“All of us have been sounding the alarm that this was going to be the end result—we’ve all known it.”
It was 2014, and Gavin Grimm had just told his mom that he was transgender. Gavin was almost 15, and about to start his sophomore year at a Gloucester County high school in Virginia. Before school began, he went with his mom to ask the school’s administration if he could use the boy’s restroom. Initially, the school allowed it.
But about two months later, the school board implemented a new, restrictive bathroom policy and said that Grimm would either have to use a unisex bathroom, or use the girls’ washroom—the one that corresponded to his gender assigned at birth. Grimm sued the school board with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, and the case made its way through a variety of courts.
In 2021, after nearly seven years of fighting and after he had already graduated, Grimm won. “What I did, what my legal team did, what other trans people in this nation with similar cases have done, it mattered, it made a difference,” Grimm told VICE News. This massive legal victory meant that the U.S. court system upheld trans rights, and recognized the discriminatory nature of restrictive bathroom policies.
Today, however, Grimm is disillusioned.
“It feels like the needle moved a lot less than it felt like it would be back in 2018 when we were having this conversation,” Grimm told VICE News. “The victory was important, but it wasn't the tack to that conversation that I was hoping it would be.”
Grimm has every right to be disillusioned: In so many ways, this year in particular has been devastating as trans rights face attack after attack. Even as victories for LGBTQ people mount, anti-trans rhetoric and legislation has not slowed down, and now it appears GOP leaders and their supporters have manufactured a culture war over transgender and gender nonconforming identities. Hate targeting LGBTQ people, especially trans people and drag queens, has reverberated across the country, and hundreds of bills targeting LGBTQ people have been introduced—about half of them have focused on trans people. States have also tried to equate gender-affirming care with child abuse: In Texas, the Department of Family and Protective Services was tasked with investigating families with trans kids.
These attacks have turned physical. Drag venues have been repeatedly targeted by far-right protests and bomb threats, hospitals offering gender-affirming care to minors have had to take their websites down due to threats, and earlier this year a man walked into a bar and opened fire at an LGBTQ nightclub that was planning an all ages drag brunch as part of the Transgender Day of Remembrance the following day. Five people were killed, including two trans people. Many are scared about what’s next.
“All of us have been sounding the alarm that this was going to be the end result—we’ve all known it.”
This year, a twisted feedback loop of anti-trans rhetoric begetting anti-trans policies, and vice versa, has paved the way for more violence against trans people. Right-wing commentators have turned trans people into a boogeyman for the ‘traditional American family,’ while targeting them and gender-nonconforming people in turn. At the same time, scores of policies from school boards to state governments have been introduced as lawmakers have seemingly done their best to fearmonger and stifle trans existence altogether. It’s a circular situation where the end result is ultimately violence.
Erin Reed was devastated by the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs—but she wasn’t surprised. Anti-trans hate has been building, and spilling over, for years.
“We've all tried to get people to listen to us,” Reed, a transgender activist and researcher, told VICE News. “All of us have been sounding the alarm that this was going to be the end result—we’ve all known it.” Reed spends a lot of time tracking attacks against trans people, from right-wing personalities to Republican policies, and has continually sounded the alarm as anti-trans rhetoric becomes more and more mainstream.
The Club Q tragedy felt like yet another deep cut to Reed and other experts, and the culmination of years of assaults targeting LGBTQ and trans people.
“Over the course of 2022, we've seen anti-trans discourse go from ‘trans people are potentially a danger to women's athletics somehow’ to ‘they are absolutely a danger to all children,’” Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist with the ACLU, told VICE News. “This is manifesting policies that are seeking to suppress transgender people, seeking to label us as inherently obscene, and functionally erase us from public life.”
Heather is ready to leave her home in rural Alabama on a moment’s notice if the state makes it impossible for her son Rob to access gender-affirming care and testosterone.
“I cannot have the kid de-transition,” Heather, whose last name is being withheld for safety reasons, told VICE News. “At any time, when anything comes down, we're going to have to pack up and leave.”
Rob told his mom he was trans when he was about eight or nine years old.
“I went immediately into mom support mode. I said, ‘Okay, let's go shopping tomorrow to get you new clothes,” Heather said. The next day, they bought a new wardrobe and Rob got a haircut, so that his appearance would better reflect his gender identity.
