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'These bills are a question of power': Trans kids stand up to Mo. lawmakers

  • 8 min to read
'These bills are a question of power': Trans kids stand up to Mo. lawmakers

As the signup sheet for boys volleyball tryouts was posted at the end of gym class, Miles had a sinking feeling. It wasn’t his athletic prowess the eighth grader doubted. It was the all too familiar sensation of being othered from his peers.

“The energy in that environment was not one where I was being respected,” Miles said. “Even if it’s not direct, you can tell if someone truly respects you and has empathy for you.”

The other boys seemed to be getting consistent feedback from the coaches. He realized at the end of the day he had received very little.

“These are, like, the perfect people, you know, the perfect sports players,” he said. “I don’t look like that, so...”

Miles didn’t make the team. He didn’t know if it was because he wasn’t good enough or if it was because he is a transgender boy. He said he knew some of the parents disapproved of him being on the team and wondered if the coaches saw him as too big of a liability.

“I don’t think from their perspective that I’d be worth looking at,” he said.

Miles sits outside the Senate Committee Room 1

Miles sits outside the Senate Committee Room 1, waiting to testify against SB 442 on March 10, 2021 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The bill, sponsored by Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, would prohibit medical providers from providing gender-affirming care for trans children. Miles, whose last name has been witheld at his parents’ request, is 14 years old but knew his gender identity as a young child. For the past 18 months he has been active in opposing legislation that would limit the rights of kids like him. “Coming here, it's kind of one of the things for me where it's like, you kind of have to do it,” Miles said after testifying. “It just hits me afterwards of how difficult it is.”

Miles is one of many transgender kids in America who have been forced to witness adults and elected officials grapple, debate and sometimes, for the sake of keeping the peace, ignore their trans identity.

While navigating the same adolescent obstacles as their cisgender peers, who identify with the sex assigned at their birth, trans kids face higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation. This is exacerbated when they are unable to access medical transition care like hormone blockers, which have been shown to decrease the rates of suicide in trans adolescents.

Legislating childhood

For the second spring in a row, Miles and his mother, Danielle, have made the two-hour drive to Jefferson City from their St. Louis home multiple times.

States across the country have introduced anti-trans bills. At the start of the session, Missouri introduced nine bills and was second only to Texas with 12. Many of these bills seek to control transition-related medical care for youths by outright denying it and in some cases criminalizing parents if they seek it for their trans child. Other bills require trans kids who want to be athletes to participate in sports according to their gender assigned at birth.

Miles and his family testify against HB 33

Miles, left, and his family testify against House Bill 33 on March 10 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Suzie Pollock, R-Lebanon, would prohibit medical providers from providing gender-affirming care for transgender children. It would also have parents who allow their children to undergo gender-affirming care reported to the Department of Social Services for child abuse. “They’re attacking my child, they’re attacking me, they’re questioning me as I parent,” Danielle, Miles’ mother, said after the hearing. “They have no idea how sad my kid was before. They weren’t there. Back in the day when Miles was not as successful and happy and well adjusted is he is now, they weren’t there.”

Miles said that when he is testifying at the Capitol, he tries not to dwell on the stakes of each bill or the often invalidating testimony of those in support of the legislation.

“The thing is, I’m used to it by now,” he said, “which isn’t great.”

Miles said he testifies for younger trans kids in the hopes that they won’t have to hear and fight the same rhetoric he has come up against.

“I’m obligated to be here,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you can’t think about whether or not it’s gonna be good for you.”

With nationwide coverage of the legislation, transgender kids are once again the topic of debate across the country. Social media has become inundated with videos of trans people of all ages testifying in front of lawmakers in state houses around the country. Though the laws in Missouri are unlikely to reach Gov. Mike Parson’s desk in 2021, parents and doctors say they are already seeing the impact that the dehumanizing rhetoric has caused.

A doctor in Arkansas, where they recently passed a bill that bans medical transition care to patients under age, said four transgender patients from her clinic have attempted suicide since the bill’s passing.

Danielle, Miles, and Cesi ride home from a meeting with Rep. Barbara Phifer

From left, Miles’ mother Danielle, Miles, and Miles’ partner Cesi ride home from a meeting with Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-St. Louis, on April 11, 2021 in St. Louis. The meeting, hosted in Phifer’s backyard and attended by lawmakers, activists who oppose anti-trans legislation and parents of trans children, was organized after HJR 53 was voted out of the House Rules Committee. HRJ 53, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, would propose a Constitutional amendment banning trans children from competing on the sports team of their gender identity. If passed, the resolution would go to voters as a proposed Constitutional amendment. Attendees of Phifer’s meeting brainstormed ideas for her speech opposing the resolution and strategized which Republican lawmakers might be convinced to vote against it.

Miles said he is not surprised that transgender people are once again in the eye of the culture war hurricane, “(it’s) kind of obvious, you know. Trans people aren’t the most respected.”

Transgender people were also villainized during the conversation around North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill,” which required all people to use the public bathroom that corresponds to their gender assigned at birth. Protecting children from predators was the primary motivation for the bill, according to its supporters. But LGBTQ activists argued the rhetoric dehumanized trans women and exploited existing transphobic archetypes.

