Pride Month is a time to celebrate strides that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ+) people have made and to push back against unjust laws. Pride originated in protest, and decades later, LGBTQ+ communities have used the month of June to demand substantive change.
This year, listening to LGBTQ+ people and supporting their organizing are themselves radical acts.
In the past few months, LGBTQ+ rights in the United States have taken their biggest step backward in a generation. Target's removal of its Pride Collection of clothing because of complaints says a lot. And state lawmakers have introduced more than 650 bills targeting LGBTQ+ people, and dozens have sailed into law — with devastating consequences for people’s day-to-day lives.
Now, 19 states ban best practice medical care that many transgender youths have accessed for years; five of those states are punishing such care as a felony. In 21 states, transgender students aren’t allowed to participate in school sports with their cisgender peers, isolating them from a crucial outlet for socialization and healthy development. And in nine states, transgender students aren’t allowed to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, potentially putting their health, safety and privacy at risk.
None of these laws was in existence before 2020. Even as public opinion warms to LGBTQ+ rights — eight in 10 Americans support inclusive anti-discrimination laws and nearly seven in 10 Americans support marriage equality — lawmakers have worked aggressively to halt and reverse progress.
While lawmakers have primarily demonized transgender people, they have targeted lesbian, gay and bisexual people in recent years as well, prohibiting discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools and allowing health care providers, child welfare agencies, and businesses serving the public to deny LGBTQ+ people important goods and services. Attacks on abortion and reproductive health care, too, have disproportionately affected lesbian, bisexual and queer women. The ugly rhetoric surrounding these bills, especially the dangerous old stereotype depicting LGBTQ+ people as a threat to children, has spread rapidly and generated threats and violence against LGBTQ+ people across the US.
One reason for this backsliding is that opponents of LGBTQ+ rights have been remarkably effective at distorting data and spreading misinformation. Damaging and demeaning myths about transgender people have been remarkably resilient in the popular imagination. The bathroom issue is one example. In reality, transgender people, and gender non-conforming people generally, are far more likely than other people to be victims of harassment and assault in gendered bathrooms.
Similarly, lawmakers and pundits have uncritically touted debunked claims that children are being rushed into receiving gender-affirming care. The reality is that a host of practical and procedural barriers, from informed consent safeguards to cost to long waiting times, mean that many if not most transgender youths are unable to take steps to medically transition, even if they want or need that care.
Lawmakers also have exaggerated many concerns, using selective examples to justify harsh restrictions on human rights. They have elevated the stories of a few people who regret receiving gender-affirming care, when evidence suggests that only about 1% of people who transition later regret it. Meanwhile, being forced to go through puberty can have devastating effects on a young transgender person’s physical and mental health.
Attempts to ban drag performances and violent intimidation by far-right groups at Drag Story Hours are another example. Drag performances can be geared toward different audiences, just like movies, music or other genres of performance. But a drag queen reading a story book to children in a public library is specifically designed to be family friendly and there’s nothing inappropriate about it. Lawmakers have blurred that distinction, however, to justify sweeping restrictions that can have a chilling effect on LGBTQ+ gatherings and businesses.
If the movement for marriage equality taught us anything, it’s the importance of real human stories that shatter prejudices and change hearts and minds. Scholars long have found that knowing a gay or lesbian person is one of the most crucial indicators of support for gay and lesbian rights. Unfortunately, only one in three people know someone who is transgender, making it easier for lawmakers to demonize them and exploit fear and ignorance to sensationalize their lives.
We often hear from adults who oppose or are supportive of transgender rights, and occasionally from young transgender people with the support to be in the public eye. But we rarely get to hear from the countless transgender teens who don’t have supportive friends or family, who can’t safely ask that their school respect their gender identity, and who have no real means of starting the process of obtaining gender-affirming health care. We don’t hear from transgender girls deterred from even trying to play sports because they know they will have to play as boys — or, if they compete as girls, will face relentless scrutiny and criticism.
We don’t typically hear from children who went to Drag Queen Story Hour and enjoyed it, or who have same-sex parents and want their families to be depicted in the books they read at school. And as anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions increase, and parents and children worry whether they can safely share their experiences, hearing those perspectives becomes even harder.
The month of June — when state legislatures have just finished their business — can be challenging for grassroots action. But the damage lawmakers have done this year is serious, and there is plenty that people can do in response. Find and amplify the stories of the young people who are challenging these laws. Donate to trans-led and youth-led groups, especially in hard-hit states such as Florida, Tennessee and Texas. Get involved with your own local LGBTQ+ organization, patronize businesses and libraries and events that are fighting back, and find concrete ways to support LGBTQ+ children, parents, teachers and artists who have been directly targeted by new laws.
Like marriage equality and the battles that came before, changing the narrative will require sustained effort, but it is possible and it starts with us.