Slowly, Rob began to transition. Heather said social workers and the director of the transgender clinic where Rob sought treatment were involved before any medical treatment was prescribed. It took a long time and many checks and balances before Rob started to medically transition, and the family also saw multiple doctors and had to participate in several family interviews, including some solo interviews with Rob. They made several trips out to the clinic before Rob was allowed to go on puberty blockers. “It is not at all like it's being presented on Fox News,” Heather said. “It's not like going to get an antibiotic… It is a process.”
“It’s so disturbing that these people are not listening to science.”
“You don't just go in and get puberty blockers,” Heather added. “We were educated so well on the side effects… He saw a lot of medical professionals at the gender clinic—It seemed like it was like four or five individuals that we talked to well before we got to the point of getting puberty blockers.”
To this day, Rob still has regular doctor appointments with specialists to make sure he’s safely developing. Rob is immunocompromised, so with COVID still posing risks, the family is careful about where they go outside of the home. Once a week, Rob gets his testosterone shot.
“It's crazy that we have endocrinologists, all of the medical associations, confirming that gender-affirming care is necessary, and Fox News is completely ignoring that,” Heather said. “It’s so disturbing that these people are not listening to science.”
Right now, Rob is one of hundreds of thousands of trans kids in the U.S., many with safe and critical access to gender-affirming care, which has been endorsed by major governing medical bodies, including the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Studies show that trans people are more likely to experience mental health struggles, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and thoughts of suicide, than cisgender people. Nearly half of all LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide. But those issues can be mitigated with puberty blockers and other gender-affirming therapies, which are safe and effective, and are correlated with better mental health outcomes for trans people. Teens who are able to access gender-affirming therapy typically have better mental health outcomes than trans people who have to wait until adulthood.
Yet despite science and medical endorsement of trans healthcare, along with the serious risks associated with not affirming LGBTQ youth, right-wing media personalities and politicians continue to spread misinformation about what it means to be trans.
In 2022 alone, more than 171 anti-trans bills—and more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills—have been introduced across the U.S.
In some ways, the attack on trans rights started comparatively small. It began with bathrooms and sports teams, and happened amid landmark victories for the community, like the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same sex marriage and the military’s acceptance of open LGBTQ people in service. But soon, these attacks paved the way for a much more overt strike on trans existence writ large.
Bathroom policies, like the one that targeted Grimm, became a flashpoint for conservatives. States introduced an onslaught of “bathroom bills.” Though many failed, these bills set the stage for painting trans people as a physical threat that needed to be eliminated. These bills were often based on the groundless myth that trans people, or cisgender men, would all of a sudden start posing as trans and sexually assault women in bathrooms.
Despite being baseless, the myth has inspired mainstream opinions: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has supported bathroom bills, and said that a lack of them is “opening the doors to predators,” while former President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama-era policy that protected transgender bathroom rights. The views transcend politics too, with household names like J.K. Rowling pushing this conspiracy theory.
Then came children’s sports. Schools began to question if trans kids should be allowed to play on the sports teams that matched their gender identities. Some parents and conservatives posited incorrectly that this gave the trans athletes an unfair advantage. This was yet another myth: trans kids don’t actually have a leg up on cis athletes.
Soon, muttering on the sidelines became actual policy and in 2020, Idaho became the first state to actually pass a ban that prevents trans girls from participating in women’s sports from kindergarten through college, though it’s been held up by legal challenges. The same year, 20 bills were introduced that restricted trans participation on sports teams, according to the ACLU. In 2019, there were only two introduced bills nationwide that sought to ban trans students from sports teams, NPR reported. By 2021, there were 35.
These consequences have been amplified this year. In 2022 alone, more than 171 anti-trans bills—and more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills—have been introduced across the U.S. School districts have banned dozens, if not hundreds, of LGBTQ-themed titles (the “most challenged” book of 2021 was “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe). In total, anti-trans bills have been introduced in at least 33 states, including Oklahoma, Florida, Alaska, Arizona, Utah, Georgia, and Wisconsin.
When an audience member yelled “blood is on your hands” and said trans youth would suffer if the board bans gender-affirming care, a board member replied, “That’s OK.”
One of the most disruptive examples of anti-trans policymaking to date wasn’t even legislated. In February, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, with the help of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, directed the state to launch the child abuse investigations into families with trans children. The result is that families with trans kids are now fleeing the state—if they can afford it—and people are effectively becoming refugees in their own country.
Families are fleeing Alabama, Arizona, and Arkansas too. Parents like Heather are concerned they will have to leave at a moment's notice to protect their children.
