These Trans Kids Are Trying to Survive Tennessee’s ‘Slate of Hate’
Tennessee has enacted the most number of anti-LGBTQ bills in a vicious legislative session. Tim Teeman talks to the trans kids, parents, and campaigners determined to fight back.
Adam is 14. This August he will begin public high school in Tennessee, and he is already “really stressed” about which bathroom he will be allowed to use.
Last Friday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed HB 1233 into law, which denies transgender students like Adam access to the school bathroom and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. The new law also means a student, parent or employee could sue a Tennessee school “for all psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered” if they share space with a trans person in a restroom or locker room.
The student bathroom bill was one of five anti-trans bills signed into law in Tennessee this legislative session—the others are HB 1182 (SB 1224), a business bathroom bill that requires businesses to erect signs making clear if they allow trans people to use multi-person bathrooms (becoming the first state in America to do so); SB 228, an anti-transgender sports ban; SB 1229, an anti-LGBTQ education bill; and finally, this week, SB 126, which bans doctors from providing gender-confirming hormone treatment to prepubescent minors.
Legal challenges are expected to follow, after the pieces of legislation were roundly condemned by LGBTQ advocacy groups and campaigners. The bathroom bills are the first to be enacted since North Carolina’s infamous HB2 in 2016.
Of the more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in 33 state legislatures across America, more than 120 have focused on restricting trans rights, particularly in healthcare and access to sports. Twenty-three anti-LGBTQ bills have been passed into law.
In its current legislative session, Tennessee has enacted the highest number of discriminatory bills—5 out of a total 12 anti-LGBTQ bills (only Texas filed more bills in its legislative session). LGBTQ advocacy organization the Human Rights Campaign called Tennessee’s bills, “the slate of hate.” While businesses and public opinion have remained opposed to such legislation, Republican-controlled state legislatures have continued to introduce and pass such bills. Anti-trans bills continue to progress in Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Texas.
“I spend a lot of my time distracting myself from stressors in my life, and it’s just gotten more and more difficult with all this legislation,” Adam told The Daily Beast, sitting alongside his mom Amy on a Zoom call from their home in middle Tennessee. (They declined to give their last names.) “It’s going to affect how I live my life, and I can’t just distract myself from that. It gives me a lot of anxiety. It’s difficult to think about what my life would be like, or will be like, with some of these bills in action. It’s just really scary to think I am going to have to go through all these extra jumps and hurdles just to live my life normally.”
Another bill, which would outlaw gender-affirming healthcare for trans teenagers, will return in the next session. “That’s really concerning because gender-affirming healthcare saves lives, and it’s made me a lot more confident in who I am,” said Adam. “And I know that’s true for a lot of other people. I can’t imagine how terrible things are going to be for so many people with all the bills that have passed.”
There is “a feeling of defeat and exhaustion” from the scale of the legislative attacks, said Jack Knoxville, an Afro-Latino trans man and the founder and executive director for Tennessee’s Trans Empowerment Project. “It’s really hard not to take it personally and not think we’re not wanted. To have those feelings of disconnection from the rest of society can be so debilitating at times, especially being in the South where so many people grow up in these churches and under a conservative lens. As a trans person of color, I am personally in a situation where I don’t feel safe in this state—and haven’t for a while,” especially, Knoxville added, after July 1, when permits will no longer be required for Tennesseans carrying handguns.
Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, told The Daily Beast that LGBTQ people in Tennessee “feel like we’ve been bulldozed this year. It’s a full-scale attack and very demoralizing and overwhelming. The people who were not transphobic but who didn’t speak out and were just quiet were the most discouraging. There were so many bills in so many states, it probably divided everyone’s focus. It was probably part of the far-right’s strategy so as to make it more difficult for companies to take action in a more focused way.”
In Tennessee, there was not the corporate pushback to the onslaught of the bills on the scale of the mobilization against HB2 in North Carolina. LGBTQ people planning to travel through Tennessee called the Tennessee Equality Project concerned for their safety. Sanders hopes that “when the dust settles, people will see who the worst offenders were—and Tennessee was one of the worst.” If the trans teen healthcare bill is ultimately passed, Sanders expects many families to move out of state.
