This week, Tennessee residents are facing two bills in the state legislature that are equally dangerous. The first was just rejected Tuesday in a narrow victory for young Tennesseans facing what our friends at Tennessee Transgender PAC call the “Transgender Student Bathroom Harassment Act.” Like many other attempts to legislate public spaces across the country, this bill (Senate Bill 2387 and House Bill 2414) would have required students in public schools — including public colleges and universities — to use restrooms and locker rooms that are assigned based on the sex as shown on one’s original birth certificate. This focus on “original” birth certificate is important, and is as ridiculous as it is dangerous — it is a direct attempt to wipe trans folks out of existence, even if they have been able to legally alter their birth certificate to reflect their true gender identity.
Another bill is still pending in the legislature (Senate Bill 2275 and House Bill 2600) that specifically defines the terms “husband” and “wife” on all government documents as directly correlated to “male” and “female,” respectively, as one’s sex appears on an “original” birth certificate. While this might seem a bit in the weeds, what this bill tried to do is trying to do is to remove the possibility for transgender Tennesseans to legally change their birth certificates in order to enter into a heterosexual marriage. And if you read between the lines just a little bit, you’ll see that this bill’s ultimate goal is to legislate transgender Tennesseans out of existence altogether.
When these types of bills are discussed, the dialogue generally revolves around student privacy, burdens on school districts and administrators, and the increased threat of bullying and harassment of transgender students. However, this bill in Tennessee — just like the one in South Dakota and 10 other states — is about much more than bullying and bathrooms. These bills are intended to criminalize trans youth instead of creating a space that is safe and that allows trans students to thrive in school.
If these bills become law, students who do not comply will face more than just harassment and bullying from fellow classmates. The real goal of these bills is to make it nearly impossible to identify as transgender, whether as a young person or as an adult, or — if someone is able to defy the odds and to come out as trans — these bills will make simply identifying as transgender a crime. In the specific case of the anti-trans bathroom bills that we saw arise last year and multiply this year, the consequences for children who refuse to lie about or deny who they are could be suspension or expulsion, sending more of our kids — particularly LGBTQ youth of color — into the school-to-prison pipeline and into a criminal “justice” system that is actively seeking to write them out of existence.
And this is where the leaders of LGBTQ organizations have gotten it wrong. Time after time, state after state, bill after bill, organizations are leveraging resources to defeat these bills — engaging in an ongoing game of Whack-a-Mole. And engaging in this game means that we, as a movement, are not engaging in an effort to set our own agenda for LGBTQ liberation. For years, LGBTQ organizational leaders have set their sights on marriage equality as the dominant agenda item that “we” were all fighting for. And now that marriage equality is the law of the land, there is no answer to the question “What’s next?”
Right-wing culture warriors are furious at losing the federal marriage equality fight after last year’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, and are stinging from the loss of public favor for their position. By the time of the Supreme Court’s decision, a majority of Americans were in favor of gay marriage. Public opinion is much less settled on transgender issues, however, and rightwing leaders have found a powerful tool to attack LGBTQ rights — weaponizing transphobia as a lever to move their agenda. And while many in the LGBTQ community, the progressive movement, and even the political “middle” celebrated the win for marriage equality, the backlash to that victory has been swift and has targeted those who are the most vulnerable in our community — trans folks, especially trans youth.
Just as the so-called religious freedom bills are about more than just the right to refuse service because of a “genuinely held religious belief,” these anti-trans bathroom bills are about much more than keeping bathrooms binary. These bills are about policing the life, love, and identity of our community and further criminalizing any life that falls outside of white, cis, Christian heteronormativity. To be more clear, these “bathroom bills” are an attempt to lock up trans people when all other attempts to write trans people out of existence have failed. Rather than focusing on protecting those who are most vulnerable, these bills are an attempt to police gender identities in schools and in our communities — which leaves us asking, “Which lives are we protecting, and from what?”
If we begin with the central truth that these bills are an attempt to destroy trans people and trans lives, then our organizing must be different. It is not sufficient to run television ads or to lobby lawmakers — we must organize as if our lives depend on it because, in fact, our lives do depend on it. We should be organizing from that truth, rather than treating this like any other political campaign. Whether it’s in Tennessee or North Carolina or any of the tens of other states where these bills are being introduced, we need you.
If you’re interested in joining in a different kind of organizing, one that centers this truth, join us by signing up at www.getequal.org.
ROBIN RIDLEY is an organizer with Tennessee Transgender Journey Project, dedicated to protecting the rights of transgender people in Tennessee.
ANGELA PEOPLES is codirector of GetEqual, a national grassroots organizing network focused on LGBTQ liberation.