A headshot of Joe DeMartin '21
Joe DeMarin ’21. Photo courtesy Joe DeMartin ’21
A headshot of Ross Hickman '22.
Ross Hickman ’22. Photo by Sydney Schertz ’24

Joe DeMartin ’21 (he/him)
Ross Hickman ’22 (they/them)

In recent months, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled General Assembly has participated in a disturbing trend by introducing several bills targeting and discriminating against transgender people. 

House Bill 358, titled the Save Women’s Sports Act, bans transgender girls and women from participating on female atheletic teams at the collegiate, high school, and middle school level.

Union County Republican and lead sponsor of the bill Mark Brody could not — in providing comment to the News and Observer — name “any controversies [in North Carolina] involving transgender girls playing on girls’ sports teams.” When Brody was asked what, if any, research he had done before writing bill, he admitted that he had not talked to any transgender people.     

North Carolina is one of at least 30 states that are considering such legislation. But North Carolina’s recent history of discrimination against transgender people makes this most recent effort particularly galling. HB 358 was introduced nearly five years to the date after a special legislative session was called to pass the infamous Bathroom Bill, or HB 2, which led to multiple boycotts and eventually cost the state 3.76 billion dollars. Transgender activists are urging organizations like the NCAA to consider similar measures in light of current discriminatory legislation, yet the response has been tepid at best. 

Another pair of bills recently introduced in the North Carolina Senate are SB 514 and SB 515, the Youth Health Protection Act and the Healthcare Heroes Conscience Protection Act. Both filed on April 5th, these two bills put healthcare for transgender people under the age of 21 in jeaporady. 

Under SB 514, doctors who “facilitate” a transgender person’s “desire to present or appear in a manner that is inconsistent with the minor’s sex” can be fined $1000 per occurence. SB 515 would allow any medical provider to refuse healthcare service “on the basis of conscience, whether such conscience is informed by religious, moral, ethical, or philosophical beliefs or principles.” 

Equality NC, an organization dedicated to protecting LGBTQ rights in North Carolina, slammed the bill as “establish[ing] a broad and dangerous ‘license to discriminate’ against LGBTQ people.”

These attacks on healthcare for trans folks would be enough reason for outrage in and of themselves. But SB 514 contains even more disgraceful provisions. 

One shocking part of SB 514 would mandate state employees — including school teachers, administrators or counselors — to essentially out transgender students to their parents in writing if someone in their care “has exhibited symptoms of gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity, or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with [their] sex.” Another grotesque provision goes so far as to protect the unscientific, potentially deadly practice of conversion therapy.  

There is, however, reason for hope. Even if these bills pass through the General Assembly,  Democratic Governor Roy Cooper is extremely unlikely to sign any of them into law. Even Republican leaders like Senate GOP Leader Phil Berger are hesitant to voice support for bills as radical as SB 514. As first reported by WFAE radio, a spokesman for Berger commented last week that “We do not see a pathway to Senate Bill 514 becoming law.”

NC Senate Democrats have also been introducing bills aimed at protecting LGBTQ rights. A pair of companion bills in the House and Senate called the Equality for All Act — HB 450 and SB 396 — would “establish comprehensive statewide nondiscrimination protections in housing, employment and schools for all LGBT people.” HB 452 and SB 392, the Mental Health Protection Act, would ban conversion therapy in North Carolina. And HB 451 and SB 438 would repeal, once and for all, HB 2. 

It is critical, though, to understand that the work to advocate for and increase the rights for LGBTQ people is far from over. As parts of HB 2 expire, cities and towns in North Carolina — including Davidson — are moving to enact non-discrimination ordinances. However, as the myriad negative replies to Davidson’s proposed ordinance show, acceptance for transgender people — and marginalized people more broadly — still has a long way to go. It is vital that we as Davidson students work to make the town we live in, our broader community, a safe place for all people. 

Among other critical features of current discourses on anti- and pro-trans politics, the weight of history bears heavily. For many people, ‘trans issues’ are a curious part of the current cultural zeitgeist, erasing how people in the past and in different cultures have rejected and continue to reject the strict impositions of gender norms that governments, medical establishments, families, and friends enforce on each other daily. 

In many of these scholarly, political, and cultural conversations, the question of whether trans people have a history is a key component of deciding whether trans people deserve support. For those who oppose trans people’s existence, the notion that trans people are a new, brief cultural phase substantiates their efforts to return gender to a sense of normalcy. And for those who want to support trans people, we often don’t understand how we deploy trans history in our conversations without decontextualizing trans people within their own historical circumstances. 

The debates of our present moment beg these historical questions, and we may see ourselves on yet another cusp in the narratives of American progress in terms of gender, race, sexuality, and other historically and presently abused identities. If we do see ourselves in a formative moment for trans people’s public existence, how does the popular notion that we are in a ‘transgender tipping point’ shape our understanding of trans people in the past, the present, and the future? 

Among the more incisive erasures of transphobic politics is the reality of medical experimentation on trans and gender non-conforming children throughout the twentieth century. As Jules Gill-Peterson finds in her Histories of the Transgender Child, gender-deviant children were often reduced to mere bodies — abused for the plasticity, or adaptability, of young humans’ bodies in response to medical and psychiatric intervention. As objects of inquiry and anxiety into broader questions of the ‘biology’ of race and sex, trans children have often served an allegorical function in political fights that have little to do with their own well-being. 

For those who are fighting for trans people’s rights, however, nuanced discourse can often be lacking. In a recent article addressing the Vulnerable Child Protection Act in South Dakota, Sahar Sadjadi urges an approach to transphobic politics that doesn’t just fight back against trans-exclusive ‘feminists’ or conservative evangelical politicians, but an approach that also opens space for conversations about younger trans people’s health from a more holistic perspective. 

In the process of figuring out how best to support trans children, we must have open, honest conversations about the implications of medical and psychiatric procedures, rather than banning them entirely or supporting them unquestioningly. At the same time, the urgency of trans children’s pleas for support do not deserve the feet-dragging that such a deliberative approach often insinuates. 

At the crux of past and current attacks on trans children is whether we are willing to listen to children when they tell us what they need and desire, or whether we will continue to treat non-normative children, cis or trans, as ‘problems’ needing to be fixed. In all of these debates and discourses among adults, are we simply reproducing the same culture of silencing and erasing trans children’s voices? If so, we must open our ears and our minds to what trans children are saying about how they’re feeling. The consequences of failing to do so in the past are living with us now.