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“Eradicating Transness”: ACLU’s Chase Strangio on GOP’s Assault on LGBTQ Rights at CPAC & Nationwide

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Image Credit: ACLU

At least 150 bills have been filed by Republican lawmakers across the United States that target transgender people, with at least seven states enacting bans on gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth. Other bills have targeted drag performers, doctors and trans adults seeking transition-related care. For more on growing conservative attacks on transgender people and the LGBTQ+ community, we speak to Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, who says the backlash “at its core has always been about pushing trans people out of public life and eradicating transness.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we look now at the growing conservative attacks on transgender people and the LGBTQ+ community. At this weekend’s CPAC meeting — that’s Conservative Political Action Conference — a number of speakers drew alarm with their transphobic comments, including former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, who warned Democrats who support trans rights are, quote, “mutilating boys and girls.” Right-wing Republican Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene vowed to reintroduce a bill called the Protect Children’s Innocence Act, that would make it a felony to provide gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth. Another speaker was Daily Wire host Michael Knowles.

MICHAEL KNOWLES: If transgenderism is false, as it is, if men really can’t become women, as they cannot, then it’s false for everybody, too. And if it’s false, then we should not indulge it, especially since that indulgence requires taking away the rights and customs of so many people. If it is false, then for the good of society, and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely, the whole preposterous ideology at every level.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Knowles’ transphobic comments were widely condemned. Variety’s Adam Vary wrote, “Pay attention. This is genocidal,” unquote.

This comes as at least 150 bills have been filed by Republican lawmakers across the United States that target transgender people and criminalize doctors who provide transition-related healthcare for trans youth. Just law week, several pieces of anti-trans legislation were signed into law. Tennessee Thursday became the latest state to enact a law banning gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth. Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi, South Dakota and Utah have also enacted bans on the lifesaving treatment. The new Mississippi bill blocks public funding for clinics and institutions that offer this type of care. This comes as Nebraska state Senator Machaela Cavanaugh has vowed to bring the state Legislature to a halt with a filibuster if lawmakers try to pass anti-trans bills.

SEN. MACHAELA CAVANAUGH: If this Legislature collectively decides that legislating hate against children is our priority, then I am going to make it painful, painful for everyone, because if you want to inflict pain upon our children, I am going to inflict pain upon this body. … There is not a bill on this agenda, on any agenda coming forward, that will be spared. Every bill will go to cloture.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee has faced backlash after a high school photo of him dressed in drag went viral after he said he would sign a bill criminalizing drag performances performed in public or in front of children. Nationwide, at least 14 bills have been introduced targeting drag shows. In Montana, the House endorsed a bill barring anyone under age 18 from attending drag shows, even after emotional testimony from one of the Legislature’s first openly transgender members, Representative Zooey Zephyr.

REP. ZOOEY ZEPHYR: The bill purports to be about drag. And let me start by saying what drag is. Drag is art. Drag is beautiful. Drag is important to my community, my community and the rest of the LGBTQ community. There were comments about people who had gone 30 years ago to drag shows and saw adult-focused experiences. There’s questions as to why are children coming to them now. Well, I’ll tell you what happened: We lived. We lived through the AIDS epidemic. We lived through people trying to disallow our marriage. We adopted children. We grew up. And now we’re taking some of our children and sharing an art form that’s valuable to our community in a way that is age-appropriate to them. That’s why if you would have come to the drag show on Saturday, what you would have seen is people in full-length dresses, in beautiful gowns, celebrating our art, our history, and the fact that we’re alive today.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on all of this, we’re joined in New York by Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project.

Chase, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what happened in Tennessee, and talk about what’s happening across this country, after that very powerful testimony.

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. Thanks, Amy.

