In Part 2 of our interview, ACLU attorney Chase Strangio describes in detail the state-level attacks on trans youth and the intensifying international push to eradicate trans lives. Strangio is an attorney in the ACLU’s lawsuit against Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s directive to launch child abuse investigations against parents who seek gender-affirming care for their transgender children, and deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. “We do exist. We deserve to live,” says Strangio. “That should not be up for debate.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our discussion with ACLU attorney Chase Strangio.
The Florida Senate voted Tuesday to ban the discussion of sexuality and gender identity in schools. The legislation, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, has faced mounting criticism from Democrats, rights advocates and many students and educators. In a floor debate before the vote Tuesday, Democratic Florida state Senator Shevrin Jones, the only openly gay Florida state senator, made an emotional plea to his colleagues during debate.
SEN. SHEVRIN JONES: So, my dad, who is an amazing human being, he wrote a book not too long ago. And the book that my dad wrote, it was inspiring. As most of you know, my dad is a pastor down in South Florida. The book that my dad wrote was inspired by the loss of my brother, but then, as I continued to read the introduction of my dad’s book for the first time — it just came out about three weeks ago — it was also speaking about his disappointment — it was my dad talking about — it was my dad talking about his disappointment — after taking 30 years of just wanting to make him and my mom proud, and just coming out and just saying who I am. And so, when I see these kids, I don’t think y’all understand how much courage it takes for these children to show up every day. … And to those who think you can legislate gay people away, I’m sorry, you cannot. I think you should spend your time legislating to protect them.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Shevrin Jones, the first openly gay Florida state senator, making this emotional plea to his colleagues before the debate on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
For more on this and the attacks on trans lives across the United States, we continue our conversation with Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, also an attorney in the ACLU’s suit against Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and we’re going to talk more about that in a minute. Wow. I mean, this address by Shevrin Jones, and for our radio listeners, you know, you just hear the painful silence as he quietly wept.
Chase, talk a bit more about what exactly is happening in Florida, since the governor says — the presidential candidate possibly — governor says he’s going to sign this bill.
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. So, we obviously have this incredibly scary moment in Florida, across the country, with this particular bill, which has been publicly named the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, but what it actually does is prohibit explicit classroom instruction related to gay, lesbian or transgender issues, or sexuality or gender identity more broadly, explicitly in the K-through-3 context, and then, more broadly, in any grade level as, quote-unquote, “developmentally appropriate.”
And I think that the remarks from the senator are so apt, because at the end of the day what bills like this are designed to do is to stop people from being LGBTQ. That is the goal. They want people to not be able to talk about their lives and their families. They want people to not be able to get the healthcare that they need to survive, to not be able to compete on the sports teams with their peers. But the reality, of course, is that you cannot stop us from being who we are by making it harder for us to have access to the rights and resources that other people have. The only way you can stop us from being who we are is by killing us. And that, unfortunately, is starting to feel like the actual objective of these bills.
I think we can expect, of course, that Governor DeSantis will sign this bill. It is part of this national strategy of attacks particularly on transgender young people. And even though it has sparked outrage and criticism, the impact of this is going to be incredibly devastating and dangerous in Florida and beyond.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about the governor, Ron DeSantis, admonishing a reporter who asked him about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
EVAN DONOVAN: Can I ask you about the Parental Rights in Education, what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, is on the Senate floor?
GOV. RON DESANTIS: Does it say that in the bill?
EVAN DONOVAN: We know that you support —
GOV. RON DESANTIS: Does it say that in the bill?
EVAN DONOVAN: I’m asking you if —
GOV. RON DESANTIS: I’m asking you to tell me what’s in the bill, because you are pushing false narratives. It doesn’t matter what critics say.
EVAN DONOVAN: It says it bans classroom instruction on sexual identity and gender orientation.
GOV. RON DESANTIS: For who? For grades pre-K through 3. So, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds. And the idea that you wouldn’t be honest about that and tell people what it actually says, it’s why people don’t trust people like you, because you peddle false narratives, and so we disabuse you of those narratives.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ron DeSantis saying, “How dare you call it that?” Your response, Chase?
