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Why Arkansas's anti-trans rights law isn't just a trans issue

Cisgender Americans can't ignore the dozens of anti-trans bills in development.
Illustration of a tile with the transgender pride flag colors falling backwards over a row of different colored tiles.
There's nothing isolated about attacks on trans rights.Anjali Nair / MSNBC

On Wednesday morning, an old friend messaged me: "So, I realize this is a bit impertinent of me ... but am I going to see you put out a piece on all the attacks on trans rights one of these days?"

It wasn't impertinent. In fact, I'm not sure it's possible for him to be impertinent with me; we've known each since I was in high school, over a decade before he'd begun to transition. It was, though, a moment that called for reflection.

Republicans haven't exactly been subtle in the reasoning behind their surge in interest in the future of girls' and women's sports. After years of being ignored, underfunded or both, these athletes are now being used as props in a farce, a mummers' play of concern for the unfair advantage transgender girls allegedly have over their cisgender counterparts.

I knew all of this was happening, but I was honest in my response to my friend: I wasn't sure whether I had anything of value to add to the discussion. And to be even more honest here than I was with him, I was worried. Worried about saying the wrong thing, about framing an issue in a way that proved misleading or hurtful, treading on other people's narratives with my own cisgender biases. I have friends who are trans, nonbinary, genderfluid and just generally genderqueer — but their experiences aren't mine.

But my friend gently reminded me that "there is room and a need for outside voices that aren't hostile and/or completely ignorant." He had me there. The hostile voices are legion in this conversation, masking their disdain for transgender issues in the rhetoric of innocent inquiry or blatant concern trolling.

The patina of caring is the most powerful weapon anti-trans figures have — and they know it.

It's the same thinking that fueled support for the "bathroom bills" that dominated the trans rights discourse five years ago. Back then, the concern was that "men dressed as women" would use trans inclusivity as a license to prey on women as they used the restroom. As though men need to jump through that many hoops to assault a woman in this society. As though these lawmakers had evidence that assaults in restrooms were ever an issue connected to trans rights rather than one of men being terrible. As though transgender women haven't been the victims of attacks rather than the attackers.

Now it's trans kids who are the monsters lurking, who would deprive young girls of the safety of being able to compete among their own, weaker sex. Last month, Mississippi's governor signed a bill to ban student-athletes from competing in events outside the sex they were assigned at birth. It mirrors the efforts of dozens of bills, like those in almost half the states, to likewise block trans youths from participating in athletics.

It shouldn't surprise you that none of the states considering legislation like Mississippi's have been able to provide any local examples of any problems that were caused by allowing students to compete based on their gender identities.

But remember: It's never enough to contain monsters, to separate them. No, monsters have to be destroyed. Arkansas made that very clear Tuesday when its Legislature voted to override Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto of a bill that outright bans gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

The law, the first of its kind in the country, bars doctors from offering puberty blockers and hormone therapy to their patients, condemning these children to go through the dysphoric strain of watching their bodies change against their will, all as their inner selves remain unchanged.

A proposed law in North Carolina would go beyond even Arkansas'. Three Republican legislators introduced a bill Monday that would also limit medical treatment for transgender youth — but extend the prohibition on gender-affirming care until age 21. Worse, The Associated Press reports that the proposal, which as of now doesn't have the support to pass, would also "compel state employees to immediately notify parents in writing if their child displays 'gender nonconformity' or expresses a desire to be treated in a way that is incompatible with the gender they were assigned at birth."

"Won't somebody please think of the children?" the voices that back these measures yell, stripping the irony from a line made famous by a character on "The Simpsons," as they inflict harm on children who will be no less trans for their efforts.

But that patina of caring is the most powerful weapon anti-trans figures have — and they know it. The laws and regulations they advocate are never about discrimination in their eyes; they're about protection. Protection of women from sexual assault. Protection of children from one another and their own "confusion." Protection of women's hard-won rights.

The latter is especially prevalent in the United Kingdom, where the most ardent organizers against trans rights are feminists. Molly Fischer described the phenomenon in examining J.K. Rowling's complicated relationship with her fans in light of Rowling's anti-trans sentiments:

British feminism’s leading voices, writers who had been setting the feminist agenda in Britain’s major papers for years, advanced the view that trans rights were an attack on women’s rights (or even an attempt at “female erasure”), that trans women were men seeking to invade women’s spaces, that trans men were women lost to homophobia and self-loathing, and that all this represented a grave threat to “natal” women and girls. On Mumsnet, a popular British parenting site, anxiety over the dangers of trans rights overtook the “Feminism” message board.

The problem with that thinking is the same as when it comes up in discussions about race: Rights are not a zero-sum, winner-takes-all system. Acknowledging someone else's rights in no way diminishes your own. But what we're seeing in North Carolina, in Arkansas and elsewhere isn't about protecting religious rights or women's rights or any of the other excuses. It's about stripping away rights to protect privileges.

These officials and advocates are horrified at the thought of losing their privileged comfort in being the norm, the default, the standard. They're aghast that their ability to misgender people or deny them service or jobs could be lost. And so they cling to these privileges and call them rights, even as the list of what they seek to strip away from transgender people grows: the right to privacy, the right to self-expression, the right to exist.

And as in all cases when rights are abrogated, the effects of these assaults will not be — cannot be — limited to the targeted groups. At the height of the bathroom bill fervor, cisgender women were confronted and accosted in women's restrooms and were told, "You don't belong here." It's a reminder that laws trampling on rights of self-expression in the form of clothing, hairstyles and interests that fall outside the prescribed gender binary won't magically spare cis bystanders.

A 2017 article about an 8-year-old girl who was disqualified from a soccer game because she "looks like a boy" recently went viral again, illustrating how calls for rigid gender conformity hurt children. And, again, for all their efforts, the number of transgender Americans will not fall as a result — but the number of Americans in daily emotional pain will rise.

Until my friend's message arrived, I had been worried that I might say the wrong thing or seem uneducated if I wrote about trans issues. But looking at the egregiousness of the draft North Carolina law and at how far the anti-trans rhetoric has gone since the days we were fighting over bathroom laws, my concerns are so far down the list of issues that they're practically negligible. The reason to defend trans rights is self-evident. It's also self-serving: To protect trans rights today is to protect your own rights tomorrow.