Three Questions for Tennessee Lawmakers Considering Anti-Trans Student Bills

Another week brings another opportunity for legislators to advance harmful anti-transgender bills. This week, lawmakers in Tennessee will be considering a pair of bills that target transgender students. Like South Dakota’s HB 1008, which was vetoed by Republican South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard earlier this month, Tennessee’s HB 2414 and SB 2387 would ban transgender students from using restrooms in public schools and universities.

These measures take aim at vulnerable transgender young people and raise serious questions about the privacy and bodily autonomy of students across the country.

As legislators in Tennessee consider these measures in committees this week, I have three important questions for them to consider.

Why would you target an already vulnerable group of young people for discrimination?

When he vetoed anti-trans HB 1008, Governor Daugaard explained of the bill that it “d[id] not address any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota.” Instead, it sought to impose a one-size-fits-all “solution” on a problem that did not exist by mandating discriminatory action on the part of schools and school districts.

Like South Dakota’s rejected measure, Tennessee’s HB 2414 and SB 2387 solve no problems and instead mandate discrimination against a group of young people at risk of bullying, harassment, violence and suicide.

As I wrote last month to South Dakota lawmakers:

“We live in a time of crisis … Almost half of all transgender individuals attempt suicide at some point in our lives.

“I urge … people across the country to take seriously what it would be like to be a young transgender person being told you are so freakish that others must be protected from you. Growing up is painful and isolating at times no matter who you are. The last thing we need is the government to take part in the bullying of our vulnerable kids.”

The solution to this crisis is simple: stop targeting and shaming transgender young people. New (and unsurprising) research confirms that the mental anguish and crisis experienced by the transgender community is the result of “environmental factors like discrimination, rejection, and harassment — and not the process of transition itself.” Dr. Stephen Russell, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin specializing in child development explained in a recent interview, “There is no question that disproportionate rates of mental health problems among trans people are due to stigma, discrimination, and hostility in our culture (transphobia).”

So as yet another attack on trans young people unfolds, I can’t help but ask, is it worth it? Unless and until we stop these measures from moving forward, we will all have blood on our hands.

As the New York Times editorial board explained after voters voted down a non-discrimination ordinance in Houston based on anti-transgender rhetoric: “Sometime in the near future, a transgender teenager in Texas will attempt suicide — and maybe succeed — because vilifying people for their gender identity remains politically acceptable in America.”

How do you propose enforcing this legislation?

In addition to the clear and measurable harms to the transgender community, this legislation is completely unenforceable without extreme intrusions into the privacy and bodily autonomy of all students in Tennessee.

At their core, these anti-transgender bills assume that a person’s genital characteristics and assigned sex at birth can be easily “determined.” However, there is no simple or ethical way to force people out of one bathroom and into another without intruding upon people’s medical information and bodily autonomy. What happens when a girl with short hair transfers to a new school in Tennessee and tries to use the bathroom? Can her peers expel her claiming that she is “really” a boy? Will she have to go to the doctor for an exam? Bring a note? Will a teacher be forced to do some sort of inspection?

As I explained last week, “The immediate consequence of the[se] laws is to bar transgender students from access to restrooms and locker rooms…But they also contribute to an increase in gender policing across the board and heightened surveillance of people who do not conform to expected gender norms.”

What is your plan to cover the more than $600,000,000 this bill risks the State of Tennessee in federal funding?

In addition to intruding upon the privacy of all students and contributing to the epidemic of violence against the transgender community, these measures threaten to cost the State of Tennessee hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

The federal government has made clear that laws and policies that force transgender students out of bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender violate Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination. In a filing last summer in support of a transgender student who brought suit against his school district for enacting a policy that banned him from using the boys’ restroom, the Justice Department explained: “The United States has a significant interest in ensuring that all students, including transgender students, have the opportunity to learn in an environment free of sex discrimination…It is the view of the United States that it is in the public interest to allow [the student], whose gender identity is male and who presents as male in all aspects of life, to use the male restrooms at Gloucester High School.”

By forcing schools to violate Title IX, these measures threaten the entire education system in TN. Violations of Title IX could cost the state all of their federal funding toward education — or $682,495,286.

On Friday, Buzzfeed reported that Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, “does have financial concerns over the loss of Title IX funding” as a result of these bills. As he should.

The question, then, is why Tennessee lawmakers would be willing to risk the well-being and viability of the entire educational system in their state just so that they can send a message of contempt to transgender young people?

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Before she died by suicide, transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn left a note begging for change: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights…My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s fucked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”

We all have a chance to do better — to fix society. These attacks must stop before it is too late.