Julie Bandy lives in Middle Tennessee with her husband Ross and their six-year-old trans daughter who, like most kids her age, is busy being a kid, drawing and playing dress-up, while Julie and Ross have watched the onslaught of bills with increasing alarm.
The pre-puberty healthcare bill, signed this week, would affect their daughter if and when discussions begin around her using hormones and puberty blockers—discussions that should, said Bandy, take place among child, parent, and medical experts at the right time and in the right way as decided by them, “and with the support of all the leading medical associations”—not right-wing legislators.
“It’s been pretty stressful for my husband and myself,” Bandy told The Daily Beast. “My daughter’s pretty young right now. We don’t go into any of this with her. She is not aware of any of the hatefulness and discrimination out there. For us, it’s been a lot of sleepless nights. We’re just trying to shelter her as much as we can and let her have as normal a childhood as she can. She’ll have her whole life to deal with that.”
Amy said the family had lived in Tennessee for three years. Adam came out as trans two years ago. “We didn’t arrive in Tennessee with any sense of what it would be like for a trans kid living here,” Amy told The Daily Beast. “If we had we probably wouldn’t have come here. We knew it was more conservative than Pennsylvania where we lived before.”
The battery of transphobic bills has become “all-consuming” for Amy, in terms of activism and campaigning. The legislative attacks have added “another layer of concern and anxiety” for her much-loved son. “And now I have to worry about the most basic thing, when Adam needs to go to the bathroom, and how that’s going to be handled at school. And it’s ridiculous. This is going to the bathroom. They’re kids. They need to go to the bathroom.”
Adam says he is scared. “I know that if I have to use some alternative bathroom in the nurse’s office or something that people will probably notice and ask questions, like, ‘What’s going on there?’ In my old school last year I had to use the faculty bathrooms. I just didn’t go to the bathroom all day, and that’s really not healthy. I held it in all day.” Adam finally went to the toilet when he got home.
At the moment, Adam is attending a small, private school in downtown Nashville where "everyone is pretty accepting. There are a lot of trans people there. It is not out of the ordinary.”
At his previous school, while there were a lot of LGBT kids, Adam said the school wasn’t “outwardly accepting,” making him use the faculty bathrooms and not readily changing his name on his school email account. At high school, Adam imagines his social life will be “fine,” and says he is a confident kid who makes friends. He is not concerned about bullying. But he is worried about the school respecting his imminent legal name change, “and the bathroom stuff.”
So far, Julie Bandy and her husband have faced the challenge of enrolling their daughter in kindergarten. It took over a year to meet with the principal, who told Bandy that her daughter would have to use the boys’ bathroom. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ She said, ‘Well, she can use this private bathroom on the other side of school in a storage area.’ Needless to say, I decided to keep my daughter in the private school she was in.
“More and more, it’s looking like we’ll leave Tennessee. It’s not safe here for children like my daughter, and all the discrimination she’ll have to face. It’s hard enough for kids, without this layer of discrimination on top of that. I don’t want my kid having to use a separate bathroom, or to hold it in, or not drink fluids all day. It’s not healthy, and it doesn’t provide for a good learning environment.”
The family is looking into a move to Virginia, said Bandy. They had only just built what they thought was their “forever home,” they have many friends and good neighbors, “but we have to do what’s right for our child.” Virginia has strong discrimination protections, and other trans parents already living there have passed along their heartfelt recommendations of the benefits of living there.
Through a spokesperson, Governor Lee declined an interview with The Daily Beast to talk about all the bills he had signed in Tennessee.
Instead, the spokesperson referred a reporter to a tweet of Lee’s, dated March 26: “I signed the bill to preserve women's athletics and ensure fair competition. This legislation responds to damaging federal policies that stand in opposition to the years of progress made under Title IX and I commend members of the General Assembly for their bipartisan work.”
The spokesperson said the tweet provided “a window into how these bills were approached and their responsiveness to federal policies.”
