Shelby Chestnut: We have to keep a focus on joy and just celebrate the amazing victories that our communities have won and continue to win.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Skyscrapers and bridges across the country on Friday night light up in pink, blue, and white, colors of the transgender pride flag because Friday is International Transgender Day of Visibility. It's a day of celebration, support, and love within the transgender community and among allies. It's especially important amid the ongoing harassment, discrimination, and political violence the trans people continue to face.
According to the human rights campaign, which is tracking anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in state houses across the country, just in these first few months of 2023, there have been a record number of bills that target transgender people introduced. In this context, joy, celebration, and visibility are even more important.
Shelby Chestnut: Transgender Day of Visibility was started in 2009 as a way to commemorate the fact that there's days where we mourn those that we have lost, but we don't really have a day where we celebrate trans people. It's a day to increase greater visibility, but also to celebrate the milestones and accomplishments of transgender community. My name is Shelby Chestnut, I'm the executive director of the Transgender Law Center.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to dig in on that for just a moment because you started by indicating the way that this is different than Transgender Remembrance Day, the day of mourning. Talk to me a bit more about not wanting to conflate mourning with celebration, joy, existence.
Shelby Chestnut: It was started in 2009 by a woman named Rachel Crandall, a transgender activist based in Michigan. The first one was on March 31st of 2009. I think Trans Day of Visibility can serve as a starting point for people to think critically about how trans people exist as full people outside of the statistics which we always see. It can also be a starting point for us to consider how we share out the tremendous leadership and work that people have done one throughout history, but just this year alone.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm also interested in the language of visibility. Visibility is both critical for doing political work but also seems to me to be particularly in this moment of legislative brutality as well as the realities of potential violence. Visibility can also sometimes be dangerous.
Shelby Chestnut: Yes, I think that's a great question. I think right now, we're in a moment where we're seeing greater visibility, but I also think what we're seeing is just a greater articulation of what we know and who we know is in leadership for so many years. To me, I think too often how Transgender Day of Visibility can be a weak, particularly for cisgender people, people who are not transgender, to find ways to create space for trans people to thrive and show up authentically.
I was actually just in Texas yesterday because they've introduced a youth healthcare ban and I spent over 25 hours with transgender advocates and parents of trans kids lobbying against the legislature there in Texas. There was over 2000 people in the Texas legislature being their authentic selves, sharing their authentic stories and saying, "We're Texans, we're proud Texans, and we're not going to stand for this hate and discrimination that the legislature's proposing." I think it was a good way to kick off the week as we head into Transgender Day of Visibility.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've brought us to where we are in terms of legislation right now. The number of legislative efforts over and against the lives, the health, the visibility of trans folk and particularly trans kids. It's been rising over the past five years and right now is again, as I said, a particular moment of legislative brutality. Tell me a bit about some of the key states and key legislation in addition to Texas that you're looking at and working around.
Shelby Chestnut: At Transgender Law Center, we do both community organizing and impact litigation. We see them as joined siblings if you will. We're particularly looking at states where we know that they're seeking to criminalize parents or transgender people of all ages for just existing. Some states that we're focusing on and that have unfortunately really started to move forward legislation, Alabama being a state, so they're trying to pass a healthcare ban. We also have Mississippi who did pass a healthcare ban, unfortunately.
You have states like South Dakota and Montana. South Dakota has passed healthcare ban for young people then Montana is seeking to do similarly. We often look at states where, one, we know that there is either minimal infrastructure of trans organizing or there's a great deal of infrastructure for trans organizing and those states that are seeking to criminalize. Unfortunately, you're seeing a lot of it in the more rural or deep south states where they're the intersections of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and the ways that those communities are having to organize around all of that at the same time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're at the law center and yet litigation does have its limits. As you're thinking about the tools in your toolbox, what beyond litigation is available for this kind of infrastructure of organizing that you're talking about?
Shelby Chestnut: That's a great question. What we always say as an impact litigation organization is that it's one of the smaller tools in our tool belt, but our biggest tool right now is people power and organizing people. Every day, we're getting calls and on calls with transgender organizers around the country who are mobilizing community, both transgender and beyond, getting calls from parents who are figuring out ways to support their trans kid in those ways.
Not to make it solely about Texas, but it was pretty powerful to be in Texas this week, to see a state that has had some of the most egregious anti-trans legislation, anti-immigrant sentiment, and legislation, one of the leaders in limiting abortion access in this country which led to the Dobbs decision to see coalitions of people come out and say, "I'm not transgender, I'm not queer, but I'm here to support community that I've organized with for decades."
