Of all the myriad topics covered by President Biden during his Wednesday night address to a joint session of Congress — economic recovery, health care, the COVID response, white supremacy, immigration, Russian interference and eradicating cancer, just for starters — it was one given just the quickest of nods that appears to have been among the most impactful: Biden’s support for transgender youth.
“To all the transgender Americans watching at home, especially the young people who are so brave, I want you to know that your president has your back,” he said, while urging Congress to pass the Equality Act, expanding protections for LGBTQ Americans against workplace, housing and health care discrimination.
“It’s huge to have the president not just sort of name check you,” said Rachel Maddow in her immediate post-speech commentary on MSNBC, “but put it in those terms, and that sort of personal guarantee terms.”
The unprecedented support from a president comes at a time when it’s particularly needed — when a record number of anti-trans bills, targeting transgender youth by restricting medical care or their ability to play team sports, have been proposed or pushed through in 20 and 31 states, respectively, this year.
“President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden are showing the world that LGBTQ people are welcome and belong everywhere, including his first address to Congress, and in his plan for American families. LGBTQ lives are on the line, and it’s time for the U.S. Senate to take action and send the Equality Act to the president’s desk for his signature," said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, in a statement, also calling out Tacoma, Wash., teen and transgender activist Stella Keating, who was among first lady Jill Biden’s “virtual box” guests during Wednesday night’s address.
Keating tells Yahoo Life that it felt “insane” to be watching Biden as the first lady’s guest, and “amazing” to hear the president’s shout-out. “He made history by saying that,” she says. “It was huge — and I knew it in that moment how big of a deal that it was to be acknowledged by my president.”
Added Ellis, “We are so proud of Stella and all transgender youth who are living their truth and speaking out to protect their peers and their families. State lawmakers need to stop targeting trans kids and leave them alone.”
On Wednesday, Florida passed a trans youth sports ban, and West Virginia’s governor signed one into law. Arkansas recently became the first state to sign into law a ban on transgender youth receiving gender-affirming medical care — despite such care being officially supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association, the Endocrine Society and the American Psychiatric Association — and similar measures are pending in Alabama, Tennessee and Texas.
“LGBTQ people continue to face discrimination in many areas, including health care, housing, education and other critical areas of life; bias-motivated violence; and other limits on our ability to fully and freely live our lives,” noted Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David in a response to Biden’s address. “Especially in this moment, when LGBTQ rights are under attack in several states across the country, it was important to see President Biden make it clear tonight that his priority would be continuing our shared fight to ensure that every American has access to the fullness of opportunity our country affords. To that point, we were especially heartened to hear the president specifically uplift his support for transgender people and particularly affirm transgender kids."
David was not alone in feeling heartened, as many transgender individuals (including legendary activist Kate Bornstein) and the people who love and support them quickly seized upon Biden's encouraging words, posting about their emotional reactions on social media.
Others expressed mixed emotions, however, if not downright skepticism, in response to Biden’s words, and instead called for action.
“It’s incredibly emotional to hear someone in such a powerful position say the word ‘transgender’ in a speech of this magnitude, and it was especially wonderful to have him focus his words on trans youth,” Debi Jackson of Missouri, mother to transgender daughter Avery and a trans rights activist since her 2014 video went viral, tells Yahoo Life. “But it is also a little bittersweet. Horrible bills targeting trans kids are passing through state legislatures right now.”
She continues, “Hours before the president’s speech, one was signed into law in West Virginia and during his speech, an egregious intrusive amendment was added to a bill and rushed through both the House and Senate in Florida and sent to the governor’s desk. One sentence of support isn’t enough to combat what is happening state by state right now and the hours upon hours of horrible testimony trans youth have had to hear.”
Others expressed their feelings on Twitter, including young trans activist Kai Shappley, a fourth-grader who recently testified before the Texas state senate against the proposed anti-trans bills there; she wondered if Biden “will keep them from putting my mom in jail,” as her state aims to classify gender-affirming care as child abuse.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Chase Strangio, who has been tirelessly fighting state anti-trans bills and mounting legal challenges against those that become law, was among the truly disheartened, calling Biden's support "pageantry."
To underscore his point, Strangio added, “We now have 7 states banning trans kids from sports in 2021 (7 laws in 6 states — Arkansas passed 2 — plus Governor Noem’s Executive order in South Dakota). Idaho passed one last year (blocked in court). Montana’s is with the governor. This is so shameful and painful,” and, “Florida has just passed a trans sports ban in a matter of hours. West Virginia’s governor signed one earlier today. These kids are being brutalized.” He later tweeted, “I guess I appreciate the platitudes. But we need action. Things are desperate.”
Strangio also retweeted a thread by transgender advocate Rebecca Green, who wrote, “Stop calling trans people brave and dismantle the obstacles that require their courage 2021 challenge.”
Jackson says she hopes the Biden administration has a clear pro-trans strategy in place to compensate for there not being enough votes to pass the Equality Act. “He and [White House press secretary] Jen Psaki have said repeatedly that trans rights are human rights and that they support trans youth in schools,” she says. “Perhaps they know if they are more vocal, it will embolden more of the states to pass these bills rather than let them linger in committees. Maybe they know there will be more power in the federal government challenging the states in court.” Added Jackson, “I do wish our kids had more to cling to than one sentence. I would like to see some sort of strong, immediate action.”
Keating, for her part, says she is “with the people who say that all the way,” and that there is “a lot of work to do.” But for now, she’s trying to hold onto the sense of hope she got through Biden’s words. “We have to give our elected officials some grace, because it takes time,” she says. “I’ve been trying to bask in the fact that my president now finally sees me. I want to live in that moment.”
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