In a year that's taken a devastating toll on children across the country, transgender youth have faced an additional challenge: A surge in legislation that aims to curb their rights. Advocates are warning that the rise in bills targeting trans youth could worsen the mental health of an already vulnerable population, and could "come at the literal cost of lives."
Legislators have introduced more than 75 bills in 2020 and 2021 that specifically target transgender youth, many of which concern health care and access to school sports, according to a tally from the ACLU.
Jennifer Pizer, law and policy director at Lambda Legal, told CBS News the number of bills is "an unsettling and deeply disturbing show of ignorance and political targeting, and lack of concern for the young people in particular, whose not just rights, but lives are being set to be trampled by legislators."
In Tennessee, where a bill banning transgender students from playing on sports teams that align with their gender has already passed, the House will soon consider a bill that would ban gender affirmation surgeries or medication for prepubescent youth, and for minors who have begun puberty who don't have signed statements from two physicians and at least one child psychiatrist.
The state would consider it "child abuse" for parents to violate these terms, and would consider violations by health care workers as "professional misconduct," according to a summary of the bill.
A bill from the state House would ban textbooks and instructional materials in public charter schools that "promote, normalize, support or address" LGBTQ issues or lifestyles, and a bill from the state Senate would allow parents to have their children opt-out of sexual orientation or gender identity curriculum without penalty.
Aiden Cloud, an 18-year-old high school senior in Tennessee, told CBS News that these bills, as well as the others around the country, are "demoralizing" for transgender youth.
"It's just super demoralizing to see legislators creating these bills, trying to pass these bills that are just extremely hateful and disgusting," Cloud said. "...They're not even remotely educated on the LGBT community, nor do they care to be...I'm quite mad that they don't even care to talk to or learn about the people that they will be targeting."
Dr. Clinton Anderson, deputy chief for psychology in the public interest for the American Psychological Association, also took issue with bills that would classify allowing children to medically transition as "child abuse."
Anderson told CBS news that supporting trans youth in their identities "is not child abuse," and such a classification is "a very powerful attack" that intimidates parents. Legislation that seeks to ban gender-affirming health care, Anderson added, is "a stimulus and encouragement" to providers who have negative attitudes toward transgender individuals.
"Trans youth may be less safe in medical settings because those with prejudices may feel empowered by these laws — even protected by these laws — in acting out their prejudices. Both clinical reports and survey research suggests that transgender individuals are already less likely to trust medical care," Anderson said. "These laws will decrease the already fragile sense of safety that many transgender individuals have about accessing medical care that is affirming."
Cloud attends a private school, and they said that the environment is "certainly not a beacon of acceptance." They said they are the first student in anyone's recent memory to come out as transgender at the school, and there are only three students who have come out. Outside of school, Cloud works with the organization GLSEN to advocate for trans youth, such as themself.
If the bills banning LGBTQ history and literature in schools are passed, Cloud said, it will essentially erase transgender people from history and significantly impact trans children. Cloud is not as worried for themself as they prepare to graduate and go to college, but said their concern now lies with younger students, and how these bills will impact their health and experience.
"Students who are queer, trans, are going to feel so isolated because they're not being taught anything about themselves," Cloud said. "They won't know that there's other people out there like them, which can in turn make students less willing to come out, which makes students more isolated. It's just a terrible cycle."
"You're not preparing students for the actual world. If you're trying to pretend that LGBTQ people don't exist, that the community does not exist, that we weren't a part of history, it's just an incomplete idea of the world," Cloud said.
"More young people than ever before" experiencing mental health crises
Even if some of the proposed bills never become law, the process can still have "devastating" emotional effects on trans youth, said Pizer, the Lambda Legal director.
"The process of proposing bills to exclude them and that are based on lies about them have sometimes devastating emotional effects, even when most of those bills don't become law," Pizer said.
"These are not sort of no harm, no foul things happening in the legislature," Pizer added.
The surge in legislation is coming at an already difficult time for trans youth. Sam Brinton, vice president of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, told CBS News that during the pandemic, The Trevor Project has at times received "more than double" the typical volume of calls and messages from youth experiencing mental health crises.
"This [surge in legislation] is not coming in a time where everything's actually great. This is coming at a time when LGBTQ youth are their most vulnerable."
Calls for help to the Trevor Project have grown every year, Brinton said, and the organization is serving "more young people than ever before."
In a March report, the organization estimated that at least one LGBTQ individual between the ages of 13 and 24 in the U.S. attempts suicide every 45 seconds. Preliminary data from the organization's 2021 survey that will be released in May shows that more than 90% of LGBTQ youth said recent politics have negatively influenced their well-being, The Trevor Project told CBS News.
