Anti-Trans Laws Aren’t Symbolic. They Seek to Erase Us From Public Life
Even if we beat every anti-trans bill in the nation tomorrow, too many trans young people would still be fighting to survive.
Let me tell you a story about STAR children.
When Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson founded the activist organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970, they addressed chronic homelesness and the dangers they faced from the police by setting up a house on East Second Street in New York City. Owned by a mafioso with pro-gay politics, the building was in terrible shape — no heat, no electricity, nor plumbing. But the rent was just $200 a month, so STAR members taught themselves to do repairs. Eventually, they made the place a home.
In their new space, STAR cared for trans kids when nobody else would. As their mothers, Rivera and the other adults did sex work to pay the rent. The kids, in turn, stole food to fill their table. The adults hoped to one day build a school on the top floor of the building. Many of the children had been runaways from such a young age that they didn’t know how to read and write.
The hopes and dreams of the STAR kids of the 1970s were many, but the mutual aid and political movement the trans adults in their lives championed were far from symbolic. Rivera and Johnson knew their children needed food and safety from violence if they were going to have a shot at a good life.
Although STAR disbanded almost fifty years ago, its story reminds us that trans politics are strongest when they are about bread and butter. Today, in an era of economic austerity, culture wars, and widespread anti-trans political violence, STAR’s tactics for liberation are just as timely. At its best, supporting trans youth takes the form of a material politics that focuses on providing housing, redistributing resources, and removing the police from our communities. Rather than respond to the right’s endless litany of moral panics, which sap attention and energy from the central problems facing many trans people, we should organize like Rivera and Johnson did, providing concrete forms of aid.
We should ground the horizon of trans politics in what it takes to build a life worth living.
STAR’s legacy is especially instructive given the current tidal wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and administrative policy sweeping U.S. states. This year alone, over 200 such bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country. Taken together, they aim to fully disenfranchise trans people from public life beginning in childhood. Many states have moved to ban access to basic education, organized sports, healthcare, bathrooms, and identity documents. Some, like Texas and Alabama, have taken the more extreme step of criminalizing medical care for trans youth, not only through legislation but administrative policy.
These attacks will have a measurable and devastating impact on trans people’s quality of life from childhood. One recent study found that more than a third of trans youth in the U.S. are at risk of losing access to transition-related medical care if current bills become law. That access itself is already a practical impossibility for many trans children, who lack the parental support and financial resources this care requires.
In the face of such dire circumstances, it’s stunning that some of the most visible criticisms of these laws have reduced them to the realm of the purely symbolic.
For example, Florida's recently passed anti-LGBTQ+ measure became a centerpiece of public attention after it was dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The bill is carefully written to prohibit classroom discussion of “sexual orientation and gender identity” in order to target LGBTQ+ students, teachers, and curriculum topics without having to explicitly name them. Critics of all kind fired back by literally saying the word “gay” to Governor Ron Desantis, something literalized through the construction of “Say Gay” billboards across the country, including one paid for by a trans telehealth company.
Unfortunately, these simplistic public clapbacks seem to fundamentally misunderstand what the law actually does. Florida is not only restricting mention of LGBTQ+ topics in school; it is also allowing parents to sue school districts that teach students about gender and sexuality — topics that are practically impossible to avoid in any honest accounting of history, social studies, sex education, and any number of subjects.
While many queer and trans kids, or kids with LGBTQ+ parents, will find themselves targets of censorship, one of the bill’s more Machiavellian functions is to force school districts to live in fear of endless litigation and the financial costs that come with it. Just “saying gay” in response to this threat is an empty and virtually meaningless gesture.
What’s worse, “Don’t Say Gay” is hardly the most pressing attack on queer and trans kids. Bans on gender-affirming care, trans girls’ participation in sports, bathroom access, and even the ability to change ID documents all restrict access to the fundamental things trans youth need to survive childhood, let alone enjoy a minimum quality of life. These attacks are far from symbolic, and it’s discouraging that few of them have received as much mainstream attention as Florida’s latest law.
And so before you say “gay,”consider this: If you’re a 12-year-old trans girl in a state that has adopted a range of anti-trans policies, your teachers, coaches, counselors, police officers, friends, and even neighbors have been instructed to single you out. Not only that, your freedoms and basic safety have been severely curtailed. You won’t be safe in school if you can’t use the restroom, play sports, or expect teachers and peers to use your name and pronouns, outing you on a daily basis. This puts you at a higher risk of being bullied or harassed. If you’re lucky enough to have a supportive family, counselor, or pediatrician, those adults may now be legally prohibited from caring for you, or even helping you access support in a friendlier state. By the same token, no one will be held back from mistreating you. Indeed, if you live in a state that has banned access to the gold standards of gender affirming care, you could have zero bodily autonomy until adulthood.