“The student bathroom bill “provides equal access to every student. It’s a reasonable accommodation,” Lee has said. “It allows for accommodation for every student regardless of their gender. I think that’s a smart approach to the challenge.”
The result of the bills, however, is felt very differently by trans people living in the state.
Jack Knoxville said they already faced bigotry and prejudice before the passage of the legislation; this will now likely become worse. He had heard of a young trans girl at school in Tennessee, stopped from going to the bathroom by a teacher, “who said a lot of transphobic things to her and totally ruined her night. She does not have support at home, and teachers are allowed to enforce their transphobia in schools.” He has watched another young trans person of color receive shoddy treatment by a system ill-equipped to help them. “This is the story of the trans kids of Tennessee being left behind, targeted, and neglected. And then because of their transness, people blame them for not being in better situations.”
It was illuminating when considering the “trans sports thing,” said Knoxville, that “a trans kid is punished for winning, rather than looking at that trans kid and congratulating them for working so hard to get there. The people legislating against trans kids don’t understand the intensity of recognizing you are trans, then taking steps to begin your transition, to create acceptance within yourself, and to come out and have other people give their 2 cents about whether you’re a valid person.”
Knoxville recalls going to school and to be in fear of attack and assault. He got ulcers he got so scared. “Not having the support, you feel isolated from your peers. And no one cares. Your oppressors do what they do so joyfully. They do it with a smile on their faces. Just as in the '90s they’d like to say that gay people ‘turned’ your kids gay, now they say the same thing about trans people. But you can try to oppress someone’s soul and authenticity all you want to, but at the end of the day that person will still be that person.”
Sanders’ message to Tennessee lawmakers is that “trans people are always going to be here. You need to serve all your constituents, and make up for the damage you’ve done. It’s the audacity of passing laws about people you don’t care about meeting or understanding, and to believe the worst about them. If this is lawmaking, we need new lawmakers, or a change in the hearts and minds of the lawmakers we already have. Right now, these lawmakers believe trans people don’t matter. Or, worse—from a religious conservative point of view—that these people are evil.”
Amy has found people to be supportive when she has indicated the impact of the bills on social media, and how they can contact their representatives. “It is just ridiculous that someone like Adam who is just a cool kid would have to deal with this nonsense, and my gut instinct is is that people aren’t sitting around their kitchen tables talking about the scary trans kids in Tennessee.”
Adam says there is “so much transphobia” in Tennessee. Friends have had “terrible experiences.” He hopes the passing of the bills raises the necessary awareness to combat them. “Once more people hear about the bills and see how they are affecting actual trans people, and stop being so transphobic.”
Jack Knoxville is focused on building alternative systems of support, given that “trans people, trans people of color, and especially disabled trans people of color are not meant to exist in the white supremacist system, let alone thrive. What has happened here is nothing new. We’ve always had these obstacles and barriers in place.
“What has happened, unfortunately, is that the community has basically allowed the GOP and right-wing conservatives to control the narrative about who we are as human beings—and to make it seem like we’re these terrible monsters. Typically most trans people are dealing with so much in pursuit of trying to figure out their own identities. When we don’t have support, or you add marginalized layers, it becomes increasingly more difficult.”
Knoxville also says that mainstream LGBTQ activism in Tennessee excludes Black and minority voices and faces. “We’re supposed to have this support, but we don’t. They’ll say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and have no respect for Black leadership.”
At the Trans Empowerment Project, the focus is not on email, petitions, and fundraising blasts, or “encouraging (Senator) Marsha Blackburn to not be transphobic because she’s going to be.”
Instead, said Knoxville, the project aims to “reclaim some of the power we lost” by launching a storytelling campaign “in which trans people tell the real stories of who we are. The answer to these attacks is that we can’t afford to waste our time trying to change transphobic minds. What we can do is build our own systems of support, and create access to the resources we need by cultivating effective relationships with people who are maybe providers of the things that we need.”