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. So, first of all, he lies in the response repeatedly, and the Republicans lie repeatedly. First of all, they say it’s only about K-through-3, and that it’s completely inappropriate to talk about these topics in the K-through-3 level. First of all, the bill is not just about K-through-3, so I think we just have to recognize that they are lying about their own piece of legislation. But, second of all, he brazenly says it’s wholly inappropriate for students of that age to talk about gender and sexuality. First of all, we all talk about gender and sexuality, full stop, period. At every age, that’s part of life. What he’s really saying is that LGBTQ people and their families should not be allowed to talk about who they are.
And one thing that those of us who have children, who are LGBTQ, are repeatedly saying is, “Well, what are our kids supposed to do when they go to school in kindergarten, and part of the topic is talk about your families?” They are no longer allowed to speak about who they are. That has a chilling effect. That enforces shame and fear and confusion. And I think, in some ways, people are flip about this and say, “Well, if you tell a kid to not say gay, they’re going to say gay.” That’s not what this is about. We’re telling kids to be ashamed of who they are and who their families are and to not have a space in school to talk about their existence, their lives, their connection, their communities.
That has lifelong effects, as we heard from the senator. We are already told to internalize deep shame and fear about our identities, about our existence. And so, when we have the state using its power to reinforce that, not only does it cause internal internalized harm for these young people, but it allows others to bully these kids. So we’re looking at an escalation of violence through rules and laws that are designed to — designed, by the way, not just incidentally have the effect of — hurt LGBTQ people, particularly young people.
AMY GOODMAN: And what are the suicide rates? If you could talk, overall, and especially pronounced as we are all existing in this pandemic?
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, I mean, I think, first, like, let’s look at the context. We are seeing obviously an incredible spike nationally of mental health crisis in the midst of going on year three of this pandemic, particularly difficult for young people in schools, who have experienced losses of entire developmental periods and socialization. So you already have an adolescent and young child population that is experiencing deep trauma. You add that on top of the rates of elevated mental health crisis and suicidality, particularly acute among LGBTQ young people, even more so among trans young people. For trans people, you know, we know that the documented rate of suicidality and reported instances of suicidal ideation is close to 50%. That’s one in two trans young people experiencing suicidal thoughts.
That doesn’t mean that the only aspect of trans existence is this deep despair. We obviously have resilience and joy, as well. But when we continue to compound these traumas, it makes it so much harder for people to access their fortitude, their resilience, their survival opportunities. So these state laws, these conversations themselves, are deeply harmful. And we know that even just the debates over anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ laws increases the rates of calls to suicide hotlines for the LGBTQ population. So, whether or not these laws pass, they are harmful. When they pass, they are even more harmful. And it is devastating to think about the long-term impact on the mental health of our communities that’s going to flow from the escalation in these types of pieces of legislation.
AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about the resistance to this. I mean, it has really been astounding. You have school after school where kids, where staff have walked out, like the thousands of students leading a massive walkout in Winter Park High School in Orange County, chanting “We say gay! We say gay!” Let’s go to the clip.
STUDENT PROTESTERS: We say gay! We say gay! We say gay! We say gay! We say gay! We say gay! We say gay!
AMY GOODMAN: And you have hundreds more students, teachers and allies gathering outside and inside the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee on Monday. So the organizing, the resistance is only growing.
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, I agree. It’s beautiful to see the resistance, particularly from within the schools. I think one thing that we have to hold, however, is that there is much more organized resistance to the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill — which is also, of course, a misnomer because it targets trans people, as well — than there is nationally to the types of really deadly attacks that are going on with the trans community. And so I think we continue to see a way in which when bills are more broadly targeting the LGBTQ community, we have a bigger reaction, which is part related to the population being larger, but also related to the power within the LGBTQ community still largely being situated among white cisgender gay men.
So we are seeing a disproportionate reaction in the context of the Florida bill versus what we’re seeing in Alabama, what we’re seeing in Idaho, what we’re seeing in Texas, which again it’s much harder to organize when the very nature of the threat is that if you make yourself known, you will be subject to violence, your family will be subject to violence. So there’s a challenge to organizing and association that comes with these anti-trans bills that makes it harder to see the type of mobilization that we’re seeing in the context of Florida’s bill. So, I think there’s an issue of scale, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: OK. So let’s go to Texas, where the state has issued a directive ordering state welfare officials to launch child abuse investigations against parents who seek gender-affirming care for their trans children. This is Texas mother Amber Briggle, who has a 14-year-old trans son. She made headlines in 2016 when she invited the Attorney General Ken Paxton to dinner with her family to discuss trans rights. It was the Texas Attorney General Paxton who issued the new legal opinion for Abbott’s directive.
