Trans youth fight back as right-wing media’s culture war robs them of their childhood
A wave of anti-trans legislation is met with a wave of youth resistance
The anti-trans movement has operated for years under the guise of “protecting children,” manifesting in an onslaught of restrictive legislation, including banning gender-affirming care for youth under the premise that they and their families are not competent enough to make long-term decisions about their health. Despite trans youth being at the center of this culture war, their own voices have often been ignored.
Right-wing pundits have widely pushed the anti-trans movement’s talking points, expressing a callous disregard for the children who don’t fit their narrative. These attacks on trans youth are generally twofold; one tactic being outright denial, such as Daily Wire pundit Matt Walsh claiming that “trans kids don’t exist because no child is actually trans,” or his colleague Ben Shapiro writing them off as incapable of self-determination and victims of “crap parenting.” The other main tactic is dehumanization. Walsh has also said that he would “rather be dead” than have a trans child, who he claims would be devoid of “innocence and light and beauty” and full of “self-cannibalizing madness.” In January, Fox News hosted a woman who works to “deprogram” transgender children “indoctrinated” by the “gender identity industry.”
A recent story from right-wing outlet The Free Press spotlighting one mother’s disapproval of her child’s gender-affirming care — part of an ongoing smear campaign against a Missouri gender clinic — exemplifies how trans youth are steamrolled by an anti-trans movement willing to elevate any voice but theirs.
While right-wing media willfully ignore their humanity, trans youth are making themselves and their experiences heard.
Facing Gov. Greg Abbott’s order for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate families of trans youth, one teenager was grappling with a government that saw his existence as child abuse.
“I am at the mercy of powerful people who don’t want to understand me,” he said. “They want to put a political agenda on my body, on whom I am as a person. I’m worried about the day someone weaponizes that against me.”
Florida youth could soon face the same risks, as a bill that would allow for the “legal kidnapping” of trans children has passed the state Senate.
Despite being dehumanized by conservative pundits and pushed into the margins by oppressive legislation, trans youth have already organized numerous protests this year.
On March 31, known as Trans Day of Visibility, the youth-led nonprofit Queer Youth Assemble spurred protests in all 50 states. That same day, high schoolers in Louisiana led hundreds in a walkout ahead of the state’s legislative session.
The Louisiana students were protesting a slate of upcoming anti-LGBTQ bills, such as one requiring parental permission to use a name and identity at school that they were not assigned at birth, another banning gender-affirming care for youth, and a school censorship bill that mirrors Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Youth across Kentucky have also held a number of protests since the start of 2023.
At a student-led rally on March 29, one middle schooler remarked, “I think it’s really sick and twisted that I have to prove that I’m a human to these people who don’t consider me one, who think my rights deserve to be taken away simply because they don’t agree with me.”
A high school junior in Louisville said during another protest in February that she was losing sleep over what is now the state’s new parental notification law.
In January, Arizona high schoolers laid out 180 black body bags in front of the state Capitol to represent students who had taken their lives.
“We just really want to tell our legislators as they are coming in for their first day in office that they need to care,” said the 17-year-old spearheading the protest. “There are youth that are dying at the hands of the laws that they’re allowing to be put in place.”
The fact that most of these protests are school walkouts punctuates the burden that anti-trans legislation places on the lives of trans youth. Not only will they be negatively impacted if these bills are codified into law, but students are already losing sleep and school time defending their very existence. Moreover, polling year after year by The Trevor Project has shown the detrimental effects anti-LGBTQ legislation has on the mental health of queer youth.
Schoolyards and capitol buildings aren’t the only places trans youth are speaking out. After The Free Press published an article of a disapproving mother lamenting the gender-affirming care her child was receiving, a Twitter account allegedly belonging to the child rebuked the piece, saying: “This is my story, not hers. This is not the Free Press’s story.”
The blatant mistreatment of trans youth by right-wing media, and especially prioritizing the will of parents over theirs, is predicated on the notion that children are property of their parents without autonomy or boundaries. Johns Hopkins University history professor Jules Gill-Peterson, author of Histories of the Transgender Child, says this phenomenon is rooted in the nation’s history.
Gill-Peterson told a Kentucky based NPR affiliate that child labor statutes and child protection laws introduced in the progressive era wrote children to be the “quasi-property” of their families in an attempt to protect them. According to Gill-Peterson, the idea “that kids belong to their parents in this way that gives the parents a sort of right and entitlement to shape those children in their own image” has lingered into the modern parental rights movement.
“This culture that treats children as incapable — one of the things that it does so harmful, is that it makes it impossible for them to stand up for themselves,” Gill-Peterson said. “It actually makes them more vulnerable.”
While children are generally ascribed an innocence linked to an absence of knowledge, trans children are not often afforded that same presumption of innocence, as described by Pennsylvania State University professor Mary Zaborskis:
When it comes to acknowledging the existence of trans children, adults maintain that they are the innocent ones, reversing the usual pairings of children with innocence. … Trans children need to continually educate and perform emotional labor for adults around them—parents, teachers, lawmakers, and doctors—in order to explain and justify the very fact of their existence, as well as ameliorate all of the adult anxieties and confusions presented to them about their existence. At the same time, trans children’s ability to enter trans adulthood is vehemently gatekept by these very adults. Whether trans children can access healthcare, safely attend school, or express their gender identity are all determined by parents, teachers, lawmakers, and doctors, many of whom remain skeptical about these children’s self-knowledge.
It is a popular tactic of both the mainstream media and anti-trans news outlets to focus on the parents and families of trans youth over the youth themselves. While covering minors can be tenuous for journalists, Poynter and NBC have recently published guides on how to cover trans youth as they are increasingly forced to become culture war combatants. The Trans Journalists Association has a style guide for covering trans issues in general. Mainstream media coverage can influence efforts at equality for trans people, and in such a critical moment, responsible reporting should include elevating the voices of trans youth as they endure direct attacks from the anti-trans movement.