Lawyer Chase Strangio on “genocidal” anti-trans laws—and resistance

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany and I got to say, I’m feeling emotional. This past week, I had to say goodbye to some really good friends. Blanca, Pray Tell, Angel the entire House of Evangelista and so many more, because after three seasons, Pose came to an end on Sunday. Now, I’m not going to drop any spoilers, but I have to pay my respects. The series about the 1980s New York ballroom scene was truly groundbreaking, and every time I watched it, it felt like a warm hug. It was the first show to have a cast full of Black and Latinx, trans and queer actors. It was the first show to have a trans woman of color write and direct, shout out to Janet Mock. It even set a record for having the largest LGBTQ crew of all time. Even more importantly, Pose celebrated queer brilliance and creativity and resilience. As Janet Mock said, the show was all about making a way out of no way. Even in the darkest times of the AIDS crisis, it taught us about the strength of the human spirit, and it made me cry practically every episode. So as we continue in Pride Month, there are many lessons from Pose for all of us to take forward. The power of joy as a form of resistance and love, the importance of celebrating people for who they are and how they define themselves, not what the world says they are, the importance of chosen family and fighting for our loved ones. And of course, LGBTQ folks shouldn’t have to be quite so resilient. More specifically, our systems and society shouldn’t make being yourself so damn difficult. We may no longer have Pose, but our collective work to create the kind of world where we can all exist exactly as we are that remains. As Blanca played by the indomitable MJ Rodriguez said — 

Blanca played by MJ Rodriguez We made a statement. That we deserve to dream and have our dreams fulfilled. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham We are UNDISTRACTED

On the show today, Chase Strangio. I will be talking to the ACLU lawyer about the record breaking number of anti-trans bills we’ve seen this year and what these cruel laws are really about. 

Chase Strangio What Republican lawmakers are saying is it’s bad to be trans. It hurts people to be trans. Let’s use the power of the government to stop people from being trans. And I think we should be responding with the urgency of a project that has a lot of genocidal impulses. 

That’s coming up, but first, it’s your “UNtrending News.”

In August, Minnesota will become the first state to stop separating incarcerated moms and their newborns. Currently, state law says that mothers in prison are only allowed to be with their babies for two or three days and often just hours before they’re taken to a relative or to the foster care system. Research shows that this triggers higher rates of postpartum depression in mothers and severs bonding with their infants during a critical period of mental and physical development. It’s also just morally repugnant. Here’s what Jennifer Brown, who went to prison when she was four months pregnant, had to say — 

Jennifer Brown 48 hours after giving birth to him I had to pass him over to people that I didn’t even know. And that was the hardest part, wanting to hold him, kiss him, there was a lot of emotions like I’m getting emotional right now. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Now, thanks to mothers like Jennifer who have been sharing their stories and advocates like her who have been lobbying for change, women in Minnesota will no longer experience this. Instead, they’ll get to live with their newborns for up to a year in a community based program. This is such an important win, but really this isn’t even ideal because we shouldn’t be incarcerating people in the first place, certainly not pregnant people. We should be ending prison births, period, and abolishing this thing we call the carceral state. But for now, for pregnant folks in prison, I hope this program inspires new legislation across the country. 

Next, from the Department of Good Ideas, Bangladesh will be offering tax breaks to companies who hire transgender people. Last week, the country’s finance minister unveiled a new program which will give a five percent tax cut to businesses that hire more than 100 workers or 10 percent of their total workforce from the trans community. The minister said the incentive is designed to inspire a rise in living standards for trans folks. Bangladesh has more than 200,000 trans people who, just like trans people in the U.S., face extremely high rates of discrimination, violence and unemployment. I think this sounds like a powerful idea. And other countries like Argentina and Brazil have also introduced programs to fight transgender unemployment. In this country, trans people experience unemployment at three times the rate of the general population. Perhaps America should think about getting on board. 

And lastly, I know you’ve been hearing this news everywhere, but I have to show some love to high school valedictorian Paxton Smith. You’ve seen her all over your Instagram feed. She’s the 18 year old from Dallas who recently swapped out her pre-approved commencement speech in favor of calling out her state’s recent abortion ban. Paxton was supposed to talk about the harmful influence of media on young people, but that was before Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law in May that will effectively ban all abortions after six weeks, even in cases of rape or incest. And when Paxton got to the podium, she surprised everyone by pulling a new, much more meaningful speech from her bra. 

