending North Carolina’s anti-trans law, HB 2, Dr. Allan Josephson, has claimed:
“A transgender individual meets the criteria for maintaining a delusion: a false, fixed belief, minimally responsive to reason. A deluded person is not helped or treated by insisting that everyone who encounters him must accept the validity of his or her delusion, contrary to reality. A deluded person has the freedom to choose beliefs but does not have the freedom to redefine reality.”
This is a fringe view, rejected by every major medical association in the United States, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association. But this fringe view is guiding policy and hurting transgender people.
It feels unconscionable to move forward with these laws and policies while trans young people are dying because of them. Recent survey data show rates of attempted suicide within the trans community at 40% — nearly nine times the rate of the U.S. population. And these rates of suicide do not suggest, as supporters of anti-trans laws would have you believe, that allowing trans people to exist is detrimental to our mental health. Rather, these rates reflect the systemic discrimination and societal rejection that trans people face because we are trans.
Our health care is withheld, our ability to go to the restroom impeded, our lives are endangered, and even our desperation is turned against us as evidence of our inherent deviance. This can make the world can feel unlivable when you are trans.
I have felt this way, and so did Jai Bornstein, a 19-year-old woman in California. Jai, like far too many trans people fighting to survive in this world, took her own life just days before the New Year. As a toddler, Jai no doubt spent sleepless nights in the comfort of her parents’ arms. And like I did that night with my own child, they probably looked down at her with so much love, dreaming of all the possibilities for her future. And before she reached 20 years old, those dreams were gone — squandered by a society that rejected her. A parent’s love is critical; but at times, it is not enough in the face of so much cruelty.
Mourning their daughter’s death, Jai’s parents issued a statement:
“To be different in a world where difference is often not embraced is a challenge that many of us may never truly understand, and all we can do is work to ease that struggle for others. Together we can make this world safer and softer for youth like Jai by treating everyone we meet with dignity and respect no matter how different they may appear.”
We have choices to make as individuals and as a society about what kind of world we want to create. If we act on our fears of difference, then we condemn young people like Jai to a world that tells them we don’t want them. But we must do better than that.
I am proud to be trans. I am proud to advocate for my community. I know that in the end, we will succeed in creating a safer and softer world for our beautiful children and for our elders who paved the way for our dreams.