Amy was once a middle and high school teacher herself, before the family moved to Tennessee. She knows that teenagers themselves are more open-minded these days, but in Tennessee, the kids seem influenced by their parents. So, whereas “an average high school kid” would see Adam in the boys’ bathroom and not think anything of it, she worries about the parent telling their children, “You know we could sue the school for psychological damage if you share the bathroom with a trans kid.”
Then she imagines some kids themselves in the restroom, making jokes at Adam direct: “Oh, you’re in the bathroom with me. I’m suffering from psychological damage.” Amy pauses, sighs, says, “It’s just ridiculous.” And then she lets out a mini-roar of frustration at what she sees as the absurdity of the bills.
Nashville is seen as a liberal haven, said Amy, “a blueberry in tomato soup,” as people told her when the family first moved to Tennessee. En route to Adam’s new high school is a garden center with a confederate flag fluttering outside. When the family arrived, one of the first questions they were asked was, “Which church are you going to join?”
Amy says she is a “white woman with all the privilege that brings,” but every time the family goes out and Adam needs to use a restroom, there are “a number of small things we have to consider about his safety.”
Adam says he first checks to see if there is a family bathroom and a gender-neutral bathroom. If there isn’t, he asks family members to check to see if the restrooms are single-stall, and if they aren’t he will “flip a coin” and choose whichever bathroom he wants to use.
The family has discussed moving away from the state. It would be “kind of sad” to leave the house they love, but Adam wants to “get out of here already,” to the west coast preferably. Amy would rather return to the northeast, where her family and her husband’s family live. The gender-affirming bill that would affect trans teens directly “would make things hard for Adam and the people who give him medical and psychological care. We are fortunate to be economically stable, and we would certainly move if life were really that unpleasant. But Adam knows other trans kids who don’t have the financial ability to say, ‘We’re getting out of here.’”
“Most of my friends have parents who don’t really support them that much,” said Adam.” I know some of them aren’t as well off as us. That combined with unsupportive parents is very tough.”
Jack Knoxville said he had found it so difficult to get “any form of healthcare” in Tennessee. Now 42, when he first began his transition at 35 he went to Asheville, North Carolina to access the treatment he needed. He has supported clients who have been dead-named, or had incorrect pronouns used by their employers. “People here feel very empowered to be discriminatory,” Knoxville said. Trans people cannot amend their birth certificates.
He said that he and many others had a year of mental health counseling before being granted access to hormones—and even then some were refused that access at year’s end. “For so many people, therapy is a luxury,” said Knoxville. “And then to be told to sit in a therapist’s office to convince them I know myself better than they do is dehumanizing.”
Knoxville hopes that the trans community can build links within the wider community to change hearts. Otherwise, his hope is that a federal policy like the Equality Act ultimately passes. He worries that LGBTQ and trans rights simply becomes a political football between administrations—embraced by one like Biden’s and vaporized by another like Trump’s and maybe “Trump 2.0” in 2024.
Amy would like to say to Governor Lee and the legislators, “How many trans people do you know? I would like to invite you to sit down for 20 minutes with my kid. See he’s just a regular kid who just wants to lead a regular 14-year-old life.”
Adam let out a teen-perfect groan of “ugghhhh” at the prospect of sitting down with Governor Lee.
Amy has made more than one appointment to meet their state representative Susan Lynn to discuss the bills; a mixture of being stood up and having inquiries unanswered followed. “These people are supposed to represent us, it’s so infuriating,” says Amy.
If Adam could speak to Gov. Lee and the legislators, he would say that the bills are solving nothing because no problem exists. “They are just hurting more people than they are helping.”
“The sheer velocity of the ‘slate of hate’ has surprised me,” said Julie Bandy. “It’s always been a red state, but in the past few years they have wanted to implement so much hatred, division, and discrimination.”
Bandy said her daughter had shown signs of her trans identity at 2 years old, “gravitating to female stuff, referring herself to girl characters. Over the years her identity has strengthened. I bought some books to open conversations, like I am Jazz by Jazz Jennings. One of the lines is something like, ‘She has a boy body with a girl brain.’ When I read that to my daughter she looked up and said, ‘That’s like me, momma.’