Paxton Smith I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights, a war on the rights of your mothers, a war on the rights of your sisters, a war on the rights of your daughters, we cannot stay silent. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I have goosebumps. This — this is how we got to show up in the world. A good reminder that you do not have to ask permission or even forgiveness to stand up for what you believe in and to fight for what is so clearly right. We are absolutely inspired by you, Paxton. 

Coming up, I’ll be talking to trans rights attorney Chase Strangio about what’s really behind the more than 100 anti-trans bills introduced this year right after this short break. 

And we are back. We are not even halfway through the year and 2021 has already been declared the worst year in U.S. history for legislative attacks against the LGBTQ community, particularly against transgender people. GOP lawmakers across 33 states have already introduced more than 100 bills aimed at restricting the rights of trans folks, with most aiming to Black youth from playing on sports teams and accessing gender affirming medical care. Last week, on the first day of Pride Month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law another anti-trans sports ban. So what are we to make of this wave, this barrage of anti trans-legislation? Chase Strangio is a lawyer and the deputy director of transgender justice at the ACLU. He’s represented Chelsea Manning, he’s argued before the Supreme Court in a landmark case, and now he’s working tirelessly to combat those Republican led bills. And unlike how Governor DeSantis is ringing in Pride, talking to Chase is how I wanted to make sure we recognized Pride Month. Chase, thanks so much for being here. 

Chase Strangio Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  You know, I want to say happy Pride. And I also recognize that it has already been a really tough year for trans folks. The attacks really haven’t stopped coming. I mean, on June 1st, the first day of Pride month, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning trans girls from playing on public school teams that matched their gender identity. I’d love to know just off top what you think of this latest law targeting trans youth and the, I’d say, curious timing of it all?

Chase Strangio Yeah, no. So leave it to Governor to DeSantis to sign the bill on June 1st. Right? You know, this is — this — the legislative session in Florida has been a lot like what we’ve seen around the country where we’ve had multiple bills targeting trans people. The legislature seems to be sort of singularly focused on stopping people from voting, hurting trans kids and banning protests. That is sort of the theme of 2021 when it comes to state legislative sessions. The theme in the trans sports discourse in state legislatures is that there is no actual problem. Not one state hearing, not one floor debate has actually identified a single trans athlete competing in the state, let alone one dominating in sports. And yet, you know, these resources this time, taxpayer dollars are being used to enact these really harmful bans on trans girls competing in sports and in the process of doing so, you know, expand the reach of the government into the policing the bodies of all young women and girl athletes. And that, I think, is going to be the legacy of these new laws. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And like you’ve said, this is not just happening in Florida. We saw trans student athletes being targeted by GOP governors in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee. And this is not all that’s happening. 

Chase Strangio Yeah, no, this is definitely a priority among Republican led state governments. Arkansas passed two bans on trans women and girls competing in sports like as if one wasn’t enough. They also were the only state to ban health care for trans young people, which is truly dangerous law that the governor, you know, conservative Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas actually vetoed. And then, of course, the legislature overrode the veto within 24 hours. But we’re just seeing the breadth of these laws, the investment in moving them. Alabama, for example, though, they only ended up passing a sports ban. They had a felony ban on health care up to age 19, that they had been moving up until their last legislative day on May 17th. And it was HB 1. It was the very first bill filed. So we’re in the middle of a pandemic and you have states trying to make it a felony for doctors to treat kids and adolescents with, you know, standard of care medicine. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I really want to get down to the point here, though, right? Because in Texas alone, lawmakers introduced 13 different anti-trans bills just this past session, like, what the hell is really going on? What is this war against transgender youth really about? 

Chase Strangio There’s multiple ways to look at it. I think in one sense, this is the same sort of moralistic panic that we’ve seen for decades, particularly from the GOP, that you can sort of trace back to Anita Bryant or Phyllis Schlafly and sort of this brand of white conservative feminism that at its core likes to evoke panic about the idea that there are people that are sort of inherently threatening the centrality of the white heterosexual Christian family, which, of course, has been a centerpiece of the United States state building project. So I think this is another manifestation of that. And it’s a direct pivot in the LGBTQ context from, you know, they lost the fight to stop marriage equality. You know, they lose at the Supreme Court immediately pivot to attacking trans people. And this new impulse that’s really taken form between 2019 and 2021 has at its core a goal of stopping people from being trans. And this is really dangerous for many reasons. But I mean, centrally, it’s just — it’s a eugenics project. To say there’s a population of people, we think there’s too many of them, let’s pass policies to prevent them from existing. And when you listen to the debates, particularly in the health care bills, but also in the sports bills, what Republican lawmakers are saying is it’s bad to be trans. It hurts people to be trans. Let’s use the power of the government to stop people from being trans. And I think we should be responding with the urgency of a project that has a lot of genocidal impulses, because that is ultimately what’s going to happen. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And that gets lost in the politics and the misinformation, the actual lives of young trans people. What kinds of consequences could these laws really have for trans youth, especially the ones that ban access to health care? 