“I cried for days when that came down because there are so many people who cannot leave,” Heather said. “There are so many people who are probably still not fully living their transition because of the fear of things happening.”
And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the “Parental Rights in Education”—or as critics call it, the “Don’t Say Gay”—bill. The act prohibits discussion of gender identity and sexuality between kindergarten and third grade, and also prohibits the topics for older kids if lessons aren’t deemed “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
This was the beginning of a long year for trans people in the state. On Oct. 28 in Orlando, a Florida medical board meeting was held to discuss a possible ban on gender-affirming healthcare, including puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy, for patients under 18. The meeting turned divisive: When an audience member yelled “blood is on your hands” and said trans youth would suffer if the board bans gender-affirming care, a board member replied, “That’s OK,” NBC News reported.
The Florida medical board has since voted yes on the ban, marking the first time a state medical board spearheaded such a ban in the U.S. It followed repeated Republican-led efforts in the state to restrict gender-affirming healthcare and “social gender transitioning,” twisting science in the process.
These conversations about education and book banning are happening at the ultra-local level, too. Several experts interviewed for this story reiterated the need to pay attention to local school boards, where many of the policies—from bathroom restriction to sports exclusion—originated. Just recently, a school board meeting in Conway, Arkansas, went viral after a member of the public said LGBTQ folks “deserve death” during a meeting that ended up passing several anti-trans policies, including harsh bathroom restrictions.
While anti-trans policy is getting decided at all levels of government, people are getting bombarded with far-right rhetoric and misinformation about trans people from right-wing media personalities. The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, and LibsofTikTok founder Chaya Raichik have all falsely accused trans and other LGBTQ people or their families and healthcare providers of “mutilating children” and of being “groomers” (a term used to claim that LGBTQ people befriend children in order to abuse them) to their millions of fans. “There's no facts or information that these people want or need because that's not how they came to their conclusion in the first place,” Grimm said.
Walsh, Carlson, and Raichik, and others like them, have also repeatedly misled their followers about how gender-affirming care works and claimed that trans youth regret transitioning—despite the fact that studies have found that such regret is extremely rare. The majority of those who de-transitioned at some point don’t cite regret, but rather, stigma and pressure from family or friends.
“A very small minority of people come to regret transitioning… What about all the people who regret not transitioning?” Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ Program Director with progressive media watchdog Media Matters. “I am very, very worried about the rhetoric that I see every single day.”
There is also concern in the trans community about mainstream media coverage.
In many ways, experts fear, these articles from accepted media sources have provided academic cover to the more questionable anti-trans sources that have been pushing fallacies for years.
News organizations like the New York Times, which published a decontextualized story about potential risks associated with transitioning, and Reuters, which questioned a “gender imbalance” among trans teens seeking treatment, have faced heavy criticism for “debating” trans healthcare.
In many ways, experts fear, these articles from accepted media sources have provided academic cover to the more questionable anti-trans sources that have been pushing fallacies for years. “The continued legitimization in all media—not just right-wing media—of debates over trans lives is sort of a reaction to anxieties about changing cultural and political norms,” ACLU attorney Chase Strangio told VICE News. “That then results in opportunistic political attacks on trans people.”
This year’s midterm elections featured a glimpse into the ways anti-trans policymaking and this rhetoric works jointly. During the election, Republican politicians spent a jaw-dropping $50 million on anti-trans ads and flyers—full of misinformation—to their constituents in at least 25 states. Many politicians, from local elections to state-wide races, made anti-trans legislation a core part of their campaigns. In one TV spot, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, “They indoctrinate children and try to turn boys into girls.” A day after the shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Georgia’s GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker referred to trans people as the “enemy” before releasing an anti-trans ad that targeted Lia Thomas, a trans athlete who’s been on the receiving end of hate for years.
Despite all of this, Republicans still didn’t do nearly as well as predicted, while the LGBTQ Victory Fund reported that 436 LGBTQ candidates won in the midterms—100 more than in 2020. The so-called “rainbow wave” included 18 trans candidates.
But these elections and the focus on anti-trans legislation, experts say, could be cautiously viewed as a dress rehearsal for 2024, and a grim foreshadow of what could come next; as well as provide insight into the many violent attacks leveled against trans people this year.
In June, drag queen Panda Dulce was gearing up to read “She Wanted to be Haunted" by Marcus Ewert, a children’s book about a pink, adorable house that wants to be haunted instead, for a Drag Story Hour at a California Library.
