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Chase Strangio on the War Against Trans Kids

Chase Strangio, who has won a series of landmark court cases in his role as ACLU deputy director for transgender justice, explains why states across the country are suddenly targeting the freedom of trans youth with a wave of new laws.
Chase Strangio at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah January 25 2020.
Chase Strangio at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, January 25, 2020.Rich Polk / Getty Images

For different reasons, the loudest political stories of 2021 so far have revolved around fallout from the January 6th attack on the Capitol, Joe Biden’s mammoth spending bills, and the purported tail-end of the pandemic. Much less attention is being paid to a conservative effort to undermine the rights of transgender youth via a coordinated series of state bills that would, in effect, criminalize trans healthcare and enforce the traditional gender binary in athletics. But attention must be paid. Trans kids, their futures and their families depend on it. So if you’ve just been a casual observer until now, maybe seen a few tweets or none at all, please, pull up a chair.

Across the country, 33 states have introduced more than 100 bills that Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, argues have a clear-cut goal in totality: “to stop people from being trans.” Notably, the bulk of these bills focus on kids: Some would prevent trans kids from using the restroom or locker-room that corresponds with their self-identification; some would ban trans kids from participating in same-gender youth sports; others would outlaw gender-affirming healthcare for minors; and still others would essentially ban LGBTQ issues from being taught in classrooms. In April, the Florida state house even passed a bill that would allow for genital inspections of trans student athletes.

In Texas, state lawmakers have introduced 12 different bills aimed at curbing transgender rights in this session alone. As Kai Shappley, a 10-year-old from Austin, Texas said during her testimony before the state senate last month, “I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices.” She pleaded with lawmakers not to pass a bill that would make it a crime to provide hormone replacement therapy, puberty suppression drugs, and medical or surgical procedures to anyone under the age of 18. Another bill up for consideration in Texas could potentially allow Child Protective Services to remove trans children from their parents’ custody. Shappley, who testified with the full support of her mother, added: “It makes me sad that some politicians use trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist.” In other words, the very people who love to shout “but what about the children?” are effectively endangering children’s lives in order to “own the libs.”

Last week, I hopped on Zoom with Chase Strangio to talk about what the hell is going on. Strangio is no stranger to high-stakes debate over the rights and treatment of trans people. He was lead counsel for Chelsea Manning when she was court-martialed for disclosing classified documents to Wikileaks. He was part of the ACLU team that sued on behalf of 17-year-old Gavin Grimm over the right to restroom access at his high school. And in June 2020, Strangio made history as part of the legal team that won a landmark Supreme Court victory for trans rights.

In the months since that ruling, Strangio has focused on opposing this new wave of anti-trans bills in court, which he describes as a “relentless fight to allocate resources, support people on the ground, press litigation if necessary. Because the geographic scope and then the scope of the laws themselves are really like nothing we’ve ever seen before.” During our conversation, he explained how conservative think tanks have strategically pushed these bills, the climate of commentary that surrounds them, and, oh, what it’s been like to help his kid navigate school in the middle of a pandemic which, as we know, is kind of hard.

GQ: I recently learned that you’re a parent and you have a kid in elementary school.

Chase Strangio: I do.

I gather that last week was basically the last day of Zoom-school. Is today the first day of school-school?

Yes. In 14 months.

Oh my gosh.

This was such an untenable structure that we just did for 14 months. So there’s that relief. And then there’s, what is this school that we’re sending kids back into? I haven’t even gone in. My kid has no idea what her classroom is or where it is. She takes the bus there. And then I miss her, as annoying as that was. She’s not going to be in the other room, not joining her school Zooms and then me having to yell at her to join them. That’s just such a change, but also a good thing. But it does cause me to reflect that, wow, these were 14 months of this totally changed paradigm of doing everything in a singular space of home, even when it was not set up in any way for it.

I know a lot about your work life because it’s in some ways public: I can literally just follow the news and see what kind of week you’re having in the headlines. But in another way, there’s a lot about what you do that I don’t understand. So it’s interesting to hear what it’s like being a parent and Zoom and everything. What’s a normal day for you? What’s your day-to-day like?