Chase Strangio You know, we’re talking about care that every major medical association supports. So the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Endocrine Society, these are not radical organizations. These are just like mainstream medicine, saying this care is necessary, this care is safe and this care is lifesaving. And then the government saying, nope, we’re going to take it away. And we don’t really even have metrics for the level of trauma that will cause. What we do know is not having the care at all is incredibly damaging and that it increases rates of suicidality and other forms of self-harm. It increases the likelihood that people would turn to unsafe and unregulated black markets for care. So we know that. We don’t even know if we can speculate. But the idea of pulling people off of care is just — it’s dystopian. I mean, it’s terrifying because you have kids who, you know, maybe they are lucky enough to have parental support. They’re lucky enough to have health insurance. So they’ve been on hormone, you know, puberty suppressant treatment. They never had to go through their, you know, endogenous or sort of naturally occurring puberty. And that — that’s life saving. And then now all of a sudden in Arkansas, no one’s going to be able to provide that care in the entire state. And, you know, not unlike abortion, what will happen is that people who are wealthier will find ways to leave the state, still uprooting families and communities, still finding access. But people who don’t, people who don’t have that access will simply have no care or incredibly unsafe care. And so the notion that these bills are protecting anyone is completely false and they’re going to have catastrophic consequences. We had endocrinologists testifying in Arkansas telling lawmakers that kids were going to die and that they looked them in the face and said, I’m going to call you every single time one of my patients dies and they just passed — they just passed it anyways. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham What have you been personally hearing from — from trans youth, trans people, their loved ones about these bills? Like, how is this hitting people? How afraid are they? 

Chase Strangio Yeah, I mean, it’s been so hard, I have to say, like, I’ve been doing this work a long time, I’ve been at the ACLU for eight and a half years. I have definitely witnessed a lot of horrible things. And there’s just something that — about the cruelty of this, that — that just like hits really hard because you have like seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 year olds going begging the government not to do this. And like, no kids should have to go testify before their government to just be like, please don’t try to kill me. And parents, too, who are just like, you know, I know as a parent, it’s like you’re just like you’re just trying to make do you’re — you’re like — you love your kid. You have no idea how medicine works. If you’re not a doctor, you’re just like, I just want the best for my kid, you know? And now all of a sudden, the state is saying like, no. And then in Texas, you know, thankfully, this bill that passed, they had a bill that would have made it a form of child abuse for parents to affirm their kids. And so, you know, the notion that Child Protective Services could come take a kid away if that parent was, you know, facilitating their ability to access health care. And — and definitely it was, you know, routinely hearing from parents, especially by young people as well, just in sheer panic about what this would mean for them, what it would mean for their families, what would it mean for their health care. And I think one of the things that really disturbs me is that, you know, Arkansas is the only state that passed one of these health care bans this year. But with nine states essentially banning trans girls from sports in next session, all of those states are going to focus on health care. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Right. So several of these anti-trans bills are currently making their way up through the courts. Right? The fight continues. What cases are your priorities now? Like are there any cases we should be keeping our eyes on in particular? Because I’m — I’m no lawyer, but these anti trans health care bans, they’ve got to be completely unconstitutional, correct? 

