How Queer Visibility Threatens White Power 

By Kayla Tawa and Whitney Bunts 

Transgender Day of Visibility is about celebrating and acknowledging trans folks in this country. But in recent months, state policymakers have tried to make them invisible. States have introduced policies that target LGBTQIA+ young people, including legislation that would deter schools from teaching students about sexual and gender identity, also known as the “don’t say gay bills,” and executive orders that would deter young people from seeking gender-affirming health care. With people who identify as trans much more likely to experience economic insecurity, homelessness, and mental health challenges—among other issues—such policies only serve to further marginalize folks who already live at the margins.

Just like other state-level “culture war” debates, this wave of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation advances the underlying ideological and political goals of white supremacy. Like bans on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Social Emotional Learning (SEL), these bills are just the latest tactics to uphold white supremacy and systems of power like racism, homophobia, and transphobia. And just like bans on CRT and SEL, they criminalize young people who don’t assimilate to white values and norms and they threaten the health, economic security, and wellbeing of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ young people.

It is not surprising that the same states passing laws against CRT in classrooms are also passing homophobic and transphobic bills. This week, the governor of Florida signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, which requires teachers to inform parents if students are getting health-related services based on their sexual or gender identity. This bill also limits teaching about sexual and gender identity to students in K-3rd grade and can prohibit these teachings in higher grades. The Texas attorney general issued an opinion classifying gender-affirming care as child abuse—and the governor then directed the state’s Department of Family Protective Services to investigate families and doctors who help young people access care. This comes after a slate of legislation introduced in the Texas statehouse aimed at criminalizing transgender young people.

These are not new tactics to uphold white supremacy. The strategy of furthering harmful legislation at the state and local levels is dangerously effective. After Texas enacted its transphobic policy, multiple states began drafting similar proposals, much like how anti-CRT legislation spread through distinct school districts.

Pretending young people of color and LGBTQIA+ young people don’t exist won’t make them disappear. But it will heighten the racism and homophobia they experience in schools and health care settings.

By criminalizing medical care; barring acknowledgment of the existence of LGBTQIA+ people; and banning learning about Black history, these policies signal to young people that their identities are not valid. This is particularly egregious considering that young people of color and LGBTQIA+ young people were at higher risk of mental health challenges during the pandemic. Yet, these policies exacerbate mental health challenges and further criminalize Black and brown students for living in their truth. Legislators are using children, parents, doctors, and teachers to further their own ideological aims, with Black young people and trans young people experiencing the greatest harm, with long-term consequences on their overall wellbeing.

These policies weaponize education and health care systems, both of which have long histories of harming and criminalizing communities of color and LGBTQIA+ communities. By reclassifying gender affirming health care as child abuse, Texas policymakers are asking health care professionals to choose between medically sound treatments and the pseudoscience espoused by conservative politicians in the state. Meanwhile, “don’t say gay” bills and anti-CRT bills ask educators to deny the existence, history, and culture of their students, and for educators of color and LGBTQIA+ educators, of themselves.

Rather than investing in equitable solutions, these policies exacerbate existing challenges in these systems. Both the health and education sectors are experiencing workforce shortages and have struggled to diversify. These bills push diverse staff out of the system and proliferate a lack of trust in the health and education systems among young people. Educators and health care professionals should be affirming young people’s identities and offering them healing-centered approaches, not criminalizing them and pushing them further to the margins. Schools must be a safe space for students to be acknowledged and recognized, without fear of their gender or sexual identity being exposed to their parents.

States and policymakers are using their platforms to maintain a white, cis-gendered society, one that dehumanizes and erases the identities of a wide range of young people. They are more concerned with maintaining power than the wellbeing of the youth. As we mark another Trans Day of Visibility, our leaders must listen to the voices of young people. Congress must do more to protect them, by creating and developing safeguards for young people. Additionally, the Senate specifically should pass the Equality Act. This bill would put in place federal safeguards against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

We stand in solidarity with the trans community.  We call for an end to these unjust, discriminatory, and hateful policies.  We all deserve better.