Stopping Transphobic Bills: Shared Risk

6 min readJun 17, 2021

Across the country, there’s been a coordinated effort to suppress trans rights. Carbon copy legislation is being pushed on dozens of states to restrict our access to public spaces, ability to participate in student activities, and even the rights of parents with trans kids. Many of these bills have failed, or been struck down in court thanks to the efforts of lawyers like Chase Strangio and the ACLU. The bills aren’t really designed to pass, though — they’re designed to drive a public debate and increase hostility and violence against our community. My advice here is designed as an answer to that function, in order to make the people who push these laws realize that they want to drop this conflict.

Some advice I’ve read recently on this subject has been designed to mitigate the individual impact of that increased hostility. I’ve heard it suggested that coverage should aim to humanize the trans targets of this debate, focus on the harm being done to them, interview trans subjects about how the laws make them feel or impact their lives. There’s surely a place for that somewhere. The question I would encourage everyone to ask themselves is: when a tiny minority is being fomented against and dehumanized, what reaction is the public going to have when you say they’re being harmed?

The narrative that we’re a culture war “wedge issue” is both dehumanizing and counterproductive. It’s understandable that some people might see the answer to that as humanizing the supposed “wedge”. That makes sense if your problem is feeling dehumanized, and for trans youth, that is a material problem. Instilling confidence in a besieged community, making them feel recognized, can make their lives better. I’m trying to accomplish something else. I want to talk about the cis majority, who don’t have a problem with lodging humans between gears.

Dehumanizing narratives aren’t being promoted by accident. The people selling and promoting these bills aren’t kindly, misguided people who need to have it explained that we’re just like everybody else. They would be happier if our lives were worse, and they’ll say it to anybody’s face. The secret to making them stop is realizing that they’re just like everybody else too: they have their own priorities that matter more than hurting us.

The neutral public writes the harm off because such a small number of people are under attack. This is why my first piece of advice is to emphasize shared risk. Centering trans people in the coverage of these bills may be affirming, but it does not help us in other ways. It’s very hard to make people care about others when they’re motivated not to. Being framed as a cultural signifier to fight over doesn’t help us either. Instead, expand the discussion of the impacts. Talk about how these laws hurt cis people. We’re lucky because this is true and easy.

A bathroom law is the archetypal example. There’s no way to visually differentiate between a cis and trans person reliably enough to make a law like that enforceable. The result is that people get interfered with in these public places on the basis of their appearance, not their trans status. 90% of the time, that means a cis woman that’s judged to look unfeminine — or maybe suspiciously feminine — sometimes a cis man with long hair that they think is too gay.

For TERFs in particular, this poses a huge problem. But you don’t need to be a radical feminist or lesbian separatist to see why subjecting women to invasive inspections any time someone decides they look funny might not be ideal.

It’s easy to describe this problem in a general way or to make it more personal. One thing you might ask an official who supports a bathroom bill or similar business-related exclusion measure might be, “Why do you want every bartender who thinks she’s ugly to be legally empowered to look up your wife’s skirt?” Put their personal share of risk under the law in terms they can understand.

It may also help to interview cis women who have been mistaken for trans and harassed. The general audience already understands that trans people are being hurt by these bills — journalism can help them understand that they are being hurt by these bills.

That’s a little harder to do with a sports bill, unless they want to require genital exams. Any genital exam requirement should be enough to sour them with the #saveourchildren crowd (their base) if it’s put to them the right way often enough. You would think that sports wouldn’t be the most difficult type of bill out of this set to emphasize shared risk on, but it is.

For most sports restrictions it might be better to disregard some of this. Because sports parents have empathy for the emotional attachment to participation, humanization seems to be effective on them to some degree.

As It's On Us pointed out here, the trans panic in sports is also a distraction from the widespread revelations about predatory coaches and doctors. That’s a real shared risk that has nothing to do with gender, these unsupervised authorities target boys too. Those stories need more emphasis regardless of what happens with these bills, but they also help put the bills in perspective. Why are these Republican representatives, who pretend to be so concerned about safety, so reluctant to do anything about the well-documented threat from the nation’s Jerry Sanduskys? We can guess, but it’s better to get their constituents asking it.

The Biden administration also ruled this week that Title IX covers trans kids’ sports participation, so maybe things are moving in the right direction on that front already.

The bills that limit medical access and especially the ones that involve child protective services are much easier to emphasize shared risk around than sports. The reasons are bleak, but that makes these arguments all the more certain to work against the type of Megachurch religious extremists who pay for these bills in the first place. Again, the idea is to make them stop wanting to put these bills forward because persisting would hurt them more than they want to hurt us.

These bills get right to the heart of the community that wants to destroy us. Churchgoing, homeschooling biblical literalists. They don’t know it yet, but even these seemingly narrow bills that mandate CPS reporting based on a family’s beliefs or their medical decisions around their child are a direct attack on their conservative habits.

Most of them legitimately don’t recognize that these bills can be used against them. Yet. But for decades, churches and conservative religious families have fought bills exactly like these. A contingent of them turned up at a local assembly meeting just last week to protest a measure against beating kids.

I’m talking about families and churches that deny their kids blood transfusions as a matter of faith. I’m talking James Dobson ass-beating Christians. I’m talking about the people who fight against child marriage bans. That’s the core of the base that wants to fight with us. It’s not hard to explain how this would impact them in a way they would understand it. It’s just that nobody has explained it to them yet, not in volume. That can be fixed, and when it is, the most psychotic conservative churches will fight these bills too.

With that said, it has to be stressed that this protective contradiction doesn’t cut both ways. They need to protect everything they believe is abuse from the law because they do so much that’s abusive by any legal and most cultural standards. But that doesn’t legitimize the framing of being kind to your trans-identified child as abuse, because the APA says you should be kind. They officially recommend transitioning, and say that acknowledging someone’s identity produces better outcomes.

There’s no conflict in the medical field about this, just like there’s no medical body that recommends refusing a blood transfusion on a child’s behalf. Conservative churches need the state out of their business, and using that against the think tanks who promote this model legislation doesn’t protect anyone’s malfeasance later.

These are the main three types of legislation that are being pushed right now. The arguments put forward in favor of them range from the patriarchal to the feminist to the paranoid. The coverage angles described here are designed to make any of those categories reconsider, or even regret supporting these bills. If there is a part II it will focus more on vocabulary.