Protecting Women’s Sports

The national trend of discriminatory legislation has been on the rise since 2015. President Joe Biden signed an executive order earlier this year to reverse his predecessor’s ban on transgender people serving in the military.

Like the trans panic around bathroom bills, Republican lawmakers in states with a conservative majority began to invoke the need for protection. The three-word mantra, “save girls’ sports,” is a common thread that quickly surfaced when searching all the state databases for 2021 anti-trans legislation. It was used in most bills as either the title or was included in the language.

Miles has been active in testifying against anti-trans legislation for over a year

Miles has been active in testifying against anti-trans legislation for over a year. Because of that, he said, the first thing people might think of when they meet him is that he’s trans. “I wish that people would acknowledge that but also, just treat me like everyone else,” he said. “I wish that they would see me first for how I treat people and how I want to be treated.” Miles’ mom noted that, for people who know him, Miles being trans is the least-interesting thing about him. He is a gifted artist. He spends his afternoons after school skateboarding. He is teaching himself how to speak Korean. He will play an online game that challenges him identify every country on a map for fun, and he can seemingly name every K-Pop singer on the charts. Here, he is photographed in his room on March 31, 2021, after tapping out a few notes on his keyboard.

Prominent female athletes have been adamant that they do not need protection. Professional athletes like tennis icon Billie Jean King and U.S. Women’s Soccer’s Megan Rapinoe have instead strongly advocated in support of their transgender peers.

Rapinoe said in a New York Times opinion article in March: “As a woman who has played sports my whole life, I know that the threats to women’s and girls’ sports are lack of funding, resources and media coverage; sexual harassment; and unequal pay.”

Patrick Sasser is a coach at Rock Bridge High School and father to a transgender daughter, Oliver. The Columbia dad said in his 14-year-long career coaching boys and girls track, he has not seen trans girls and women as the individuals who threaten the integrity of women’s sports.

“If you want to protect the sanctity of women’s sports, let’s get predatory coaches out of sport, let’s have that be our focus,” Sasser said. “That is way more of an epidemic and a problem than having trans people competing in sports.”

Miles uses oil pastels to create an abstract picture

Scrubbing green onto yellow, Miles uses oil pastels to create an abstract picture on March 31 in the basement of his family’s home in St. Louis. The room is plastered with examples of Miles’ art, be they paintings or pencil sketeches, that range from fan art of K-Pop singers to abstract pieces. “I didn’t use a lot of technology growing up,” Miles said, noting he only got a phone a year ago. For Miles, art filled that space.

Despite the prevalence of the many anti-transgender bills appearing in state houses nationally, polls suggest legislation targeting trans people is deeply unpopular among all political identities. According to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, only 25% of Democrats, 29% of Republicans and 28% of Independents said they support legislation prohibiting trans athletes from joining sports teams that match their gender identity.

A question of power

Though the legislation impacts all trans people, the primary debate nationwide centers around the fear that female transgender athletes have an inherent competitive advantage over cisgender women.

Research does show that people assigned male at birth have a 10 to 12% advantage in athletic ability compared to those assigned female at birth. But that advantage may have little to do with the male sex hormone, said pediatrician and geneticist Eric Vilain in an interview with NPR.

“Higher levels of the male hormone testosterone are associated with better performance only in a very small number of athletic disciplines — 400 meters, 800 meters, hammer throw, pole vault,” the researcher said. “And it certainly does not explain the whole 10% difference.”

Danielle comes to collect Miles for dinner

Miles’ mom Danielle comes to collect him for dinner on March 31 at the family’s home in St. Louis. Miles says that, although respecting his identity should be considered the minimum, he’s grateful his parents do so. “After what a lot of my friends have been through, I see them in a different way,” Miles said of his mom and step-dad. “They bring in another step in terms of activism. That is what I really respect. They do stuff.”

Vilain said any advantage a transgender athlete might have would be comparable to the standard deviation seen across all athletes.

“It’s not a question of biology, it’s a question of work ethic and commitment,” said Nicky Taghert, currently a goalie for the DePaul University women’s club soccer team.

The Missouri State High School Activities Association has policies already in place meant to eliminate any possible advantages associated with testosterone. According to the organization’s handbook, transgender girls must wait “until one calendar year of documented medical/hormone treatment and/or suppression is completed.” MSHSAA requires extensive medical documentation and parental approval before a transgender girl can begin competing with other girls.

These policies have led advocates and elected officials alike to question why the state government would need to get involved.

Taghert was the first student athlete to go through MSHSAA’s process for transgender athletes. She said when she began to live openly as a transgender woman in the winter of 2018, her junior year at Clayton High School, she wasn’t sure if there was a policy in place for athletes like her.

Miles, Danielle and James watch the U.S. National women’s soccer team compete against Sweden

From right, Miles, his mother Danielle and his stepfather James watch the U.S. National women’s soccer team compete against Sweden on April 10 at the family’s home in St. Louis. HJR 53, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, would ban Miles from playing on the boys’ soccer team, should he wish to try scholastic sports. Even without the explicit ban, Miles said, “as a trans person trying to find a team, that’s very difficult. I haven’t found one yet.” He detailed one instance, shortly after he came out, in which he tried out for a boys’ volleyball team. While no one said anything about him being trans, coaches seemed to write him off from the start. “The energy there was not specifically transphobia,” Miles said. “But kind of toxic.”