I mean, I’ve been coming on this show for the last seven years to talk about this very issue. And I think, taking a step back, what we have to acknowledge is how quickly this has escalated. In 2016, in the wake of marriage equality, we saw the first aggressive contemporary backlash against trans people in the form of the wave of anti-trans bathroom bills, and that rhetoric escalated to attacks on trans participation in sports, attacks on trans youth in schools, using the restroom, participating on sports teams. And how quickly have we gone from that rhetoric — which was understood to be false, including by proponents of it — to this current climate in which we are criminalizing trans adults going to the bathroom, where we are banning evidence-based medical care that is supported by every major medical association, where we are criminalizing gender expression in drag performance, and now we hear the rhetoric behind all of this, which at its core has always been about pushing trans people out of public life and eradicating transness. We see it so clearly. And if we look over the course of seven years, this arc bring us to this moment where we are absolutely in crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk specifically about Tennessee and Governor Bill Lee.

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah. So, a few things have happened in Tennessee, and I will say Tennessee has often been a site of pushing anti-trans legislation. I’ve spent a lot of time there over the last seven years testifying against bills and supporting the incredible community there. What happened over this last week was S.B. 1 and S.B. 3 were both signed into law. S.B. 1 is the law that categorically bans gender-affirming care for trans adolescents, which, in essence, will have the effect of cutting down some — excuse me, of shutting down some of the most robust and important sites of gender-affirming care in the South. And then we also have S.B. 3, which is the intended prohibition on drag performance. It is, in fact, a relatively narrow law, and if it is properly enforced, and I think there’s a real question about whether that is anything that we could trust, that it is intended to ban drag performance. The governor signed both bills. He has come under fire for the hypocrisy, because he himself has presented in drag.

And then, of course, the reality is that these bills aren’t about banning drag performance. They are not about banning expressions of gender nonconformity, as long as those expressions are seen as serving the status quo. What these bills are about is policing that which is seen as deviant and disruptive of the status quo, policing transness, policing communities coming together to support and celebrate their histories and legacies. They cannot be understood as separate from the many attempts to ban curricula, curriculum connections to historically accurate movements of resistance. This is a part of a national effort to cut off communities from their history, whether those histories are histories of drag, whether those histories are histories of other resistance. We have to understand the bans on drag performance as central and connected to the bans on what we’re seeing in the curriculum, what was categorized as so-called critical race theory. And, in fact, these two movements, to ban drag and to ban so-called critical race theory, which is really just a banning of accurate history, came from the same sources. These are dynamic processes coming from the right that are designed to control and regulate our bodies and our understanding of our lineages.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that Bill Lee himself is shown in drag?

CHASE STRANGIO: I mean, I think the fact that there are so — I mean, look at Rudy Giuliani. Look at President Trump. Drag is something that is wide-reaching in its experience in the world. Some of it is done in a way that’s based in mockery. Some of it’s done in a way that’s based in celebration. There is no such thing as an easy and simple way to police gender nonconformity, except in a way that targets communities that are already under assault.

I think it’s very clear that in every instance of what we’re seeing in state legislatures, we can identify the hypocrisy. We have lawmakers who consider themselves pro-life who are introducing bills that would punish abortion with the death penalty. We have individuals who are claiming that they are concerned about protecting children, when the leading cause of death among children is death by firearms, and that they are focusing their energy on cutting off healthcare, removing children from loving homes, banning drag performance, and doing nothing to prevent the actual harms that are coming to our children, at a time when, by the way, there is substantial evidence that our young people are facing significant mental health crisis across the country. And that crisis is not borne of the fact of their transness. It is not borne by the fact that they are connecting to their histories or they have more diverse experiences. We know that that’s not the reality. The reality is, is that young people have more anxiety. They’ve been living in a pandemic. They have witnessed gun violence for the entirety of their lives. And we have real, real problems when it comes to what our young people need. And we are legislating in areas that are designed to eradicate populations, to harm young people, and the hypocrisy is staggering.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to talk about the laws banning gender-affirming healthcare — in Tennessee on Thursday, also last week the Kentucky House voted to ban access to gender-affirming medical care for youth. Let’s turn to Democratic state Senator Karen Berg of Louisville, Kentucky, who lost her transgender son, Henry Berg-Brousseau, to suicide in December at the age of 24. She condemned Kentucky’s anti-trans bill and shared her son’s last actions before he died.