Every day is different, I would say. The first four months of 2021 so far have just been so relentless in that every day is unpredictable and overloaded with tasks related to legislative advocacy or litigation. And then just managing the emotional terrain of trying to figure out, how do we both fight back against what’s happening and also acknowledge that it is going to cause both short and long term serious trauma, both for those of us doing the advocacy and then for everyone who’s more directly impacted? So I feel like it’s just been such a whirlwind of that.

I wake up really early, so today I woke up at 6am, anxious. I have a huge court argument a week from today on May 3rd [representing the college student Lindsay Hecox, who wants to join Boise State’s track team, against the state of Idaho’s recently-passed law banning trans athletes from women’s sports teams, which is the first such law in the U.S.]. So a lot of what I’m doing now is preparing for that. I have practice arguments set up, I did a mini one just before this call. I have another big one tomorrow. But I have a bunch of these binders [holds up an absurdly large binder presumably filled with legal briefings] –

Oh my gosh, that’s a huge binder.

Yeah. So there’s four of them on my desk. I have been reading and talking to myself out loud. And then between getting off of the last call I had, and joining this call, I got an email about this really hideous felony ban on health care for trans minors in Alabama that we’ve been trying to stop from ever coming to a vote. There’s one vote left before it would pass, and we were getting positive intel that they were going to hold off on it, and that maybe we would get through the session without this bill passing. It is probably the most extreme bill that’s been pending this entire session. And so it’s been this waiting game because they only have about three days left to meet. 

Now we’re hearing that they are going to take up this bill on Thursday. So in the middle of prepping for this huge argument I have next, now we have to continue to prep for litigation to challenge that bill if it passes. And we also are prepping litigation against Arkansas’s bill that passed [HB 1570 is the first U.S. bill to criminalize the provision of puberty blockers and hormone therapy to trans kids]. So the days are frenetic, I would say.

I’m exhausted! [laughs] I’m exhausted just as an observer.

It is not an ideal situation at this moment [laughs]. I’ve been at the ACLU for eight and a half years, and there have been different moments that are very intense in terms of the volume and scope of the work, and this is probably the most intense.

Let’s talk about these state bills, because I have so many questions. Like you mentioned, Alabama is an especially odious bill, but there’s also Arkansas. It feels like these bills — where they’re targeting transgender health or trans student athletes or trans people and public restrooms — are happening in states across the South, to be sure, but also in states like Wyoming, Iowa and New Mexico. It’s like a shock and awe campaign. That’s what it looks like to me. In seemingly every state legislature in our country right now, some version of a bill that would severely target and impact the rights of trans people, trans kids and their families in particular, is being introduced and debated. Is that an accurate read?

Yes. It’s an accurate read and it’s deliberate. They’re trying to exhaust us. And the reality is that it is working on some level because it’s happening everywhere. There have been over 100 bills introduced just targeting trans people, most of them targeting trans youth. Many of them have gotten hearings. Many more have passed through a legislature chamber. And a lot have become law, a shockingly high number. All of a sudden four different states are on the verge of doing something radically harmful to the trans community. And there aren’t the resources to respond in the ways that we need to in four places at once. And so that is where it becomes this relentless fight to allocate resources, support people on the ground, press litigation if necessary. Because the geographic scope and then the scope of the laws themselves are really like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

You mentioned over 100 bills. Is there a specific think tank or group that’s coordinating this? It seems so intentional.

Yeah, it is. I think there’s a lot of ways it’s happening now. The contemporary origin is that the groups who are pushing these bills are the same groups that were funneling tons of resources into stopping marriage equality, fighting to put bans on marriage on the ballot in the first decade of the 2000s. And then when marriage equality became the law through the Supreme Court’s decision in November of 2015, essentially all of those groups that had invested millions and millions of dollars in stopping that shifted all their resources to attacking trans people. Very swiftly they were ready to go. And we weren’t.

The mainstream LGB—nominally T—movement did not do the legwork to make sure that trans people who would be the obvious target of backlash were protected. And so in 2016 you have the coordinated assault on trans people through state legislative action with bathroom bills happening. And the groups that at that time were very much leading the way were the Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom, some of the Focus on the Family unit and the state policy groups that were offshoots of those larger networks.

