“It’s like watching a murder in slow motion,” my son said. “There’s nothing I can do but just watch as they target kids like me with a smile on their face and a Bible in hand.”
Like me, my son is trans. Unlike most trans youth in the US, my son has dual Canadian American citizenship. He turned 18 this past year and is heading off to college north of the border. He didn’t apply to a single American university. When I asked him why not, he answered my question with a question. “Why should I stay here?” he asked. “It’s cheaper to go to school there. Healthcare won’t bankrupt me. They have laws to protect me, and I don’t have to worry about my government going fascist.”
It’s not the future I once imagined. When I began transitioning over a decade ago, I was hopeful that a better future awaited our community. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was going away, and marriage equality was just over the horizon. Barack Obama had won in a landslide, and there was hope the courts might shift left a bit. Time Magazine featured transgender actress Laverne Cox on the cover and declared that we were at a “Transgender Tipping Point” for equality and acceptance. We even managed to get a policy allowing transgender people to serve in the military before President Obama left office.
I had it relatively easy when I transitioned. I found work again (at reduced pay) when I lost both my jobs after coming out. We ended up spending all our reserves on transition related care that wasn’t covered by insurance. But I still had my immediate family and a roof over my head, and by that standard I was one of the lucky ones. We believed that a better future was coming, and others following in my footsteps wouldn’t have to face the same institutional adversities, including our son who came out as trans in 2017.
However, after Trump was elected, I realized we had probably seen the zenith for trans people in America.
After the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land the political and legal arms of the religious right made a deliberate decision to make transgender people their number one target. The Trump administration followed through with its ban on transgender servicemembers, and numerous efforts to ensure that overt, malicious discrimination was not only legal, but a right.
Our son transitioned in a world that was already very different than what I had experienced. While awareness of trans people had increased, the environment had grown far worse. Trans youth were targeted by a local school board member affiliated with hate groups, and it weighed on me and my wife: there was always the worry that school policy could shift violently against our child.
The political climate affected me as well: the timing of the military ban cost me my opportunity at getting back in, and I left 16 years of service on the table without a pension to show for it. I live with the burden of this every day. We have no idea how we will ever retire without that source of income after we were financially devastated earlier in the decade.
Despite the election of President Biden, the situation looks increasingly grim for trans people in America. Most of the social and traditional media coverage of trans people is very negative, and extreme abuse online is common. Conservative pundits such as Tucker Carlson and the GOP have made transgender people their top issue. Carlson described us as a threat to the survival of the species, while author and presumptive Senate candidate JD Vance threatened that if the GOP takes power, they will “destroy” anyone who has degraded American values.
Red states have made voter suppression and anti-trans laws their highest priorities. In Tennessee alone, five anti-trans bills have become law in just a few weeks, including a ban on trans athletes and one that forces businesses that let trans people use bathrooms there to post warning signs.
Living in a blue state offers limited protection in the long run, as conservative religious legal organizations file waves of impact litigation designed to ensure trans people are banned from public facilities nationally, and employers and schools cannot protect trans employees and students from harassment and abuse so long as it is based on religion. We face an uphill battle to stop these, and overturn state laws, after Trump filled over a quarter of the judiciary with his appointees. The Equality Act, which would protect LGBT Americans, will never happen so long as the filibuster is in place. Mainstream media outlets have published articles for years urging Democrats to abandon us.
Worse, the GOP has made it clear that it intends to seize the reins permanently as a minority via anti-democratic means. What happens to transgender people should they succeed is an open question, but there’s little room for trans people in their vision for America.
When we visited universities in Canada, our son asked the tour guides if things were okay for LGBT people on campus. They looked at him as if he was nuts. When he explained that he’s American, we could see them suddenly understand why he would ask such a question. These incidents highlighted for him what it might be like to not constantly live in fear of state-sanctioned harassment and discrimination.
A decade ago, when I started out as someone speaking on trans issues, I believed telling our stories, being visible, and educating would change the world for the better for trans people. I don’t anymore.
Our son never had that optimism. “Republicans have heard stories like mine before and know the harm they will cause. They just don’t care.” Young people often see things a bit more clearly than those burdened with the dogma of American exceptionalism. I also find myself now asking, “Why should we stay?” and discovering I have fewer and fewer answers.