SEN. KAREN BERG: The last thing he did at work, before he went home and killed himself, was to send out a press release warning us of what was coming, warning the world of this!

AMY GOODMAN: That was state Senator Karen Berg. Chase Strangio, take it from there. Talk about these particular bills.

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, there is something so insidious about what’s going on with these attacks on gender-affirming care, and it is manifesting in ways that are so harmful for our communities.

I want to first just acknowledge that I knew Henry when he was a youth advocate in Tennessee. I saw him testify before his Legislature at a time when they were pushing anti-trans bathroom bills. So, there is a population of young people that has spent the entirety or a significant portion of their lives begging their governments not to target them, and the cost of that is significant.

And right now what we’re seeing in state after state is something that three years ago I thought would have been unimaginable. We are having healthcare that is evidence-based, that is being recommended by doctors in consultation with parents for young people who are suffering and struggling. And this care works. And what we’re seeing now is the legislatures intruding upon the decision-making of doctors, parents and young people, to take away the only evidence-based treatment that transgender people have when they are suffering and there are no other options. And in state after state, we’re seeing these bills moved.

And I must say that they are being fueled in part by a public discourse that has allowed there to be a legitimate debate over whether there are too many transgender people, over whether we have too much access to healthcare. And I urge people to take a step back and use information you already know about how healthcare works in this country. It is not easy to access. It is, in fact, incredibly difficult. And it is particularly difficult when it is stigmatized healthcare, that a population that faces so much stigma and discrimination needs. We are in a position now — I just got out of a two-week trial in Arkansas over a very similar piece of legislation that we’re now seeing in Tennessee and South Dakota and Utah and Mississippi and elsewhere. We had a two-week trial. When tested, when the evidence goes before the court, there is absolutely no basis for these categorical bans.

And we should be concerned for everyone, if every time a group of lawmakers believes that it is a conspiracy for a group of people to thrive, that they start taking away our healthcare, with nothing more than ideological opposition and unverified accounts of things that are simply not happening. We’ve seen it with abortion, and we’re seeing it now with trans-affirming healthcare. And this is a crisis for our communities. Families are fleeing their states, but they don’t know where to go.

And I just want to say, too — oh, sorry, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

CHASE STRANGIO: Just that we’ve heard a lot about this is about children, this is about protecting children. First and foremost, these bills harm children. And second, as we’ve heard from the comments from CPAC and as we’ve seen from legislation targeting adults, this is not about targeting only children. This is about categorically attacking the trans community and all of us, at all ages.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to ask you, finally, about the role of the media. And we just have about a minute. But over 200 New York Times contributors have published an open letter criticizing the Times’ recent coverage of stories involving transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming people, in particular concerning medical issues. The letter says Republican lawmakers have cited the Times’ coverage to justify bans on gender-affirming care for youth. In response, the top editor of The New York Times has defended the paper’s coverage of trans issues, warning journalists that such public criticism will, quote, “not be tolerated,” unquote. GLAAD has accused The New York Times of, quote, “irresponsible, biased coverage of transgender people” going back more than a year. Chase, can you just summarize this debate?

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, and it is not going back more than a year; this is going back more than seven years, by my count. And we have in the last eight months, I think, 15,000 front-page words over just the question of whether trans people are getting too much healthcare. There is an effort to identify a conspiracy of healthcare rather than understand the very powerful forces that are at play to try to attack and destabilize the material conditions of trans life. They are asking the wrong questions. They are asking questions that are effused with bias, that are informed by a global set of imperatives to attack not only trans people, but bodily autonomy and gender nonconformity more generally. And I think this coverage is abhorrent. And I think the idea that they will not tolerate criticism is quite a statement coming from the paper of record, when absolutely we need robust discussions. But there is a lot to look at in their coverage that shows that their entry point is one of bias, not one of fleshing out what is truly going on to the trans community right now in this country and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Chase Strangio, I want to thank you for being with us, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project.

Next up, brand threat. That’s what Fox executives have called Fox reporters and anchors questioning Trump’s false election claims. We’re going to speak to the president of Media Matters about this, the Dominion lawsuit and much more. Stay with us.

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