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‘I Desperately Wish That We Could Move Beyond Words’

Today in What Now: Katelyn Burns on fighting the anti-trans movement.


Happy Monday, y’all, and welcome to another edition of What Now with me, your fabulous host with the most, Sam Grasso! For today I interviewed journalist Katelyn Burns about the anti-trans legislation that states have introduced over the past few months, attacking trans kids by trying to outlaw their medical care or remove them from sports competitions, under the guise of “caring about children.” So far Arkansas has passed a bill to ban gender-affirming medical treatment for trans kids, and dozens of states have proposed more than 100 similar bills. You can find Burns’ work at Vox, MSNBC Daily, and the Cancel Me, Daddy podcast, where she is a co-host.

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So there’s this “anti-trans legislation 2.0,” as you called it. What has led to this second wave?

The things they’re trying to do now, especially around medical care for kids, they’ve been planning since the earliest days of the modern anti-trans movement, that started around 2015, in Houston. It was fresh off of legalized marriage equality. And people were saying, “Oh, is this the end of the social conservative movement?” Houston had a referendum on an LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance, [which the city voted against]. And the talking point was “No men and women’s bathrooms.” So that kicked off the bathroom bill. 

But around that time, you started to see the social conservatives in the U.S. switch gears away from gay people and towards trans people. The Family Research Council wrote a document saying that their goal is to eventually restrict or outright ban medical care for transgender people, especially kids.

The “Anti-trans bills 1.0” were the bathroom bills in North Carolina and Texas. It almost backfired on them because the more the public learned about trans people, they [responded,] “This is kind of ridiculous. Why is the government so concerned with this?” So 2017, 2018, these bills are proposed. They have no chance of passing, and people are saying, “Okay, well, I guess the social conservative movement is [next].” Well, no, they just reformed.

In late 2019, back in Texas, there’s this custody battle that goes viral. The mom supports the child’s trans identity. The father outright rejects it, and is all over conservative media whipping up all this panic, saying, “My ex wants to castrate my child,” which is not at all true. But when you see stuff like that and you’re uninformed, you’re like “Well, this is an outrage,” right? So he’s getting all this attention. He’s raising money. The conservative media is getting clicks. The story had a lot of right-wing politicians going, “I’m going to put a stop to this.” You saw Gov. Abbott, Ted Cruz, and countless state-level legislators tweet about it. And that’s what kicked off this focus on banning medical care for adolescents. 

And so it’s sort of this arms race to see which state could be the most grotesque and overbearing in passing these bills so they can appear to be protecting children, when really it’s an outright attack. It’s an assertion of the state in a medical process that the state has no reason to be interfering with.

What’s your reporting been like when you’re speaking to children and parents?

It’s heartbreaking. I spoke with a mom of a trans kid who is from Arkansas, and her entire life is in Arkansas. And now she’s looking at moving out of state, but then she looks at the states that are trying to make it illegal for her child to exist, and it’s all the states around Arkansas. 

You’re asking somebody to leave some place where their family has been for generations, just for the sake of their child, and that feels un-American to me, in a lot of ways, even though I know it’s not. Lots of different groups of Americans have been forced to move from state to state in the past, but I thought that this is something that stayed in the past, but clearly not.

I think it’s also one of those things that the people who wield that rhetoric of what it means to be an American and the freedom you have to do whatever you want, then get to do this cherry picking of who exactly that America is for.

Yeah. Joe Biden while addressing Congress said, trans people, especially young trans people, I want you to know the President has your back. Well, how? What are you gonna do to keep their parents out of jail just for supporting their trans kids? 

I really desperately wish that we could move beyond words with trans rights. Like allies saying “trans people are valid” is the most meaningless statement on the planet. Like, gee, thanks, you acknowledge that I’m alive? Pat yourself on the back, give yourself a big ally medal, you’ve done all the work. No. There’s more work to be done. Like people could be going to jail! Trans people need more. 

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