Chase Strangio I mean, yes, I think they’re completely unconstitutional. And I think it’s very clear that they are. I mean, the scary thing, of course, is that the federal judiciary has been transformed under the Trump administration dramatically. The Supreme Court obviously has a 6-3 conservative majority, which is terrifying. And so we — you know, we are challenging these bills in court. We have a lawsuit in Arkansas over their health care ban. We have a recently filed lawsuit in West Virginia over their sports ban. We are, you know, continuing to argue that the sports bans violate Title IX, which is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, as well as the equal protection clause of the Constitution, the health care bans. We have our lawsuit in Arkansas, you know, based on the equal protection violations inherent in these laws. So one of the things about the health care bans is it bans the care for trans people, but all of the hormone therapy and surgical treatment that the — that the laws prohibit and again, it’s mostly hormone therapy because we’re talking about people under 18 are provided to non transgender youth. So clear equal protection violation. And then there’s other sort of free speech issues in that law as well, because it prohibits even the referral for care. So that infringes the First Amendment rights of the doctors. And we have another lawsuit that will be filed shortly in Tennessee, two lawsuits in Tennessee, actually, one over their sports ban, and then one, Tennessee passed a law requiring businesses to post a sign if they allow trans people to use the bathroom. And we are suing Tennessee over that law because that is a very clear First Amendment violation, because it is compelled speech. The government cannot mandate private individuals or businesses to speak as such. And — and so we will also be challenging that law in court. I think one thing that is hard, you know, just as an advocate is, you know, even if we can ultimately prevail in court. And again, that’s the question mark given how hostile and conservative the courts are. And even the conversation about these bills and the debate is so harmful to trans people, the idea that, you know, for particularly for young people, that their existence is a legitimate subject for debate at the highest levels of government is — is obviously demoralizing. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  I want to talk a little bit more about that, specifically in terms of how this all affects you. You’ve been at the forefront of fighting against these anti-trans bills and more work for a long time. I know it’s incredibly important, but I also know it can’t possibly be easy. What drives your dedication to this work? 

Chase Strangio I mean, I think, you know, so I think in general, I think one of the things that’s always true is that it’s hard to advocate and be an advocate in a space where the things you’re advocating for personally implicate your identity and your sort of your core sense of who you are. It requires a lot of compartmentalizing and that, you know, in the long term probably isn’t great for one’s health and well-being. And so I think I’m definitely tapped into that after doing this for — for many years. But I mean, what keeps me going is the fact that I love being trans and having the ability to exist as myself has been so liberating. And it just the idea that the government or private actors with power would try to constrain people’s opportunities to realize their full magic and potential is just — I just can’t stand for that. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So a year ago in June 2020, you made history as part of the ACLU legal team that won the Supreme Court ruling that protects LGBTQ rights in the workplace. It was one of the most important legal decisions in history, certainly in LGBTQ history, but I’d say really history for all of us. What did that victory mean to you? 

Chase Strangio Oh, it was so good, I mean, you know, I — so I’m like one of these people and like I really like distrust the law and I’m so skeptical. But, you know, winning a case like at the Supreme Court, it just — it was so epic, especially in Covid like this was our our life was working on his case and not just our life. It was, you know, it was our client’s actual life. You know, the case involved three different individuals who were fired. One, Amy Stevens was fired for being trans. Two, six gay men, were fired for being gay. And the question before the Supreme Court was, does Title VII, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment, also prohibit discrimination because someone is LGBTQ? And lower courts have said, yes, you know, in large part because you actually, you know, can’t discriminate against someone for being trans or being LGB without taking into account their sex. Like,it’s largely based on sex stereotypes or even just the very fact of someone’s sex. Like if you’re assigned male at birth and you get fired for coming to work, as you know, in typical sort of feminine clothes, then you’re being fired for something that someone assigned female at birth would not be fired for. That’s sex discrimination. That was our argument. And we did not want this court to take this case, even though Justice Ginsburg was thankfully still alive at this time. It was still a five four conservative majority court. We did not think it was something that we could win. And ultimately, we — we made conservative arguments in many ways to try to appeal to Justice Gorsuch, who is known as a textualist. And then in June, you know, when we won the case last year, it was — it was a 6-3 opinion. So not only did Gorsuch, you know, write the opinion, but the chief, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined the opinion along with the four liberals, because at the time that included Justice Ginsburg, it was really incredible. It was such a vindication of, you know, LGBTQ protections. And one other thing I’ll say about it is that, you know, it was an employment case, but it applies to all federal laws that prohibit sex discrimination, which covers education and health care and credit and housing, including shelter. And had we lost the case, the Biden administration would not be able to do a lot of what I think they will be able to do in the regulatory context, because all of that executive action is predicated on an interpretation of federal law that has now been validated by the Supreme Court. And — and that is going to be instrumental in what we can ask for from the federal government, you know, for the next four years and far beyond that. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So I know I have to let you get back to work because there’s a lot of it. But when I kind of survey the landscape, on the one hand, some things seem to be evolving. People are learning more about trans issues from films like Disclosure and Elliot Page’s conversation with Oprah. We have Dr. Rachel Levine in the administration. Last year’s rally for Black Trans Lives in Brooklyn was incredibly inspirational. We had Raquel Willis on a couple of months ago to talk about that and lots of other things. And still, the stats are frightening. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for trans people, with 44 reported victims, the majority trans women of color. At least 27 trans people have already been killed this year. And that doesn’t even account for all of the injustice in living that we’ve been talking about this whole time. Other than fighting in the courts, where do we go from here? 