"That’s when I reached out to a gender therapist and pediatrician. A lot of people may feel she is too young, but we are following the guidance of experts—and following her lead.” That therapist is “heartbroken” at the prospect of being criminalized for providing gender-affirming care, “and not being able to provide resources to kids who really need it.”
Next, the Tennessee Equality Project's Sanders told the Daily Beast, the ACLU and other legally focused groups will begin to challenge the bills in the courts, while Sanders himself “gets on the road again” to travel the state to remobilize support for LGBTQ people. “Zoom meetings just aren’t the same.”
Sanders has lived in Tennessee since 1992. He thinks a supermajority of conservative legislators has created the viciously anti-LGBTQ climate, spurred by Biden’s presidential election win—and his executive orders and vocal backing of the Equality Act to advance a program of LGBTQ equality. The most challenging advocacy Sanders does is in the more rural parts of the state.
He is feeling “overwhelmed and done in,” but remains optimistic that the courts will side with the principles of equal protection he believes all the bills violate. He hopes people will lobby the companies they work for not to hold their conventions in the state, and make clear their views of the legislators’ actions. The NCAA, criticized for its vague opposition to the bills, needs to “up its game,” said Sanders, and not hold a tournament in Tennessee for a year or two. However, Sanders thinks a new raft of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation will unfold in the next session. “Now that they have succeeded, I think and fear they’ll continue.”
If only Governor Lee and legislators could talk to trans people and kids, said Bandy. If they did, “and listened to them, they would understand the laws they are passing are severely impacting their lives.” Bandy has sent several emails seeking a meeting with Governor Lee, and has heard nothing. And, same as Amy, Bandy got no response when she reached out to her local representative, Susan Lynn, who did not turn up for a Zoom meeting. (In an email to The Daily Beast, Rep. Lynn wrote, “I am not aware of any requests for meetings.”)
Bandy is hopeful more progressive and humane views of trans people and children will evolve, though “I’m just not sure how long that will take.” The experience of the legislative onslaught has changed her. She has been “completely immersed in the issue because I have to be. It’s put a strain on my friendships, particularly those people who don’t understand the struggle. It has made me withdraw from some friendships, and people who I thought were very close friends I am now seeing in a different light because of some of the things they have said.”
Tennessee’s treatment of trans children reveals the harshest meeting of the personal and political.
“Trump showed us early on that systemic change can be erased,” said Knoxville. “He picked up an eraser and wiped out decades of other people’s blood, sweat, and tears in so many areas. When we take charge of cultural change telling stories, organizing and building communities, it makes it a lot harder for another person to erase. That’s why I’m optimistic. If I got into a car accident, religious freedom bills mean the ambulance driver can draw up and say, ‘Oh, that’s a trans person. I refuse to take him to hospital.’ If I die, nothing happens to him. We can’t rely on the government to fix our problems, but we can reach out to everybody. If they see the humanity in us, they won’t want to leave us on the side of the road. Regardless of what our legislators do, we need to build new systems of support.”
Julie Bandy and her husband “will do what we have to do to support” their daughter “and make sure she feels loved. It’s not going to be an easy battle or easy road for her, but we will do all we can to make sure it’s as easy as possible for her.”
Soon, Tennessee will have to directly deal with Adam’s evolving self. He was born in New Jersey, where the family will soon return to get a new birth certificate with an updated birth marker. Adam’s original birth certificate will be destroyed. They will return to Tennessee with Adam’s new legal birth certificate stating that he is male. So, how will his high school claim he cannot use the boys’ bathroom, wonders Amy. So far, there have been no issues enrolling him there as “Adam.”
This reporter mentioned the case of Gavin Grimm, whose own long-running access-to-the-bathroom battle with his local education board (with key victories in the lower courts won by Grimm) may return to the Supreme Court.
“Personally, I would love to get in there and fight,” Amy said. “But I don’t want Adam to go through anything like that. My husband and I are more of the mindset that if it gets to be a huge deal we’re just going to move.”
“I don’t know what is going to happen, but I hope it doesn’t become some legal battle because—and I know this sounds very selfish—that sounds likes so much work,” Adam said.