The process did exist but no one had gone through it before. Taghert said the process meant a lot of legwork for her family as they worked alongside MSHSAA officials and school administrators to ensure all the necessary requirements were met. She said the steps required for her to play soccer as a woman were arduous and anxiety-inducing but worth it.

The nineteen-year-old said she feels like her experience is the prime example of what that competitive advantage would look like.

“I’ve had to deal with many talks about competitive advantage,” she said. “From my personal experience, the one year is unnecessary, but I do acknowledge the fear of transitioning for a competitive advantage or for purely athletic reasons.”

Taghert said bills restricting the athletic opportunities of transgender girls are dangerous, in part because of the precedent they could establish.

“I’m a poli-sci major, so I look at things in [terms of] power,” she said. “These bills are a question of power.”

She said that by allowing trans folks to be treated differently it could “justify further action down the road for maybe not just trans people [but] maybe queer people in general or other minorities, to be restricted from certain activities on very loose unproven scientific grounds.”

Miles walks around his neighborhood with his longboard

Having closed his laptop after a day of virtual school, Miles walks around his neighborhood with his longboard on March 31 in St. Louis. Miles began skating a year ago and said that, given the pandemic, boarding was the only thing that took him out of the house for parts of 2020. “It is like my only thing I can do,” Miles said. “I can’t really see my friends.” Another thing Miles likes about skating, he said, is that unlike most sports, skateboarding and longboarding are generally not as gendered.

Catcher in the Rye

Like Taghert, at one point Oliver Sasser loved being her soccer team’s goalie. On and off the field, the now 10-year-old embodied the competitive, compassionate spirit of her favorite coach, her dad. She cheered for the other players and was the only one to keep score which, her mother Katherine Sasser said, is how they knew they were a winning team.

At the start of the 2018 season, the pair arrived on the field. Some changes had been made. This year, the once co-ed team was split into a boys and girls teams. Someone had made the decision that Oliver should be put on the boys team. As the then 7-year-old understood that she wasn’t on the same team as her friends, her mom said she watched as Oliver “visibly folded up.”

Katherine Sasser said Oliver made the final decision to leave the soccer field after she said: “Let’s just go home Mom. I know I don’t belong here.”

Sasser, a newly elected Columbia Public School Board member, asked lawmakers at a hearing in March if this was the precedent that they wanted set for transgender children.

“My daughter simply wanted to show up as herself to participate in something she enjoyed with a community she loved. She was robbed of that opportunity when she was treated differently. Will you take away the same opportunity from trans youth across our state?”

These very scenes are a driving force in Miles’s advocacy, he said he wants young transgender kids to not have to experience the rejection and isolation he has sometimes felt.

Miles looks for a skateboarding spot

“I’ve definitely been through some stuff being trans, but I’m not upset that I’ve been through it,” Miles said after a day testifying at the Capitol. He called being transgender a blessing, because of the perspective it brings. “It’s made me the person I am today,” he added. Here, Miles looks for a skateboarding spot March 31 in his neighborhood.

Before the pandemic, Miles and his parents were involved in Transparent, which is a St. Louis-based group for transgender kids and their families. Miles said when he spends time with young trans kids, he reveres the way they move through their lives untethered by the full weight of a world where their very existence is being legislated.

“I know a lot of young good trans kids who are going to have to go through the same thing as me, which [for me], is stressful thinking about,” Miles said.

Over the summer, Miles spent a few days babysitting a family with an eight-year-old trans boy. Miles said as he watched the boy play with his sisters and friends—all of whom appeared to see the child as the little boy he identified as—Miles began to dread what the next few years might bring for his young friend as he enters puberty.

Miles wants to freeze those moments of uninhibited joy he sees in the youngest members of Transparent. He wants to act as a safety net to catch his young friends from experiencing the transphobia he has experienced.

One way Miles acts as that safety net is how he presents his transness when he is testifying. He said he feels a pressure to demonstrate his identity through a prism cis people will find easy to digest.

“I always have to represent every trans person, I always have to do all this stuff just for other people,” Miles said. “For other people’s comfortability, you know, I have to appear in a way just for them to be kind of comfortable.”

Miles longboards down a neighborhood street

When the meetings with lawmakers are over, Miles still has school, he still has his family, he still has K-Pop and art and his longboard. He just wants to live in a state he feels values him as a transgender individual. “I’m not asking for that much,” Miles said. “All we really want as trans people is empathy and respect.”

  • Molly Hart is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. She has previously reported on state government. She can be reached at mhart@mail.missouri.edu.

  • State government reporter for the Missourian. Studying investigative journalism. Reach me at judyylucas@gmail.com or in the newsroom at 573-882-5700.

  • Tristen Rouse is a statehouse photojournalist and a photo editor at the Columbia Missourian. He can be reached at tristenrousephoto@gmail.com or on Instagram @tristenrouse

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