In addition to roomfuls of transgender people prepping testimony and just to see even the joy that they have in this moment despite everything that they face to lose, has been pretty inspiring for me. At one point, some of the more conservative anti-trans figures in Texas made an appearance at a rally and there was a group of LGBT veterans that does security for the protests and gathering there, and they escorted the person out. It was just amazing to see the community that exists there and the intersections that they're looking at this work that 'unless all of us are free, none of us are free' approach.
To me, I think the movement building and the community building that happens in these moments is perhaps the most critical. I think what people can do right now is to think like, "Hey, I'm not transgender, but I want to support transgender people." Then you should. Show up to the state capitals, show up for these moments to testify, and say, "Hey, I'm a person who is not going to be impacted by this stuff, but I'm here to show my support and why it's important to me as somebody that's a resident of this state, that's a local resident of a town, et cetera."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Quick pause. More with Shelby Chestnut from the Transgender Law Center right after this. [silence] All right, we're back with Shelby Chestnut from the Transgender Law Center. Also worth noting that we are, even as cisgender folks, impacted by this stuff. It matters when we see restriction on the rights of folks to get gender-affirming medical care, the right of a state to restrict the medical care that our children receive matters to all of us.
Shelby Chestnut: I think it's great that you lift that up because that's exactly what we've been talking about. That this is limiting healthcare access generally, and that actually everyone needs gender-affirming care. We all go to the doctor for specific reasons depending on who we are. To limit that access for one means to limit it for everyone. I think in this moment, we've been really connecting those dots around how do we think about poor people accessing healthcare. How do we think about women, and that includes transgender and cis women accessing healthcare, young people?
Certainly, I think we can all remember back to what it was like to go to the doctor as a young person. It's just terrifying in and of itself. Things are happening with your body that you're unfamiliar with. To limit trans kids' access to healthcare is just-- it's just outright cruel and just not right. I don't understand why lawmakers aren't instead focusing on how do we increase healthcare for everyone overall.
Certainly, this country is grappling with how limited our infrastructure is for healthcare in our third year of a global pandemic where many of our impacted communities lacked access to basic medical care and really could be here if they had had better access. It seems funny that they're prioritizing a community which, one needs greater healthcare, but also it's just telling that they are running out of things to attack and going for the most marginalized in our communities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet you point to joy. Tell me a bit about that joy, given that it is visibility day. Talk to me about the joy of organizing even in these moments of attack and cruelty.
Shelby Chestnut: I think for us at the Transgender Law Center, we have to keep a focus on joy and just celebrate the amazing victories that our communities have won and continue to win. Every day I get to wake up and go to work with a majority of staff who is Black and brown, who is transgender, and has the resources and means to fight, to support other people's liberation within the trans community. It's just such a gift and a blessing. Then to travel around the country and meet organizers who are risking so much of their own just personal safety to be visible and out in the community.
Again, I was just so taken aback by the sheer number of people at the Texas Capitol this week. It was phenomenal to see. There was people aging from two, three years old to elders working together, feeding each other, and just saying, "This is the community that we want. It doesn't matter what the state legislatures are going to do across this country, that we have each other's backs and we're celebrating each other."
I think back often to some of the young people I've met in this work over the years, and to see what lives they've gone on to lead when they're in a supportive community with supportive family and have the resources they need. It's just phenomenal to see young people reach their full potential, whether they're trans cis, what have you. We focus a lot on joy, partly because I think in this moment people try and limit our joy, and I think we're protective of each other, but also just celebrating the creativity that's in our community. It's such a gift.
Just this week we launched a series with IDO, which is a group that we've partnered with over the years, and it's focusing a lot on the stories and resiliency of trans people and to listen to these stories and interviews, it's been really grounding and centering for my own work. Those are the stories that we need to be telling, not the stories that are negative about us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to end on what I think is a celebratory note. I want to talk about Nebraska State Senator Cavanaugh, who has decided to hold up the entire state legislature for filibuster to protest a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors. We've been watching this closely here on The Takeaway. I'm just wondering again if that stands in part as a model for just this possibility that for all of the legislative violence, there's also this moment of legislative allyship.
Shelby Chestnut: I think that's a great story and I hope to see more legislators leading how she's leading and to see what she's saying. Coming out really as an ally is critical. I think too, in the news reports, I've listened to her. She's really articulated that the thing she's trying to draw attention to is she doesn't have much to lose here, and that she knows that a lot of these folks are taking on the stance that they're taking with trans healthcare, partly because they're seeking reelection and they're using it as a wedge issue.
I think what she's lifting up should be a model for everyone. I think people should be willing to take those risks. If they're elected to represent the citizens of their state, of their local municipality, they should be doing that. That includes transgender people. Kudos to her, and I hope more people follow suit.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Shelby Chestnut is the executive director, The Transgender Law Center. Shelby, thanks for being here today.
Shelby Chestnut: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:15:08] [END OF AUDIO]
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