AMBER BRIGGLE: For him to call us the child abusers is such a betrayal. … He literally broke bread at our table with my family, and now he says that families like mine should not exist. I have no more words for him. I have no more words. And I will — I will never forgive him.
AMY GOODMAN: Amber Briggle. Chase Strangio, tell us more specifically about this case and exactly what the law says.
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, so, I want to — so, two things. What is happening in Texas is that we have the attorney general’s opinion, and then Governor Abbott took it a step further, even though he had no legal authority to do this, mind you. He is an executive official. He is not the legislature. He has effectively changed the law in Texas, directing the agency to start investigating families and threatening the general public and all individuals who work with children, under threat of prosecution, to report anyone who may have a trans child, may be receiving care, to the Child Protective Services agency.
So what we have now is not only the chilling effect of families being terrified to send their children to school, being terrified to go to the doctor as needed, but you also have investigations being launched, reports being made. And I do want to point out — and this is public because Amber has publicly explained this — that she is now under investigation by DFPS. She is someone who has been speaking out publicly, has been a visible advocate for trans young people for the last six years, and now, as a result of this change in policy, her family was visited by DFPS and is now under investigation — for loving her child, for advocating her child. And what message does that send to others? How are people supposed to politically organize if simply existing and naming that you want to love and defend your trans child will open you up to investigation?
AMY GOODMAN: What about someone who comes to visit in the state? Let’s say you, Chase. You’re a trans lawyer with the ACLU. You bring your kid into the state. Maybe your kid isn’t trans, but even the fact that you are, could this open an investigation if someone wanted to do this?
CHASE STRANGIO: You know, I think that we are all under threat, and what we’re seeing is that the agency and the governor are acting so far outside their authority. I mean, they’re threatening to have the agency investigate hospitals and medical providers, which is outside the scope of their authority. I think it’s not outside the realm of possibility that advocates who come in to advocate, who are known to be trans, will start receiving threats. I repeatedly receive threats just by virtue of being trans, by virtue of being a parent. I’m constantly accused of being unfit to parent my child, because people are now emboldened to name us deviant and child abusers just by virtue of who we are.
And so I think that there is a way in which this escalation in violence and the nature of the attacks on Texas, which we are concerned will grow and spread into other states, are going to make it difficult, not only for people to survive, not only for people to care for their kids, but for people to organize. You know, we also in our lawsuit are representing a psychologist who treats a population of trans young people, and she herself is now receiving threats. What are providers supposed to do? How are they supposed to meet their ethical obligations under their licensing in their profession, their obligations to do no harm to their patients, while facing threats of criminal prosecution from the state?
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to talk about the suit being on behalf of the family where an investigator came in and demanded the child’s medical records?
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, I mean, so I think also we have to put this in context where, you know, with these anti-trans laws, they are weaponizing our existing violent systems in the service of this anti-trans project, in this project that I would call a genocidal project, because we know that the so-called child welfare system, just like the so-called criminal justice system, is a system that has terrorized people and families for centuries. And so, that is the nature of this system at its core. It comes in, it terrorizes and disrupts families. There’s a long history of it doing so, and particularly with Indigenous families, particularly with Black families and particularly with immigrant families. And now we’re seeing that mapped on top of this anti-trans discourse.
In the context of our Doe clients, which is a family who are already under investigation, we rushed into court to try to stop this investigation, that was only initiated pursuant to this new directive, because our client works for the agency. The agency knows that she has a trans child. And then she was placed under investigation. During these investigations, parents and children are separated, they are asked intrusive questions, and they can demand medical records. We are trying to put a stop to all of that. We are trying to put a stop to the investigation into her family, to protect her child to continue receiving lifesaving medical care.
But we’re also trying to stop these ongoing investigations that are happening across the state, wherein kids are being separated from their parents, being asked intrusive questions. This is a way to terrorize families. This is also sending a message to all parents that they should not support and affirm their trans kids, and that is not a message that we need, because we know the single most effective way to keep your trans kids safe, healthy and alive is to affirm them in who they are. And now we have the state essentially saying, “You will be punished and criminalized if you do exactly what you need to do to love and support your child.”
