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From Andrew Sullivan to Terry Schilling: Framing Transition as Evil

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Recently, the Arkansas legislature overcame a governor’s veto to become the first state to outlaw transgender health care for anyone under 18. The law also made it legal for private insurance companies to deny transition care to people of any age. Arkansas won’t be the last. North Carolina has introduced an even more draconian bill, and it ups the age of consent to 21. At least 15 other states have bills in motion to outlaw healthcare to trans people.

Apparently stopping gender transition among a tiny minority of the country (we are around 1 percent of the population), is important enough that our opponents have dedicated years of time and money and organizing and blogging for an outcome that they know, factually, will hurt — and kill — trans people.

So how did we get to such a stark place for trans people in America? It’s a familiar road actually, one that combines religion and moral panic and overzealous conservative politicians: conversion therapy.

Our national journey to transgender conversion therapy follows the leadership of people like the blogger Andrew Sullivan, who this past weekend published “A Truce Proposal in the Trans Wars.” In it, Sullivan declares the ‘culture war’ over trans rights a ‘litmus test for social justice campaigners’ that represents “how dysfunctional our politics have become.”

The arguments Sullivan makes range from the illegal (separate but equal treatment for trans women) to the easily disproven (we don’t have the data on puberty blockers). But the point is not that these suggestions are correct, only that they seem reasonable.

Writers like Sullivan and a host of other left-leaning journalists and writers who have committed themselves to this work, position themselves as the levelheaded brokers of peace in the raging Trans Wars, while their work directly feeds the efforts of conservative, anti-LGBTQ+ efforts like the Heritage Foundation, or Republican thinktanker Terry Schilling, people dedicated to fighting specifically against the rights of transgender youth.

Together, these forces started “asking questions” about why children are “allowed” to transition. And then, they never stopped. Eventually they contorted the political discussion around trans people from a fight against discrimination (remember the transgender tipping point?) to a widespread campaign intentionally sowing doubt about the efficacy of transition-related healthcare. 

In his article, Sullivan makes clear that he empathizes with trans young people, “because he’s human.” He gets it. Not unlike JK Rowling, Harry Potter author and great transphobic wizard of England. Rowling wondered aloud last summer in her long anti-trans diatribe whether, given the chance as a kid, she might have sought to transition.

These empathizing non-trans adults want all of us to know that they get it. Things are hard, and it’s okay to be gender diverse. To wonder, to be curious, or even, maybe, trans. Just, whatever you do, don’t transition. The enemy is no long being transgender. Instead, gender transition is what must be stopped.

It’s not the queer identity, but the act of transition, the fulfillment of our transness that has become the preferred target. How did this subtle, but significant change, take place?

If you’ve been in churches you probably know it as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I call it conversion therapy. The point is clear: being transgender is worse than being cisgender. And every effort to avoid “allowing” someone to be trans should be taken.

This campaign was a long and subtle game and, eventually, it won over disparate groups across the political spectrum. Today, two forces drive this effort: evangelical Republicans, who oppose any deviation from patriarchal heteronormativity, and leftists journalists and bloggers, who have a variety of political, transphobic, and economic reasons for opposing transgender health care.

But the reason why, in the end, doesn’t even matter. The point is that, by relentlessly asking the wrong questions, they’ve effectively made gender transition into a dirty word that has no business being in the same room as kids. And when adults keep trans kids from access to transition, you are left with conversion therapy.

The risks of this behavior on kids are well known. They include higher rates of depression and anxiety than their cisgender peers, as well as increased participation in risky behaviors like alcohol and drug use, and an increased risk of suicidal ideation. Denying a person access to a full and authentic life is an act of hate, no matter how one justifies it.

But that is the very point of conversion therapy. It provides the cover necessary. They’re loving the sinner by hating the sin.

Of course, supporting transgender people cannot be separated from supporting transition-related health care for those who want it. Compromising on our bodily autonomy and authentic lives is no compromise at all.

By making transition a dirty and dangerous word, anti-trans groups are able to offer “support” and “care” for young people while simultaneously denying those young people an opportunity to receive actual care that they need: transition. Voila. Just like that they’ve pulled off a big, deadly trick.

Every day, across the country state governments are painstakingly working to push authentic trans life further away from those of us who need it to survive. These attempts to take away our rights, our very transness, will of course bring legal fights, and those legal fights will eventually wind their way through the courts and be in the hands of judges. No one knows what will happen then. But what will happen along the way is all too clear: a very small portion of the population is trying to live with dignity and autonomy. And a systematic and organized campaign is being waged to make sure that we can’t.

Leigh Finke is an author, producer, and filmmaker from the Twin Cities. Her book, Queerfully and Wonderfully Made, was named to the 2021 ALA Rainbow Book List.

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