Mental Health and the Criminalization of Transgender People

by Terra Anderson

How History is Repeating Itself in Current Legislation

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To say that transgender people have been socially, medically, and legally pushed out of society throughout history is not new news. However, with the tidal wave of new legislation that is currently threatening the transgender community we must get a grip on how historical arguments are taking on new faces to threaten trans futures and target trans youth.

We have seen time and time again that when an old version of hate against an oppressed group becomes socially intolerable, a new and more palatable one grows out of the rubble to carry the torch. The criminalization of transgender people is no different. Throughout history, whenever a law that regulates the public existence of transgender people falls out of moral favor, a new one takes its place.

Even though in the US we can no longer be locked up for being public about our identities, even though the diagnosis associated with our existence is slightly less perverse, even though some improvements have been made, as long as the basic beliefs that dehumanize trans people survive we are not safe.

As a transgender person myself, a therapist, and a gender equity educator for the health industries I am watching with disgust, terror, and a broken heart at how mental health rhetoric is being weaponized by politicians against the transgender population. I know the enduring nature of transphobia, so I have to be gentle with the part of me that still gets surprised when we fail to love each other better. If we are going to have any chance of getting ahead of these assaults on trans life we need to unpack how mental health has been and is being weaponized against the trans community.

One of the most recycled justifications used to dehumanize transgender people is the belief that not conforming to gender assignment, roles, and norms indicates pathology.

This argument does two things to successfully oppress trans people:

  1. Takes transgender health out of the sympathetic realm of medical necessity.
  2. Subjects transgender people to the stigma associated with mental “illness,” falsely characterizing us a perverted, unpredictable, and dangerous.

Historically, because transgender people were associated with mental illness and violence, legislative action was taken to criminalize being transgender in the name of “protecting” communities. While many of these laws have been overturned, this same stigma is informing new legislation that is every bit as inhumane and largely targets trans youth.

Young people are leading the charge to explore more fully expressed ways of being and forging the LGBTQIA+ community further into the light. Seriously, these kids are my heart and my hope for humanity. Of course anyone still frightened by gender nonconformity is shaking in their boots. But the innocence of children is a powerful social motivator, which makes the historical association between trans-ness and mental illness the perfect spin to pass anti-trans legislation.

In recent decades, the (much needed) cultural shift that has reframed our rhetoric from talking about mental “illness” to talking about mental health has not done what it needed to do to destigmatize trans-ness. Instead, anti-trans legislation now largely targets transgender youth under the guise of “healthy” childhood development. This legislation treats the existence of trans-ness like an ideology that has the potential to corrupt the health and innocence of young people. Let’s set the record right. Trans-ness is not an “ideology” but a life experience, and trans children are not corrupting agents, they are human beings whose identity development has weathered incredible social, cultural, and institutional odds to survive.

However, this flood of legislation not only positions trans-ness as a threat to children’s health, it criminalizes the adults that support transgender kids.

Being transgender is not something children do but rather who they are, which means this legislation effectively criminalizes supporting these youth in learning about their identities, seeking refuge from bullies, and asking for medical relief.

On the day I am writing this, Florida’s House of Representatives passed HB 1557 otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill which prohibits teachers and school counselors from discussion of gender or sexual orientation.

The bill labels these topics not “developmentally appropriate” though the field of developmental psychology has confidently established that children start to know their gender at ages 3-5 years old.

Those who support this bill argue that parents have the right to control the narrative that their children are exposed to around gender identity, prioritizing potentially bigoted parental comfort over the health, education, and safety of LGBTQIA+ youth.

Oh, you want to talk about family sovereignty? Sure, let’s.

What is happening in our political climate regarding the transgender population is not about parental rights and it is not about mental health. When in the same week parents in Florida get the freedom to withhold gender affirming education from their children and parents in Texas get labeled “child abusers” for offering gender affirming healthcare to their kids, this is NOT about family sovereignty. This is about maintaining the false narrative that trans-ness is a danger to society.

Let’s take a look at what happened in Texas this week. In an egregious assault on trans youth and their families, Texas Governor, Greg Abbott labeled gender-affirming medical care for trans youth “child abuse” and ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate transgender children, their families, teachers, and doctors who are suspected of aiding these children in seeking medical relief. Texas is now subjecting all caretakers and the “general public” to criminal punishment for aiding in gender-affirming healthcare for youth.

These anti-trans political actions demonstrate that politicians still believe that gender non-conformity and the transgender experience is dangerous and something that communities need “protecting” from. Make no mistake, this is not about protecting the mental health of youth, this is about maintaining the deplorable association between the transgender community and mental illness.

I, for one, will not allow mental health to be weaponized against our trans youth.

Trans health is health.

Criminalizing our wellbeing will not erase us. We are resilient and we are rising. What it will do is inflame the mental health crisis that already plagues trans youth. They are the ones who need protecting.

What can you do? Aside from calling your legislators and donating to trans relief funds, believe trans children when they tell you what they need, give them equitable access to representative education, and uplift affirming caregivers.

To all the trans kiddos, may you have a hero who will fight with you.

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