But before she had a chance to read, a group of men stormed the library. They appeared to be members of the Proud Boys, and were dressed in yellow and black. They had handkerchiefs over their faces, Panda Dulce told VICE News in an email.
One wore a shirt dawning an assault rifle alongside bolded text that said, “KILL YOUR LOCAL PEDOPHILE,” Panda Dulce recalled. The group shouted homophobic and transphobic slurs at the performer and accosted the families, demanding to know why they’d bring their children “to a pedophile,” she said.
The children in the audience were visibly distressed, she said. The parents told the men to leave and when they didn’t, police escorted them out. Security moved Panda Dulce to safety.
“They were clearly high on the adrenaline of terrorizing us. They wanted a reaction,” Panda Dulce said.
“As I left, they yelled, ‘You're not safe here’ and ‘Is 'it' still in the building? Let's go find ‘it.’”
Ultimately, the men didn’t succeed: After they were forced out, Panda Dulce came back out to the children, acknowledged what had happened, and then read "Families, Families, Families!" by Suzanne Lang, a story that uses zoo animals to depict various family structures.
Afterwards, no charges were brought against the group of men.
“As I left, they yelled, ‘You're not safe here’ and ‘Is 'it' still in the building? Let's go find 'it,'” Panda Dulce said.
More than 120 drag events have been attacked or threatened this year, according to a new GLAAD report, as attacks on trans and gender-nonconforming people have occurred alongside incendiary vitriol targeting drag queens. In a segment posted on Oct. 19, the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, who recently put out an anti-trans documentary, targeted drag queens, calling them “creeps” and “degenerates,” while claiming that children who are part of the culture are “exploited,” “groomed,” and “conditioned.”
“It seems to be essentially a sort of pedophilic, predatory farm system that the groomers have set up,” Walsh said.
“This is somebody who has gone from saying, ‘Oh, I just have some concerns about protecting fairness in sports’ to ‘throw people in prison for life effectively, for the crime of being gender non-conforming in public,’” Drennen said of Walsh’s comments.
Panda Dulce said anti-drag hate has led drag queens to consider their safety ahead of events—but also, it’s a reminder to keep existing proudly, she said.
“I don't want to fucking stop because that's exactly what they want,” Panda Dulce said. “I am done making myself smaller to accommodate the small comfort zones of xenophobes. No more closets.”
This loop between rhetoric and violence has occurred in other ways too. Earlier this year, a number of U.S. hospitals that offer gender-affirming care had doctors threatened with “execution,” received bomb threats, and been forced to take information off their websites specifically because of rhetoric from LibsofTikTok’s Raichik and Daily Wire’s Walsh, who have falsely claimed that healthcare providers perform hysterectomies on minors, among other myths.
Tweets from both Raichik and Walsh specifically call out hospitals providing care, including the Vanderbilt Transgender Clinic and Boston Children’s Hospital, and have forced the institutions and the healthcare workers within them to grapple with the surge in hate that follows. “We are deeply concerned by these attacks on our clinicians and staff fueled by misinformation and a lack of understanding and respect for our transgender community,” the Boston Children’s Hospital said in a statement at the time.
Though anti-trans hate isn’t new, and Black and brown trans people have disproportionately faced fatal violence for a long time, the current brand of rhetoric appears to have paved the way for unspeakable violence. According to Human Rights Campaign, at least 300 trans and nonbinary people have been killed since the group started tracking the deaths in 2013. At least 34 people have been killed in 2022 alone. This—coupled with the Club Q shooting in November—has been terrifying for the community. The rhetoric after the shooting hasn’t been much better: Several reporters and advocates said the anti-LGBTQ hate that surfaced in the aftermath of the shooting at Club Q is the worst they’ve ever seen following such a tragedy.
The situation has gotten so dire for trans people in the United States, that some Redditors took to the site earlier this year even before Club Q to ask: is this a genocide?
For Reed, the trans researcher, it is. “There IS an ongoing anti-trans genocide in the U.S.,” Reed tweeted in October, referencing the United Nations’ convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide.
“They are trying to bring about conditions that will result in the mass loss of life and inability to participate in public life among transgender people,” Reed told VICE News of people spreading anti-trans rhetoric.
While opinions around the word “genocide” varied, VICE News spoke with a number of people who believe that transgender existence in the U.S. is being targeted and attacked.
“This mindset of purging the world of people who are different from you is something that should be fought back against and pushed back against no matter who's at the center of it,” writer Parker Molloy told VICE News.