"That attempt every 45 seconds...is absolutely getting worse as these bills are being passed because we are telling trans youth that they do not belong in our society, that they do not have a place," Brinton said. "And that is nothing short of a lie."
"This could come at the literal cost of lives," they said. "...The truth is that at The Trevor Project we are receiving calls younger and younger and younger and younger each and every year."
A lifetime fight for human rights
Over the past few months, children and teens who are transgender have at times traded in their day at school for a day on the stand to tell political leaders their stories, in hopes that it will persuade them to vote against legislation targeting trans youth.
One of those kids is Kai Shappley, a Texas 10-year-old with a sunny and peppy demeanor who loves ballet, Dolly Parton, playing games and spending time with her friends.
When it comes to bills that target trans youth, such as herself, she said she immediately feels angry.
"God made me. God loves me for who I am," Shappley said. "And it's been very scary and overwhelming. It just — it makes me sad."
Shappley said she's been fighting since she was in Pre-K to be treated fairly and with respect for who she is. She has become one of the most vocal children to speak out about this legislation, specifically about bills that ban transgender inviduals from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender.
"I've been having to explain myself since I was three or four," Kai told CBS News. "...Hear me. Hear me. Listen, educate yourself. Try to educate yourself, try to understand us."
Her mom, Kimberly Shappley, told CBS News that when Kai was in kindergarten, she faced immense difficulties at school at the hands of teachers and administrators. So much so that they, along with Kai's three brothers, had to relocate.
"She came from school in first grade and she told me she could not do it anymore...because she was peeing her pants every day because she had nowhere to use the bathroom," Kimberly told CBS News. "Teachers would call her by the wrong name. Teachers would call her the wrong pronouns."
There are more than 10 bills in Texas that specifically target transgender youth, according to the ACLU, including two bills that would classify a medical practitioner helping a child to transition as "abuse." Under HB 68, mental health professionals would be banned from performing gender-affirming procedures, providing gender-affirming medication, or even affirming a child's gender identity if it does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth.
The Shappleys said they have had to move before because of similar legislation, and said they are worried that they will have to again, even if it means leaving their home state. Now, before and after school, Kai and Kimberly said they are dedicating their time to raise awareness about the bills to try and stop them from passing.
"I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the advocates before me who paved the way. I never asked to be an advocate, but I couldn't just sit by and watch as chaos unravels," Kai said, adding, "I can't retreat as all this bad stuff is happening."
The Shappleys are not the only family who say they may leave their home state if lawmakers continue to pass bills targeting transgender children. Speaking at a March press conference held by the Human Rights Campaign, Adam, a transgender boy from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, described his struggle to attend a public middle school that would not allow him to use the men's restroom.
"I was given the options of using the nurse's office bathroom, the guidance office bathroom, or a locked faculty bathroom," Adam said. "None of them were close to any of my classes, and using them would just make me stand out, and people would notice me being different and it would just alienate me further. So I resorted to just not drinking anything during the day."
Adam's mother, Amy, said her family planned to leave the state if Tennessee legislators continued to pass bills targeting transgender youth.
"Not everyone has that luxury," she said. "So I really hope none of these anti-trans bills pass."
Advocates warn, however, that speaking out as Kai and Adam have often prompts "a mountain of people attacking you for who you are as a person."
"If you are 10, 11, a 5 year old, that kind of vitriol has absolutely a detrimental effect to your mental health because you don't have the same resiliency training as an adult," Brinton, the Trevor Project vice president, said.
Not all of the legislative actions seeking to ban rights for transgender youth have or will pass — but even one, Pizer says, could be a tipping point for youth who lack adequate support systems.
"I think for lots of kids," Pizer explained, "it's just a terrifying reinforcement of the most damaging messages that there's something wrong with them and they don't belong and they must try to make themselves into somebody that they're not."
"And they try and try and try and can't, and so they feel like a failure," Pizer continued. "And the message is that the person that they are has no worth, doesn't belong, shouldn't be here — they're just broken."
While advocates fear the toll this can take if the attacks continue, they all agreed that the growing support for and awareness of trans youth across the country could ensure a more hopeful future.
The key, Cloud and Shappley said, is that those who continue to politicize the existence of trans youth realize that their words and actions have real consequences on real children.
"Trans people, trans students, trans youth, we exist, we're real. Your laws have actual impact on actual children and youth and teenagers," Cloud said. "I think you should actually have a conversation with one of us before you try to legislate our lives."
If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, there is help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text a crisis counselor at 741741 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.