In some states, it gets even worse: If you live in Texas, you also have to deal with the fear that the government could begin investigating your family, laying the groundwork to place you in deliberate danger in the foster care system.
Collectively, these bills are not just attacks on what you can or can’t “say” in school. They are an existential threat to your life.
Kids living under such harrowing conditions will still mostly likely survive into adulthood, as trans kids long have, but it won’t be easy. Getting into college is much harder when you haven’t been able to safely attend K-12 school. And taking away trans children’s control over their bodies doesn’t stop them from being trans, although it does forcibly harm them against their will. At the very least, it makes transition practically harder in young adulthood than it has to be.
Excluding gender-affirming care from being covered by insurance, or banning it outright in childhood converts it into a private cost in adulthood. Many trans young people now must plan to amass thousands of dollars if they want access to hormones and surgeries once they are legally permitted to undergo treatment. Finding a job that pays enough to make that happen, however, is a tall order when you haven’t had access to any public resources since childhood. The stagnation in wages affecting young people today hits trans youth even harder, especially if their state makes it difficult or impossible to change the identity documents needed to apply for jobs.
This scenario of deprivation is one that has informally been the experience of many trans people for decades. Poor trans women and trans people of color like the ones who founded STAR have long been forced into the informal economy, and the situation hasn’t meaningfully changed. Although cisgender gays and lesbians in the U.S. today are no more likely to live in poverty than straight people, a 2019 study found that trans people are 70% more likely to live below the poverty line. This picture is itself deeply structured by race, disability, and immigration status. Almost one in five white trans people live in poverty, higher than the national average of 15%, but the poverty rate for Black trans people is over 38%. For Latinx trans people, it rises to over 48%.
These are the bottom lines that get elided when we only discuss anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the abstract: poverty, wage inequality, health care, and racism.
The material disadvantages poor trans people and trans people of color have been forced to endure at disproportionate rates are at risk of becoming universal for all trans people. Indeed, that seems to be the tacit goal of this wave of legislation. Anti-trans laws and policies aim to enforce the worst possible standards of living by forcing all trans people out of public life.
Depriving trans people of education, healthcare, and bureaucratic standing is ultimately about depriving people of the basic resources of life. These policies will deliberately cause homelessness, forcing people to drop out of school, exposing them to over-policing and subjecting them to incarceration, and cutting off access to the formal labor market. The cost of transphobia is material. It looks like the difference between graduating with a high school diploma and having to make a life exclusively in low-wage industries. It’s the difference between having a shot at growing up with some bodily autonomy and having to buy back that right as a privilege in adulthood — if you can afford it. It is an attack on trans people as a class.
Mobilizing against the overwhelming cruelty of anti-trans political violence today requires being clear about what is actually at stake. Moral panics try to recruit us into their bizarre illogics about what it means to support trans people from childhood. Lukewarm politics like saying “gay” don’t meaningfully counter current anti-LGBTQ+ attacks. Neither do the various lawsuits against anti-trans policies unless they are coupled with material activism. Even if every single anti-trans law was defeated tomorrow, we would only revert to the wildly uneven poverty statistics that I just cited. We would be back to an already transphobic status quo. The fight for the STAR children has never really ended.
We can do more than just saying no to transphobic politics. Instead of treating trans people’s lives as a battle over abstract moral or ethical principles, we can oppose transphobia on material grounds, full stop. And we can demand resources like housing, education, and healthcare for trans people because we demand them for everyone.
Allyship doesn’t rely on evaluating trans people as morally deserving, but rather on recognizing everyone’s right to the resources and public goods that raise our quality of life. Being an ally is about the common struggle for better living conditions. The trans politics of Black and brown women have been about mutual aid and abolition since the 1970s for a reason. They have proven to be the only people unafraid to consistently care for and love trans kids without using them as moral props.
The time is long overdue for us to live up to those women and the STAR children. We can demand not just that trans children be allowed to exist, or be recognized for existing, but that their quality of life grant them real agency and possibility. Instead of thinking of trans children as victims whose lives need to be saved, we can demand that they be given the resources needed to pursue lives worth living.