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about Idaho for a second — life in prison and the whole issue of labeling gender-affirming surgery as female mutilation, this according to the publication Them. The bill, H.B. 675, would update Idaho Code 18-1506B, a 2019 law that was established to target female genital mutilation performed on minors. It would expand the statute to refer to the so-called genital mutilation of children of any gender, which includes surgeries that are trans-affirming surgeries. Explain all of that.
CHASE STRANGIO: Well, so, I think one important thing to start from is, minors, who are being treated for gender dysphoria, so transgender young people, do not receive genital surgery under the age of 18. So, again, this is about weaponizing misinformation. What they’re actually doing is largely criminalizing reversible hormone therapy and pubertal suppression, that has no surgical connection at all whatsoever, and treatments that are used all the time to treat nontransgender children. So, A, they’re starting from a completely false premise that young transgender people who have gender dysphoria are being treated with surgery, particularly genital surgery. That is not true. Of course, the irony is that all of these bills exempt from prohibition irreversible, completely medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants, which are sterilizing, which have no medical benefit in most cases, and which are considered torture by the U.N. So, again, this is not about protecting children. This is not about —
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, explain that further, Chase.
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. So, what we have here is that — what they’re making a felony are hormonal treatments that are medically necessarily for transgender adolescents. So, that is the nonsurgical care that is becoming a felony in Idaho under this provision — and, by the way, under Alabama, as well. They both have felony bans pending. Both of those pieces of legislation exempt — so they say it is not a felony, and you can absolutely move forward with genital surgeries, so-called, quote-unquote, “corrective surgeries” on infants with intersex variations for the sole purpose — those surgeries are for the sole purpose of aligning a young usually baby’s body, before they can consent, with normative notions of sexed bodies. So what you have are the only surgeries that are actually happening, genital surgeries that are actually happening on minors, are these nonconsensual surgeries on intersex infants, which are permitted under the law. Meanwhile, it becomes a felony to treat trans adolescents with hormone therapy that is lifesaving, that is effective, and that is supported by every major medical association.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute or so to go, but I wanted to ask: What do you think is the most effective way of fighting this, not just in Idaho, Texas and Florida, but, as you’ve pointed out, in more than half the states in this country, legislation that’s coming out? And also, who is behind this legislation?
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. So, I think, first and foremost, we have to understand this as a coordinated national strategy that’s not separate from the attacks on abortion, that’s not separate from the voter suppression. We are simply not going to be able to win these fights if the legislatures continue to be gerrymandered and if people continue to be unable to vote, because the shifts rightward are simply impossible to manage. So this is a movement that needs to be coordinated. It needs to be national.
And then, when we talk about the trans-specific aspects of this, we need national attention. We need people to mobilize for trans lives, to push back on the misinformation. We are not seeing that, unfortunately. We are acting as though there are legitimate conversations to be had about whether trans people should live or die, about whether we exist. Those are not legitimate conversations to have. We do exist. We deserve to live. And that should not be up for debate.
And what is happening is there is a global movement that is incredibly well funded, that is pushed at the national and international level by groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, by The Heritage Foundation, by ALEC, to eradicate trans life internationally, and of course here in the United States. We have to contend with it as such and not think of it as these small sort of micro debates about trans care in these individual contexts, because that’s not what it’s about.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, and the people that are behind this, the organizations, the movements that are behind this legislation that’s cropping up all over the country?
CHASE STRANGIO: It’s Alliance Defending Freedom. It’s The Heritage Foundation. It’s the Family Policy Institute. They are drafting these bills. They are sending them out to lawmakers. They have a coordinated strategy. These are not constituent-driven bills. Most of the lawmakers who introduce these bills have no idea what they say, have no idea of the impact, have no idea of the medical care they’re prohibiting. Again, they are being farmed out. They are nationally drafted. And again, it’s being funded on a global level. When you look at what’s happening in far-right governments around the world, you know, this so-called fixation with gender ideology is part and parcel to the rise of fascist governments. So we have to contend with this in a structural, global level, because that is how it’s playing out, whether we like it or not.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, attorney in the ACLU’s suit against Texas Governor Greg Abbott. To see Part 1 of our discussion with Chase, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.