Pass the Equality Act: Discriminatory rhetoric and laws are devastating to LGBTQ youth

Amit Paley, Opinion contributor
·4 min read

On Thursday, the United States House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, landmark legislation that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in everyday life. If approved by the Senate and signed by President Joe Biden, it would be the most sweeping federal LGBTQ civil rights bill to ever become law. It’s a watershed moment for LGBTQ young people, who deserve to live their lives without fear of being treated differently for who they are.

However, that same hopeful day, LGBTQ young people also witnessed a U.S. senator launch into a transphobic rant and compare gender-affirming medical care to genital mutilation during the confirmation hearing of Dr. Rachel Levine, an exemplary public servant who is on track to become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the Senate.

The day prior, we witnessed a U.S. congresswoman hang an anti-transgender sign outside of her public office to purposely mock her colleague across the hall for displaying a transgender flag in support of her trans child. That same congresswoman also went out of her way to misgender her colleague’s daughter on Twitter, and advocate for excluding trans youth from bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.

Attacks at the state level

After decades of fighting for acceptance and equal treatment under the law, the LGBTQ community has achieved monumental progress and greater representation in media, government, and public affairs than ever before. But with this increased visibility and awareness has come a backlash, particularly at the expense of transgender and nonbinary youth, who continue to face an onslaught of vitriolic rhetoric, legislative attacks, and outright misinformation campaigns each and every day.

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Before I became the CEO and executive director of The Trevor Project, I started as a volunteer counselor on our phone Lifeline in 2011, and I continue to take calls from youth in crisis to this day. Across our crisis services, we are hearing from trans and nonbinary youth who feel like they are under attack. Currently, lawmakers in two dozen states are considering legislation to restrict their rights, from participation in school sports to their ability to amend their birth certificates to match their gender identity and to receive best-practice, gender-affirming medical care. There are even bills trying to bring back the dangerous practice of conversion therapy in places where it has already been banned.

The sports bans, in particular, have gained steam on the national level and been embraced by right-wing media as the anti-trans culture war issue of the moment, replacing the “bathroom bills” frenzy of the past. The day before the House passed the Equality Act, the South Dakota House became the fifth state legislative chamber this year, by our count, to pass an anti-trans sports ban.

Hateful words matter

The rhetoric being used to promote these bills is already doing much harm. When LGBTQ young people see clips of elected officials berating transgender people or hear about policies that would prevent them from living openly as their true self, it can be extremely difficult to process, contribute to internalized stigma, and negatively impact one’s mental health and sense of self. Feeling like you need to defend your existence, especially when these violent attacks are coming from those in positions of power, can be incredibly painful and terrifying. And many young people may find they don't have the strength, support, or resources to do so.

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When I take my counselor shifts, I hear from the young people on the receiving end of these discriminatory remarks and policies, and it’s devastating and unfair. One recent study shows that transgender and nonbinary youth who reported experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity over something as basic as using the bathroom were nearly twice as likely to report attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who did not experience gender identity-based discrimination.

Rainbow flags are seen at the Stonewall National Monument in New York City, dedicated to the birthplace of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer civil rights movement in New York City.
Rainbow flags are seen at the Stonewall National Monument in New York City, dedicated to the birthplace of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer civil rights movement in New York City.

LGBTQ young people want nothing more than to be loved and accepted for who they are, and studies show that affirming trans youth has positive effects on mental health and decreases suicide risk. This is not just the opinion of LGBTQ organizations — multiple medical, scientific, research, and academic experts and communities urge that affirming a young person’s gender identity is essential to their health and wellness.

While the passage of the Equality Act will be an event worth celebrating, the nondiscrimination protections it will bring are also long overdue. We should be past the point where LGBTQ people have to convince those in power that we deserve to be treated with basic dignity and respect and afforded the same rights as everyone else under the law.

Amit Paley is the CEO and executive director of The Trevor Project.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Equality Act: Rand Paul's anti-trans rhetoric devastates LGBTQ youth