‘This Will Have Devastating Results’

ACLU news conference

'This Will Have Devastating Results'

LGBTQ advocates warn of harm to young people and the state’s economy from proposed anti-transgender legislation.

by jesse fox mayshark • march 4, 2021


Fox schweiger, top right, a transgender student from knoxville, speaks during an ACLU news conference.

Fox Schweiger began his gender transition as a freshman attending a private high school in Knox County. His identification as a male was supported by his parents and friends, but not by his school’s administrators.

The Legislature is considering bills that would restrict trans youths' athletic participation and access to medical therapy.

“For most kids, this is already a time of heightened stress,” Schweiger said during a virtual news conference on Wednesday organized by the ACLU of Tennessee. “While most of my friends and peers were quick to adopt my new name and pronouns, the administration and the teachers were not. I was outed multiple times by teachers and administrators and pulled into meetings with the highest level admin in an attempt to intimidate me out of using the bathrooms on campus.”

Schweiger, now a college freshman, said that if anti-transgender bills pending before the state Legislature become law, life will be made even harder for students like him across the state. 

“Experiencing discrimination every single day has extreme effects on a person's health,” said Schweiger, who did not name the school he attended. “I experienced both physical and mental health struggles that stemmed from the constant stress of existing in an environment that was explicitly opposed to my very existence.”

The ACLU and LGBTQ advocates across Tennessee have mobilized against several bills in this year’s legislative session. The Tennessee Equality Project, the state’s leading gay and trans rights group, has dubbed the proposed laws the “Slate of Hate.”

The most high-profile bill would require student athletes in public middle and high schools to compete on teams with their birth gender rather than their gender identity. It has already passed the state Senate and appears headed for easy passage in the House as well. Gov. Bill Lee has endorsed the bill, saying that allowing trans female students to compete with other girls “will destroy women’s sports.”

State Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, the Senate sponsor of the bill, told the Associated Press, “This bill is about guaranteeing safety and a level playing field for girl athletes on middle and high school teams.”

But on the other side of that equation, Schweiger — sporting a beard — said that the bill would force trans male students like him to compete on girls’ teams.

“If I were still in high school, these bills would force me to play on a team of cis girls and use the girls bathroom, which nobody wants,” he said. (Cis is short for cisgender, which refers to people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.)

Also working its way through the Legislature is a bill that would make it illegal for medical professionals to provide “sexual identity change therapy” to minors, unless their parents first provided letters of recommendation for the therapy from at least three physicians. Violations would be prosecuted as child abuse.

Chase Strangio, the ACLU’s national deputy director for transgender justice, said denying access to healthcare for young trans people would be harmful.

“What we have here is a clear effort to eradicate trans-ness, to target trans young people, that is so out of step with both the medical science which shows that the incidence of self-harm, the incidence of anxiety and depression go down substantially when trans youth are affirmed in their gender and given access to the health care that is being suggested to be criminalized,” said Strangio, a trans man himself.

The bills are part of a nationwide push in Republican-controlled legislatures. An analysis by the Tennessean newspaper found similar or identical legislation in at least 21 states, orchestrated by Christian conservative groups including the Alliance Defending Freedom

The coordinated effort is part of a longer-term assault on LGBTQ rights, said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign. After earlier efforts to undermine marriage equality and stir concern about who can use public bathrooms, Oakley said raising alarms about trans youth is the latest gambit.

Aly Chapman, co-chair and policy coordinator for GLSEN Tennessee, which advocates for LGBTQ students, painted the bills’ impacts in stark terms.

“This will have devastating results in the classroom, hallways, on the playing field, and in their homes,” said Chapman, who is Schweiger’s mother. “You speak with these kids, parents, caregivers and the many supportive teachers of transgender kids, they will tell you the real consequences of these policies may cause irreparable harm and even death.”

Joe Woolley, CEO of the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce, warned of economic consequences as well. He invoked North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which made it illegal for transgender people to use public restrooms assigned to their gender identity. The bill prompted boycotts of the state by many professional associations, sports leagues and touring musicians. The North Carolina Legislature repealed it a year later.

“We are about to step in front of a speeding bus and get run over if we are not careful,” Woolley said. “We have seen the ramifications — $3.76 billion is the conservative estimate of what North Carolina lost in the bathroom bill.”

He said that, for example, Nashville’s bid for the 2026 World Cup could be endangered by the legislation.

Still, the speakers at the virtual news conference said they expect at least the student athlete bill to pass. Strangio promised it would be challenged in court.

“Both the anti-trans sports bill and the medical care ban are unconstitutional,” he said. “They will invite litigation, and they will hurt a lot of people.”