We did see some success in stopping the bathroom bills. And so what ultimately happens towards the end of 2018 and 2019, ADF and Heritage get together with ALEC, the conservative legislative group that fights and distributes right wing legislation to lawmakers across the country. They start drafting these model bills in the summer of 2019, and that’s what we’re seeing now—the anti-trans sports bills and the bans on healthcare for trans minors. They started to get filed into 2020, but legislative sessions were picking up and so was the pandemic and a lot of sessions adjourned early, so they couldn’t push the bills as aggressively as they wanted. So they doubled down, particularly after Biden’s election and after the Supreme Court decision in Bostock that summer. What we’re seeing essentially in 2021 is the perfect storm to put forth these bills that were already pre-drafted by these conservative think tank groups.

So much of this is disturbing and hurtful, but part of what gets to me is that so many of these bills are going after kids in particular. They’re trying to prevent families from getting healthcare for their trans kids. They’re trying to keep trans students from using the restroom or playing on the sports team that corresponds with how they identify and live. We’ve seen so many iterations of anti-gay and anti-trans laws in our time (and obviously well before our time) but it feels different to be in this moment, when the ire seems to be directed at kids as opposed to adults. Is there a strategy? Why focus on trans and non-binary kids in particular? 

It’s so significant. It’s so painful. I think the goal of these bills is to stop people from being trans. And they will say as much. They will say, “It’s harmful to be trans. There’s too many trans people.” I’m like, “There’s not enough.” They’ll say, “Well, 40 years ago, there weren’t as many trans people.” And I’m like, okay, well, first of all, there were, it’s just that people did not have as many opportunities to live and self-determine in ways that were validating and authentic. But if the response is, “There’s too many of a population, you must eradicate it,” that’s a eugenics project.

I was going to say, that’s genocide.

Yeah. That’s just a murderous project of genocide and eugenics. And that’s what’s going on here. The bans on healthcare are targeted at kids because they want kids to not be trans. Instead of recognizing that what kids who are trans need is affirmation, love and support, they’re saying it’s harmful to be trans and we’re going to take away your lifeline. They’re claiming that they’re doing it so that kids will become cis. What we know is going to happen is that kids are going to die, or flee their homes. And so I think the real reason for the focus on kids is this idea that we can root out trans kids at a young age and target this group of people who don’t have as much power and ability to access things on their own.

Of course, it has the impact of sending a message to parents and guardians who may be struggling with trying to understand their trans kid. Now they’re getting all this data that’s false, or this messaging that’s false, telling them that what they should do is stop their kid from being trans. And that is the absolute, most catastrophic thing that a parent or guardian can do. The consequence is that you have these young kids who are already not getting the care they need most of the time, having to go before their government to beg for the chance to be treated like their peers, and then getting punished further with death threats because the world is so cruel.

It’s been difficult. I’ve only been able to watch a few clips, honestly, of kids testifying before state legislators, basically saying, “Please don’t do this.” It’s too much to ask of a kid.

It’s too much to ask of anyone to have to go beg your government not to punish and kill you, but we should just simply not be doing it to young children, who are then also outing themselves publicly and subjecting themselves to a significant amount of potential backlash.

For people who aren’t following these bills closely, when you say, “trans healthcare saves lives,” what does that mean? 

This is care that is recommended by every major medical association. I think that’s an important starting point. The American Academy of Pediatrics, not a hugely progressive body, 20,000 pediatricians across the country, says this care is essential. The American Medical Association, the Endocrine Society, the Pediatric Endocrine Society. So we’re talking about a standard of care medicine that is provided to young people with the consent of their parents, under the supervision of medical professionals, from primary care pediatricians and pediatric endocrinologists. Tons of kids are already not getting it. This is not care that people are walking into the pharmacy and just getting over the counter. It is already highly regulated and supported by every major medical association. And the care is individualized and specific to the age of the young person.

We also hear a lot about, “We have to stop surgery on children.” No. When you’re talking about a kid before puberty, there’s no medical treatment at all whatsoever. Some of these bills are literally just trying to stop kids from being able to dress in a way that affirms them, to use names that affirm them. This whole notion about irreversible surgeries—first and foremost, when we’re talking about pre-pubertal kids, there’s no medical intervention at all.

And then there’s the care which is called puberty blocking or puberty delayed treatment. This is care that has been used for decades to treat precocious people, essentially where a kid initiates puberty too early. But it could be as young as five, the doctor will essentially pause it so they can continue to develop in an age-appropriate way. We know that this care is not harmful and is fully reversible. Meaning that you start the treatment, it blocks puberty. You take the kid off the treatment, puberty starts. Very straightforward treatment and has been used on trans kids for about the last 15 years with incredible results. Because if you’re a young person and the single most traumatic thing for you is your assigned sex at birth, probably one of the most traumatic times in your young life is puberty. And puberty is traumatic for everyone.

