Story by Christy Avery
Art by Scarlett Hatton
“Live and let live.”
A hackneyed phrase, maybe. Meaningful all the same.
Upon hearing it, most people would give a nod in agreement, acknowledging the age-old practice of “minding your business.” Most people do it: most people do not care what another has for dinner, or if their favorite color is red instead of blue, or what kind of toilet paper someone else may be desperately stocking up on during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic. Most people generally do not care what someone else’s life looks like.
Until it comes down to which bathroom someone gets to use, or what sports team they can play on, or whether or not they have the right to receive medical care.
Then, “let live” takes on a different meaning.
You can probably tell which direction this is going in by that last paragraph, which is all the more telling that the debate over transgender rights has dragged on for far too long. I will not give a history lesson, because it probably is not needed; year after year, the same arguments over pronouns, biology, and sex versus gender keep people on each side of the issue at each other’s throats — and in doing so, keep the world from solidifying a new outlook. Or at least, letting it go.
Which is why I was both exasperated but not surprised to recently learn that, in the midst of a global pandemic and the rest of the world’s chaos, mind you, that Kentucky lawmakers proposed a series of bills late last year that if passed by the end of the legislative season, April 15, would limit essential rights of transgender youth in Kentucky schools.
One of the bills, known as the Kentucky Student Privacy Act, would require students to use only the facilities such as bathrooms and locker rooms that corresponded with their biological sex, as “allowing students to use restrooms, locker rooms, or showers that are reserved for students of a different biological sex: a). will create a significant potential for disruption of school activities and unsafe conditions, and b). will create potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury to students.”
The concern makes sense. Nobody wants to be seen in a state of undress. But its relevance here is questionable. The concern of decency, especially in a school setting, is why there are not cameras in facilities, and why there are separate bathroom and shower stalls. Which brings us to another logical point: a person’s genitalia, whether or not it “matches” with their chosen gender, cannot be seen through a locked door. And when it comes to locker rooms, cisgender people do not always want to undress out in the open, either; I never felt comfortable doing so until my senior year. That, however, does not rid me of the fact that I, like many others, am lucky: the way I feel about my gender matches my body, and therefore I am welcomed in the appropriate spaces. I can walk into the girls’ restroom or locker room and go about my business unquestioned.
Although many seem to believe otherwise, transgender people just want to do the same. They use the restroom and shower just like everyone else. What is underneath their towel or behind the door is private, and unlikely to be seen anyway. So as understandable as it is to want privacy, it is not black-and-white; there are solutions that span beyond locking innocent people out. Schools could provide more unisex, gender-neutral bathrooms, or, if nothing else, request that a transgender student use a stall within the locker room that corresponds to their gender. And if a cisgender person feels uncomfortable at the mere presence of a transgender student? They could do what they have had the opportunity to do all along: mind their own business or find another way to do it.
It can be that simple to not cause a riot. So one wonders where the “psychological trauma” comes in.
That brings us right back around to Kentucky lawmakers. House Bill 321, introduced simultaneously with the Student Privacy Act, aims to prohibit medical professionals from performing procedures or prescribing medications to transgender youth. Rep. Savannah Maddox backs the bill, writing on her Facebook page last fall that “I am a strong advocate for parents’ rights–but it is not the right of a parent to permanently alter a child’s gender or identity, even when based upon certain behaviors or the perceptions of a child’s mind which has not yet had time to fully develop.”
There appears to be some confusion here: if it is not even the right of a parent to decide what their child gets to do, how is it the right of a lawmaker to decide?
One could argue that Maddox is simply doing her job: trying to protect citizens. I would argue that she is protecting nobody at all, especially not with misinformation. While the process of transitioning is certainly a big one, it is not taken lightly, and the medical providers lawmakers threaten to punish with a Class D felony–which holds a sentence of up to five years–work closely with families to ensure a slow transition, one that can be adjusted if done early enough. Puberty blockers, for example, are typically used to “allow these families the opportunity to hit a pause button… until we know that it is either the right or the wrong direction for their particular child,” said Dr. Rob Garofolo in an interview to FRONTLINE.
The “certain behaviors” and “perceptions” cited as reasons to block medical treatment can be explored during this time. But that’s only if the parent — and the child — is given the right to do so. It’s only after many years of a child affirming their gender socially and medically that they are able to begin the process of reassignment surgery or hormones if desired. A typical concern, as Maddox wrote, is that parents are likely to somehow push their children into further changes, or that if a minor does choose themselves, they will regret it.
But the desire to physically embody how one feels about themselves does not begin or end with a birthday, and regret is uncommon: in a 2015 study by the U.S. National Center for Transgender Equality, only 8 percent of nearly 28,000 people expressed a sense of regret after transitioning.
The real risk is that, in ignoring the phrase “let live,” lawmakers are quite literally putting lives in danger. In grumbling about a child’s mind not yet being developed, Maddox forgets that nearly every medical source out there asserts that the brain is not fully developed until age 25. Making minors wait until they are 18 to receive hormone therapy or surgery adds years onto the mental health issues that are caused by dysphoria: in a study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2014, it was found that transgender youth have a “twofold to threefold” increased risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. In another study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 50 percent of trans boys, 41 percent of nonbinary teens and 30 percent of trans girls had attempted suicide in their lifetime.
Transgender healthcare can be irreversible in some aspects. But then again, are tattoos not the same? Same with piercings, in a sense? Teens choose to get those with relatively little uproar. But yet, when a child wants to confirm who they are, we fret and fuss and complicate the deliberate and often slow choices that are, frankly, none of our business at all.
Medical providers — and parents, for that matter — should not be punished for simply doing their jobs, to help and support those in their care. Making it illegal to do so demonstrates a belief that parents and doctors are incompetent, and shows that the experiences of transgender youth apparently are not valid enough. Even if all that trans youth want is to exist safely and happily within this world, to make choices that everyone may not agree with, but that harm no one. And, most importantly, keep them existing.
“Live and let live.” To lawmakers, it seems to be one or the other.
I hope on April 15, they will make the right choice.
Links to bills: