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The Christian right's mounting attacks on trans youth

Two court cases illustrate how religious conservatives' campaign threatens the health and well-being of trans young people.
Image: A close up of handing holding a sign that has the transgender pride colors on the American flag with the text,"We the People" and the ACLU logo.
Demonstrators gather for a "Let Kids Play" rally coordinated by ACLU Indiana at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on Feb. 9, 2022.Jenna Watson / IndyStar/ USA Today Network file

In late December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, a court stacked with Trump-appointed judges, upheld a Florida public school district’s ban on transgender students using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, rather than the bathroom associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. A week later, a federal judge in West Virginia upheld a law that prevents transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports in public schools. Both rulings illustrate starkly how a nearly decade-long campaign led by Christian conservatives to restrict transgender rights continues to pose a threat to the health and well-being of trans young people.

Since 2015, the number of anti-trans laws passed by state legislatures has increased dramatically, including restrictions on trans’ students access to interscholastic sports and gender-affirming care the medical establishment deems vital to their physical and mental health. Anti-LGBTQ organizations on the Christian right, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Policy Alliance, have led these efforts, even though experts say that affirmation of gender identity and involvement in athletics and other activities are essential to the well-being of transgender kids. These laws strike a deliberate and direct blow to equality and dignified treatment and inclusion.

Since 2015, the number of anti-trans laws passed by state legislatures has increased dramatically.

The Florida school board bathroom policy at issue in the 11th Circuit case was applied against a student, Drew Adams, in the midst of a nationwide push by the religious right to make bathrooms the centerpiece of its anti-trans activism. (That push, thankfully, has since lost traction.) Officials at Adams' St. Johns County high school told him he could not use the boys’ bathroom in the fall of 2015, a period during which Texas Republican leaders and conservative activists waged a widely publicized campaign against a Houston ordinance that would have protected LBGTQ residents and others from discrimination. Voters beat back the ordinance in a referendum after a campaign that sowed fear and panic and threats to privacy by claiming the ordinance would allow men to enter women's bathrooms.

According to a dissent by Judge Jill Pryor, the St. Johns County school officials carrying out the bathroom policy “voiced two concerns with permitting transgender students to use the restrooms matching their gender identity: student privacy and student safety.” The Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed an amicus brief in the Adams case, hailed the 11th Circuit decision because it “rightly allowed St. Johns’ schools to prioritize the well-being of its students over gender ideology.” The 11th Circuit ruling is out of step with how other appellate courts have ruled in bathroom cases. But until the issue is resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, its decision remains the law governing the rights of trans kids in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

In the West Virginia case, Becky Pepper-Jackson, a middle-school trans girl who wanted to run track and cross country, challenged the state’s Save Girls’ Sports Act, which requires that participation in girls’ sports be “based solely on the individual’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.” After granting her request for a preliminary injunction against the law in July 2021, Judge Joseph Goodwin earlier this month ruled for the state, holding that the law did not violate Pepper-Jackson’s constitutional rights.

The driving force of these bills is a religious fervor that seeks to impose narrow right-wing Christian beliefs on everyone else.

The judge concluded the law was not passed out of a “bare desire” to harm transgender girls — even while he recognized that one of the bill’s co-sponsors, delegate Jordan Bridges, had reacted positively to transphobic responses to his Facebook post announcing his support of the bill. Bridges, according to Pepper-Jackson’s lawyers, had “‘liked’ comments on his post that promoted physical violence against transgender girls, compared them to pigs, and called them by the pejorative term “tranny.” But Goodwin contended that Bridges’ “private bias against, or moral disapproval of, transgender individuals" was not indicative of “that type of animus more broadly throughout the state legislature.”

Although the judge considered Bridges’ Facebook activity an isolated incident, the record of the Christian right’s muscle flex in red states has been one of elevating “biblical” values and “God’s design” for the sexes above equal rights, frequently disparaging and demeaning transgender people along the way. When the Save Girls’ Sports Act passed in 2021, the Family Policy Council of West Virginia said in a news release that it had “worked very hard behind the scenes with the House sponsors and with the State Senate sponsors.”

The Family Policy Council of West Virginia describes its mission as "to protect innocent life, provide our children with an enriching and wholesome childhood, and defend the faith that has served as the bedrock of Western Civilization.” It has falsely called “transgenderism” a “mental illness” and accused the NCAA, which supports transgender equality in collegiate sports, of having “devolved into an economic terrorism wing of the woke progressives.”

Anti-trans bills in a dozen other states share similar roots. The Family Policy Council is a state “ally” of the Family Policy Alliance, the political arm of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, which has long fought against LGBTQ rights. When Idaho passed the first law of this kind in 2020, the Family Policy Alliance boasted that it “helped pass the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act to keep sports fair for female athletes in Idaho.” After a trans student challenged it in court, a federal judge temporarily halted the law’s enforcement, and the case remains in litigation. Despite these questions about the law’s constitutionality, nine states, including West Virginia, inspired by Idaho, passed anti-trans sports bans in 2021. Another eight states followed suit in 2022. Although often dressed up as based on “biology” or “common sense,” the driving force of these bills is a religious fervor that seeks to impose narrow right-wing Christian beliefs on everyone else.

“God created mankind male and female, in His image and likeness, which cannot be changed,” the Family Policy Alliance states on its website. The organization “supports public policy that affirms the unique and complementary roles both men and women play in society and for the family.” The Christian right has made its animating principle clear, and its public policy goals plain. Failing to see it is the result only of looking the other way.