People who target others “do not typically focus just on one group… When you start chipping away at one person's rights, it's going to be used to attack others,” Molloy said, adding it would be “fairly accurate” to refer to anti-trans policies as genocidal. “It's something that is happening slow enough to where a lot of people aren't noticing, but fast enough where those of us who are affected by it are very scared.”
Heather, Rob’s mom, reads Reed’s newsletter for most of her trans-related news and agrees. “It does feel like they are trying to completely wipe them (trans people) out. They're trying to completely eliminate trans people,” Heather said.
“Seeing all of this, it's hard not to call it out for what it is: the attempted extermination of transgender people and the attempted suppressing of the population,” Reed said.
Though anti-trans hate isn’t new, and Black and brown trans people have disproportionately faced fatal violence for a long time, the current brand of rhetoric appears to have paved the way for unspeakable violence.
Many believe that these attacks are not just about the rights of trans people, but also the canary in the coal mine, sounding the alarm on broader nationwide attacks on bodily autonomy.
“The problem these people have isn't with trans people—it's with the entire modern world. It's with anything that deviates from the patriarchal norm,” Drennen said. “We might be talking about trans people in sports one day, but the next day we’re going to be talking about access to reproductive healthcare, to birth control.”
Though things seem—and are—dire right now, there’s also a lot of work being done to counteract the hate. In the South, more LGBTQ people are coming out and living their lives more openly than ever before, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the executive director of Campaign for Southern Equality, an advocacy group for LGBTQ rights, told VICE News.
“A story that many years ago might have been a really tough one about a kid being kicked out of the house, is now, in many cases, a story about a kid being told that they're loved and supported,” Beach-Ferrara said.
“As more and more people come out, and more people express their support for trans equality or they come out as trans, the far right is trying to react to that and say, ‘no, no, go back. Don't be who you are,’” Beach-Ferrara added. “So it's inspiring to see people, even in the face of that, continue to come out, continue to share their stories, continue to fight back against these attacks.”
And as drag shows, Pride events, and community group meet-ups are getting targeted across the country, the events themselves aren’t being canceled. “People are not shrinking away as a result of the escalations we're seeing. We're also seeing more and more people galvanize as allies in fights,” Beach-Ferrara said.
The hate has also inspired community support.
“It's been heartbreaking to see all of this (anti-LGBTQ hate) happen, and also nourishing to see a community rally with each other, to support each other,” said Derrick T. Jordan, the director of Gender and Family Project (GFP) at Ackerman Institute for the Family. He added that in New York, kids as young as 8 and 9 are spearheading conversations about what it means to create safe spaces for people, and what it means to be an ally.
“It's inspiring to see people, even in the face of that, continue to come out, continue to share their stories, continue to fight back against these attacks.”
Trans activists and experts are hoping that people who don't identify as LGBTQ will also take up the mantle.
“I've said for years that if we're going to be a priority for our enemies, we need to be a priority for our friends,” said Branstetter. “We cannot fight this off on our own. We need people to hold the line on our own humanity.”
Recently, Gavin Grimm co-wrote a non-fiction book for youth titled “If You’re a Kid like Gavin,” and regularly interacts and works with trans youth and adults. He wants to help kids see the joy in being trans, but he said he’s noticed a concerning trend: “I talk to trans young people, trans adults all the time,” Grimm said. “What I'm seeing overall is that kids who were proud of their trans identity before now, all of a sudden they don't want to talk about it.”
“That’s a problem. That’s a really big problem,” he added.
In Alabama, Heather understands firsthand the stakes of the moment we’re in—and how important it is to affirm trans youth. For now, while still in Alabama, she tries to keep life as normal as possible for Rob, who “I had never seen more comfortable in his own skin” after he transitioned, she said.
“He was a different child. He was so happy and so comfortable in his own skin,” Heather said. “I feel like if more people understood that—the change that we see when our kids come to the realization that they are trans—if they knew what that looks like, they would want to have an education about LGBT [identity] early on, in kindergarten and first grade.”
A report released in January found that 85 percent of trans youth said that debates over anti-trans policies in state legislators negatively impact their mental health. Grimm said he’s seen kids express fear, shame, and embarrassment for being trans.
“You can't wait until it progresses to the point where they are actively hurting people in a more robust fashion,” Reed said of the people spreading anti-trans misinformation and hate. “Right now we're seeing the growth of that and we need to stop it because if we don't, it might be too late.”
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