In recent years, we have seen a wave of state-level “culture war” debates that target young people, particularly Black and brown young people, LGBTQIA+ young people, and young people with disabilities.
In 2023 specifically, state legislators have introduced a record number of bills targeting LGBTQIA+ rights, including some that ban gender-affirming care for minors and people insured by Medicaid, others that ban trans young people from participating in sports, and still others banning drag performances. Like bans on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Social Emotional Learning (SEL), these bills are just the latest tactics to uphold white supremacy and systems of power like racism, homophobia, and transphobia by codifying the continued marginalization and erasure of trans people, Black and brown people, and people with disabilities.
In passing these transphobic laws, many politicians are invoking the youth mental health crisis — justifying these cruel policies by hypocritically claiming they are protecting young people.
On this Trans Day of Visibility, it’s important to remember that visibility isn’t just about being seen. It’s about being heard, respected, listened to, and valued. Policymakers who care about the youth mental health crisis should not propose their own solutions to the problem – they should ask young people, particularly those most impacted by the crisis, what solutions they support. Acting on the solutions that young people propose requires dismantling the systems of power fueling the youth mental health crisis and building a new mental health system versed in culturally responsive and gender-affirming practices.
Bans on gender-affirming care do not protect young people. Rather, they signal to trans young people that their health and wellbeing don’t matter. Trans and nonbinary young people already experience extraordinarily high levels of anxiety and depression: In a July 2022 survey of young people, 98.2% reported feeling anxious or depressed.
Gender-affirming care improves short- and long-term mental health outcomes for transgender and nonbinary young people, while denial of care worsens mental health outcomes, including by increasing rates of suicidality. Given the scientific and medical consensus on the benefits of gender-affirming care, politicians can’t claim to care about young people’s mental health while also proposing policies that will harm trans and nonbinary youth. These politicians are knowingly and willfully sacrificing trans and nonbinary young people to further their own political aims.
Harming trans young people is not an unforeseen or unintended consequence of these policies – it is the sole purpose of them. Maintaining white supremacist systems requires violence against marginalized communities, violence these politicians are reframing as “protection.”
Young people don’t need politicians “protecting” them, speaking for them, or acting on their behalf. They need politicians listening to them and acting in collaboration with them. Young people can and are speaking up and their messages are clear: they don’t want these policies and feel attacked by them. Young people are not asking for TikTok bans, drag bans, or book bans—all of which are being pursued in the name of protecting young people. Rather, young people recognize the root causes of the mental health crisis as systemic and are asking policymakers to take real action on the real problems they’re experiencing like gun violence, racial injustices, and climate disasters.
Politicians banning gender-affirming care don’t care about young people’s mental health. They care about maintaining and strengthening white supremacy, and these transphobic policies are a tactic in a coordinated attack. On this Transgender Day of Visibility, we must stand in solidarity with trans and nonbinary young people and recognize that the liberation of trans young people is intrinsically tied to the liberation of all other people who have been subjected to violence for centuries under white supremacist systems.
This post was originally published on The Center for Law and Social Policy.
Kayla Tawa is the youth policy analyst for The Center for Law and Social Policy, and provides support to the youth, mental health, and justice teams.