I was about to say, puberty is pretty much an awful time for all of us, but I can only imagine how much more intense it is for a trans kid.

Exactly. So let’s say you transitioned at four years old. You knew you were a girl, even though you were assigned male at birth. And the scariest thing to you as this four year old trans girl is that someday you’re going to start going through a typically male puberty and developing secondary sex characteristics that are going to feel violent and alienating and dangerous to you. That’s not everyone’s experience, but for the people for whom that is their experience, it is a devastating and scary nightmare. And this treatment is a lifeline because it pauses the body at a pre-pubertal stage, in an age-appropriate way, and allows young people to have the time before experiencing that traumatic incident of their endogenous puberty.

Then what happens is, after a few years on blockers, let’s say, then an endocrinologist would initiate—if the person and their family agree that it’s appropriate—gender affirming hormones, and they would start puberty consistent with their gender identity. So for a trans girl, they would never go through a typically male puberty, and they would initiate treatments so that they could have estrogen and testosterone suppression so that they would go through a typically female puberty. And the same would be true for a trans boy with testosterone. These bills are targeting these hormonal interventions.

So much of the anti-trans rhetoric is phrased in terms of, “Oh, what if this person changes their mind later?” But that’s not actually how this medical treatment works?

No. It’s totally not true. That’s not how the treatment works. Again, it’s highly regulated. The doctors, the parents are checking in all the time. The idea behind these bills is that there’s somehow this huge social pressure to be trans and kids are just going to be pushed into this by the world. It’s just preposterous. First, the care is very difficult to receive. The biggest problem we have with trans healthcare is that not enough people are getting it. The only people who are able to get it are those who already have supportive parents, have access to health insurance, and live in a geographical location where there is access to a clinic or a professional to be able to provide the care. That’s part of why these bills in the South are so dangerous. 

For example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham has one of the preeminent gender clinics across the Southeast that treats kids from neighboring states like Mississippi and Florida and Georgia. So the consequence of a bill criminalizing the care is to shut down avenues of ongoing treatment not just in the states where these bills are passing, but potentially in the neighboring states too. Arkansas passed a ban already. It is not yet in effect. We know two things are already happening, one, families with needs are fleeing states like Arkansas and Texas because of these bills. And two, kids are so desperate that there is already an increase in ER visits for mental health crises. 

Of course, it’s not just politicians who are treating transgender people as debate topics. There is a certain demographic of white gay men who seem to be very fond of newsletters and using those newsletters, and magazine articles and tweets and TV appearances and open letters, basically to undermine transgender rights and transgender people under the auspices of “fighting” against— I guess, they’re calling it “censorship” at the moment. 

Don’t forget the straight white cis women.

Right. J.K. Rowling being a prominent example. But here’s the thing: there were two landmark Supreme Court decisions in favor of marriage equality in 2015. I was the LGBT editor at BuzzFeed News at the time. As I was watching those cases play out and seeing where the movement went, I remember being worried that once marriage equality became a reality for people across the country, a lot of white gay cis-gender people were going to abandon everybody else. Once they basically more or less got their concerns addressed, I worried that we would not see the same investment for the concerns of trans women, sex workers, immigrants, and so on. What I did not expect was that in 2021, I would be on Twitter or reading news publications I respect and seeing gay people actively discredit and endanger trans people. Is this a surprise to you? Let’s start there.

I would say yes and no. Because I similarly was 100% expecting there to be—and there was—a significant decline in investment in doing the material redistribution work that was demanded to actually see full justice for LGBTQ people. Looking at enforcement of existing law and expansion of laws to ensure that people had access to food and housing and decriminalization of all of the systems that were over-policing so many people in the LGBTQ community. I definitely thought, okay, we’re going to see that, like you said, the throwing up of the hands: “Oh, we did it, we won.”

Then I think that there’s been this slow progression towards people feeling finally emboldened to just fully show the extent of their disdain for trans people. And that’s been true in the movement for so long. You can think of Sylvia getting booed off the stage in Washington Square Park [in 1973], and the legacy of sentiments like “You trans women of color who represents the deviant, the sex worker, you are a threat to my legitimacy of the cis gay subject.” That has been part of the movement always.

