Eli Bundy, an 11th grader, sat in the teacher’s lounge for two hours Feb. 23, missing class to testify in front of a South Carolina House subcommittee against a bill that would ban transgender athletes from competing in school sports.
Bundy, 16, said while it was frustrating to miss class, the bill “directly impacts me and my friends.”
“They didn't want to hear from us,” Bundy, who uses gender neutral pronouns, said of lawmakers who supported the bill, adding they believe the timing of the hearing was strategic. “I think that's part of the reason why they weren't more accommodating — they didn’t want to sit through that.”
Bundy is a nonbinary activist who has been involved in challenging anti-LGBTQ legislation in the state, including a bill last year that would’ve banned transgender minors from accessing certain medical care.
Young activists like Bundy are taking a leading role in the fight against anti-transgender legislation in states across the country. Some have testified at hearings for the more than 70 state bills targeting transgender people, and some have filed lawsuits against bills that have successfully become law.
Eliza Byard, a senior executive adviser at GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ youth, said that as conservative organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom have helped craft and support the increasing number of bills, trans youth have “come up with ways to fight back.”
“The incredible well of youth activism that has been at the vanguard of LGBTQ progress for the last 30 to 40 years continues to push back in new ways,” said Byard, who was the executive director for GLSEN from 2008 until a few months ago when she stepped down. Youth activism “goes way back, and it continues today, and I feel very confident given what I've seen over the years that these advocates will prevail,” she said.
Young people say they’re stepping up because they have to, though it can be emotionally challenging for them to stay engaged. “In my case, it feels like a necessity,” Bundy said. “I feel like I can't afford to not pay attention, because it's my life and the life of my friends on the line, and that feels like much too high of a cost not to be paying attention to, even though it definitely can be very painful.”
Fighting the bills’ ‘unbelievable and twisted invasiveness’
Over the last few years, state lawmakers have moved away from “bathroom bills” targeting transgender adults and toward legislation meant to “protect” transgender minors or protect their cisgender peers from them. At least 20 states are currently considering bills that would ban transgender young people from competing in school sports or limit their access to medical care, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
LGBTQ young people have been fighting restrictive legislation for decades, Byard said. In the 1990s, one of her first projects for GLSEN was to support a young woman in Salt Lake City named Kelly Peterson, who was fighting legislation designed to prevent students from forming gay-straight alliances, or LGBTQ school clubs also known as GSAs.
“What I think is particularly true about this wave of attacks on trans students is the unbelievable and twisted invasiveness of these bills,” she said. “Whereas Kelly Peterson in Salt Lake City was fighting for the right to form a GSA in her school, these bills are saying that any person can challenge a female athlete and subject them to a physical examination, including transvaginal examination by a doctor.”
Supporters of the bills often claim that the increasing number of youth coming out as trans is evidence that they’re being “brainwashed.” Byard said it’s the same argument that advocates have heard for decades.
“I would remind you that 30 years ago, we were brainwashing young children to be lesbian and gay,” she said. “In 1990, the argument was, ‘What are you talking about, there is no such thing,’ because no one was really out except the bravest young people.”
Byard said it takes “huge cultural shifts” that then allow more young people to come out. “There is a symbiotic relationship between individual bravery and choices, cultural shifts and movement advocacy over a long period of time that has led us to the point where there is a vibrant visible population of transgender, nonbinary, LGB youth out there,” she said. “And right now, trans youth across the country are fighting for their right to exist.”
‘They don’t want to listen’
Elliot Vogue, a 17-year-old activist who lives in Hartford, South Dakota, said he thinks young activists like himself are stepping up because “we're being silenced by our own state government and it feels powerless.”
Last year, he protested against a bill that would have made it a felony for medical professionals to provide gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers to trans minors. In January, he testified against a measure to require birth certificates to reflect assigned sex at birth, because he is in the process of trying to change his gender marker.
Vogue said every time state lawmakers propose anti-trans bills, trans people in the state speak out against them. Activists defeated the gender-affirming care bill, the birth certificate measure, and, on Monday, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem rejected a bill to ban transgender athletes from competing in school sports, arguing that it was too broad.
“When these bills come up and trans people are saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t OK, this isn’t going to help us, this isn’t going to help anybody else, why are you doing this?’ And then they ignore us and continue to make these bills again, it's really frustrating,” Vogue said. “Even when we do talk to them, they don't want to listen.”
Anti-trans policies, even when they don’t pass, take a toll on young trans people’s mental health, Bundy said. For example, a survey by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization, found that calls to its hotline from transgender young people rose from 7.3 percent to 17.5 percent in the 24 hours following then-President Donald Trump’s tweet in 2017 that he would ban transgender people from the military.
Calls to the hotline from trans young people also doubled to 14.7 percent in the week after the Texas Legislature introduced its “bathroom bill” in 2017, which would’ve required trans people to use the bathroom for their assigned sex.
Trans and nonbinary youth also have higher rates of suicidal ideation, with 52 percent reporting that they seriously considered suicide between December 2019 and March 2020, according to the Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.
The data shows that the rhetoric surrounding anti-trans policies is “a clear danger to trans young people who are already potentially vulnerable,” Bundy said. “I think that's what scares me the most about it, is that it is just another harmful thing in the lives of people who already potentially are struggling with a variety of other outside pressures or issues or lack of support.”
‘I’m in this for the long run’
Some young people have taken their activism to the courts. Lindsay Hecox, a 20-year-old sophomore at Boise State University, has been involved in a legal battle against an Idaho law for nearly a year.
Hecox planned to join the university cross-country team in September 2020. She ran 70 miles a week and did all the workouts the team did, she said. But last March, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed a bill banning transgender athletes from competing on the sports team of their gender identity.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Voice filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hecox in April, and in August, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction that prevented the law from taking effect.
“It's been quite the journey,” she said of the lawsuit. “I can say that nothing prepares you for this, especially if you're part of a marginalized group and you don't really want all that attention, which is definitely my case.”
Hecox said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome of her case. “I'm in this for the long run,” she said. “Over the course of the past year that I started being an activist for this, I've gained so much more confidence in asserting that, yes, I'm doing the right thing. I should never feel like I should back down due to the amount of pressure from people who don't believe that trans women don't have any advantage in sports. I know I don't have any advantage and it's just up to the legal team, these judges, when it gets down to the decision time.”
In South Carolina, the House Judiciary Committee tabled its trans athlete bill, making a vote in 2021 unlikely, The Associated Press reported. Bundy said it’s a positive update, but that the bill’s sponsors have said they plan to bring it back next session.
“I’m definitely glad that it isn’t going to pass this time around, but it’s one of many bills that would do harm to trans youth both in our state and others, so the fight is certainly long from over,” they said.