Growing up, my best friend wore extensions in his hair, blue braids swinging down to his hips. He wore short leather skirts and platform boots. He bought me a fishnet top when I was 14 (a long-sleeved shirt I hid for years from my religious family). We used to walk home from the mall together and recite entire TOOL albums. He taught me it was O.K. to disrupt gender norms.
Then, a few years ago, we got in an argument on Facebook. I explained to him the harmful concept of gender essentialism, the belief that gender is determined at birth and cannot be changed, and he told me he believed that a trans woman would always be a man in his eyes. I wasn’t out then, but anger boiled inside me. I deleted his comments and blocked him.
When you are trans, you never know who to trust. Our gender identity can be hidden for years, even from ourselves but especially from others. This means we hear our loved ones’ opinions about trans people before we come out. I still remember how loudly my friends laughed at the end of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when Ventura reveals that the woman everyone has been pining over for the entire film is trans, and so they all proceed to vomit. I remember hearing relatives talk about trans people, how sick we were, an abomination. We internalize these thoughts and apply them to ourselves. I’m not sharing anything new, but it’s important that everyone understand why it is so hard for trans people to trust even the most well-meaning cisgender allies.
When you are trans, every time you come out to someone, there is the distinct possibility it will be the last time you speak to them. We carry that notion with us everywhere we go, especially in the first few years of our transition. After I came out to my wider family and friends, I received a lot of supportive messages, but people also asked why I had not come out sooner, offended by the idea that I could not trust them with a secret so big. I make it a point not to hang out with bigots, but I still wasn’t sure who would be able to love and support me and fully embrace my identity.
I noticed a shift with some friends, the way they included me with the women, the way their body language changed. I was perceived differently, correctly. Others changed nothing but my name. I understand that upending long-standing beliefs about sex and gender takes time, but given this behavior, is it really so surprising that I might hesitate to share something so personal? You want my trust, but what have you done to demonstrate that you care for, respect and love trans people?
We are in the midst of a giant backlash with politicians looking to strip away the rights of trans people. Statehouses across the country are considering at least 82 pieces of anti-trans legislation, the largest number in our nation’s history. These bills would greatly restrict the rights of trans people, including barring trans girls from playing sports with their cisgender female classmates, allowing medical workers to deny trans people health care due to religious freedom and changing the definition of child abuse to include parents who support their children’s transition. Most of these bills are directed at trans youth. I believe conservatives have determined that the fight against trans adults has been lost, so they’re trying to squash the next generation of trans people. Just this week, Arkansas passed a bill that bans medical providers from administering gender-affirming health care to minors, including prescribing puberty blockers and hormones.
This is nothing new. We saw something similar in the ‘80s when anti-gay legislation was positioned as a way to “protect the children.” The idea is that trans youth will be beat down by these laws, that they will have to either wait until they are 18 before they begin a medical transition (after most of puberty has taken effect), or that their parents will have to move to some place where it is safer for their child to live freely as themselves. You cannot stop trans people from existing, but you can make an individual trans person’s existence so difficult that they question their desire to live.
A 2020 survey from the Trevor Project found that 21% of trans and nonbinary youth have attempted suicide. It also found that number dropped in half when the trans youth had their pronouns respected and access to gender-affirming clothing like shapewear and chest binders. Similarly, another study showed that trans youth saw a reduction in behavioral and emotional problems after two years of puberty suppression. Just think about what a law like the one in Arkansas means for trans adolescents seeking life-saving treatment.
Watching as these harmful bills are introduced, I am again reminded of how hard it is to know who to trust when you are trans. Though it’s mostly Republicans leading the charge, these bills are being endorsed by members of both parties. Simply being a Democrat does not mean you support trans lives, and just because you say “trans women are women” does not mean you are willing to fight for the rights of transgender people. (There are plenty of gay men and lesbians who are transphobic.)
It is hard to feel hopeful. Many of these bills are already being signed into law. Still, every day I wake up and call and email governors and legislators, and I beg them not to pass this legislation. Many of these bills will be contested in court, but with a high number of conservative judges placed on federal courts in the last four years and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, I do not expect them to be overturned. Regardless of the outcome, the moral panic is already here. Trans people are facing high rates of harassment on social media and an increase in physical violence. Each year there’s a new record for the number of trans people, particularly trans women of color, who are murdered. This is on top of our already limited access to housing, employment and medical care.
I understand we are a year into a global pandemic, many people have lost jobs, our AAPI neighbors are experiencing heightened levels of violence, we are still fighting for Black lives, we are reeling from an exhausting election cycle, and so many trans people of color are experiencing all of this simultaneously. It may seem like I’m asking a lot. I am. But I need my cisgender friends and family to take on this fight as well. Don’t ask the trans people in your life if they trust you. Assume they don’t. Instead show us that you can be trusted, that you will fight alongside us, and that you believe that trans people deserve to be loved and respected. You care about trans lives? Good, go prove it.