Chase Strangio So I have to say, I think fighting in the courts is — is important, but it ultimately is not going to be the revolution because the courts are just inherently, you know, tied up with the law, which is always sort of grounded as it is in our constitutional framework, which is borne of maintaining slavery. It was born of genocide. And that is part of what comes with the law always. And it adapts for that purpose. And because of that, like I remember at the Brooklyn Liberation March last year, which was on June 14th, 2020 and Raquel had that incredible speech and what like fifteen thousand people showed up outside the Brooklyn Museum. I looked at that and thought, you know what, we don’t have to win this case like this is it. And I still believe that. Granted, when we won the case the next day, I was like, I’ll take both. But we can’t win in the courts if people aren’t moving the public conversation because the courts are made up of humans and those human beings are living in the world and they’re responding to it. And so I believe that, you know, the work is about investing in trans leadership, particularly in these states where people are under just nonstop assault. And then, you know, I think too, that because so much of the anti-trans policy is able to flourish because people fundamentally have not challenged their own anti-trans perceptions of the world that, you know, their cultural work, the art work, the self-work it’s so much a part of this, it’s like watch Disclosure and analyze what messaging we’ve internalized You know watch other projects that are led, you know, and created by trans people that are changing the conversations that we can and do have and sort of shifting what we believe to be possible in our lives, because I think we all have obviously mindset work to do. We have to push our families. We have to push our communities. We certainly don’t have to be a lawyer. You certainly don’t have to be a policy advocate to do the the work of changing the conditions under which people are living. And there’s just so much to do. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham There is so much work for all of us to do, and we know that you are doing a lot of it, especially, I mean, all year round, but especially, of course, during Pride. You’ve got your regular legal work. You’ve got appearances at Pride events, conversations like these that you’re having. Do you give yourself a moment for actual Pride? Do you — do you celebrate? 

Chase Strangio You know, I think this year I’m just like, I can barely tolerate it, and I think because there’s a way in which Pride has become so co-opted by corporations and everything has turned into a rainbow logo. And I’m like, great, but where were you like when Arkansas was passing that bill? And we know — we know from the legislative work in the States that that’s one of the single most powerful influences on state politics is corporate engagement. It doesn’t — I would rather it not be that way, but it is. And that, you know, if every company that put out a Pride display or changed their logo to a rainbow actually did something in the state legislatures none of these bills would pass. And so I’m having a hard time reconciling that with the sort of Pride moment or month or whatever it is that we’re in. I mean, that said, I mean, I have Pride all the time. I’m — I literally am around queer and trans people all the time. You know, I love Summer in New York, which is where I live. I love going to Riis Beach with all of the queer and trans people, you know. So there is definitely — I definitely will take the liberties of — of having my moments. I think that because of sort of the commodification and corporatization of — of Pride, that sort of leverages queer magic but does nothing for queer survival that is just can be hard to stomach. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I definitely hear that. And I think that is good, provocative thinking for all of us to take because we work at these places and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be making those demands inside while they’re being made from the outside, too. 

Chase Strangio Yes. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I appreciate you, Chase. Appreciate you. Always appreciate you for having this conversation. 

Chase Strangio Thank you for everything. And, you know, this is how we do the work. We just keep talking about what — what — what’s wrong and what’s possible. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s right. What’s wrong and what’s possible. Chase Strangio is the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice. If every company that put out a Pride display or changed their logo to a rainbow actually did something in the state legislatures, none of these bills would pass. Amen. I understand Chase’s frustration with the corporate hypocrisy of Pride month. Pride began as a protest, a rebellion led by Black and Latinx trans and queer people against police repression that literally criminalized their identity. But these days, Pride can be seen as nothing more than a branded holiday. Companies love to wave their rainbow flags and talk up their support for the LGBTQ community. But behind the scenes, they’re often doing the exact opposite. So that’s right. I’m talking to you, AT&T, Home Depot, General Electric, FedEx, UPS, Verizon and Pfizer. You may say you celebrate Pride, but according to Forbes, you made large donations to homophobic and transphobic politicians. And then there’s Wal-Mart, Amazon and McDonald’s that have all donated to members of Congress who voted against the Equality Act. Look, it’s not what you say is what you do that matters. And just like we need corporations to stand up against voter suppression, companies need to wield their power to stop anti LGBTQ legislation too. A corporation’s social responsibility extends far beyond their rainbow Twitter banner. We see your hypocrisy and we won’t let you forget it. 

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

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I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free y’all.