I think what we’re seeing now is this moment where there are these loud voices who feel so empowered and emboldened to speak out with just utter hatred for trans people. And a lot of it emerging from the UK anti-trans discourse in JK Rowling and then that sort of being an impetus for this Substack brigade, asI like to call them—that idea of the self-victimized, well-paid writer who wants nothing more than to be able to hate others without consequence. That sort of famed victimhood of censorship, which is really just self-censorship and complaining, whether it was JK Rowling, or Abigail Shrier, and Bari Weiss. And then it became sort of the cause of Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald and Jesse Singal and all these other people who are just somehow finding their moment to be like, “Oh yes, trans people are so disgusting. And I feel that way. And now I get to frame this around my right to speak without criticism.” I did not necessarily anticipate the magnitude of the public discursive escalation and the sense of empowerment that people feel attacking trans people, and doing so while fueling a very dangerous set of legal and policy objectives that I think even these people would claim to not be aligned with.

There’s like the facile discourse of cis white gay advocacy: We will assimilate, and we will be professional models of success without claiming all of the ways in which we were always aligned with power. And then once we get all our power, look back on all of you and say, “Well, too bad for you. You’re actually your own problem.” I think that’s a lot of what we’re seeing.

And behind these anti-trans policy projects of entrenching in law a sex binary that the state is empowered to regulate and police, there is something that’s going to hurt these same gay people. Even for your own self-interest, you should be opposed to this, but you can’t see past your disdain and sense of your own proximity to power. And so this is self-sabotaging, but they don’t even care.

In the same way,cis white anti-trans women are pushing what they’re calling a feminist project, particularly in the context of sports, that at its core is fixated on the notion that men are better, stronger and faster than women. They’re so invested in hating trans people that they’re willing to push that, and in the process of doing so, give the state the power to decide who is enough of a woman.

I think of you as someone who is living history. You’re doing important work in real time that we will be talking about for the rest of our lives. Obviously this is really hard work, and so much of what we talked about is just scary. But what always stands out to me is that you are always smiling. You have this energy that makes me feel hopeful. It makes me feel like I can do this. How do you navigate all of this? Just on Twitter, for example, I see your mentions, I see what you’re dealing with on a regular basis, as I see for so many of my trans friends. And I think it would send a lot of us running in the other direction, but you don’t run. Are there habits or practices you focus on to help you manage the really difficult work you’re doing, while also just taking care of yourself?

I don’t know that people who are close to me would say, “Oh yeah, you’re a joy every day.” But first and foremost, and I think it’s true for a lot of trans people, I come from such a deep self-loathing. The very thing that saved me was learning who I was and loving who I was and celebrating transness, and also in the process of that, learning the rich and beautiful history of trans resistance. So I come to the work every day being obsessed with the fact that I’m trans. I live in a world of so many trans people, and have the just sheer privilege and joy of knowing generations of trans people who have navigated every impulse that sought to eradicate them, and still created systems of mutual aid and care to care for their community. From Sylvia and Marsha in STAR, from Flawless Sabrina and the pageant circuit in the ’40s and ’50s, to Lorena Borjas in my neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens creating these incredible networks of support. That is the legacy that I feel so lucky to be a part of and that brings me joy.

If what you are saying is that trans people should look inside ourselves and not be trans, we already tried that, so we know it doesn’t work. And we know that the lie that you are pedaling is one that we’ve already internalized and rejected. That just gives me a sense of righteousness and it helps me to embrace this work in my power. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t days where I’m like, “This is excruciating. I am terrified for people. I’m terrified for people in Arkansas. I’m terrified for people in Alabama.” I’m terrified for myself, because who has my address?

Visibility can be very scary.

Yeah. It’s like, does my kid need a different last name? And having to ask those questions is disconcerting. But I am someone who was able to be out as a trans person, go to law school, get an education. So once I made that decision to work within the system, but try to break it down from within, my duty and obligation is to do this work with the knowledge of its risks, with the knowledge of its harms, with the knowledge of its potential. That keeps me in conversation with so many trans people, and that is ultimately the most beautiful thing. And that’s what keeps me going.

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