Almost every morning, Christynne Lili Wrene Wood goes to her water aerobics class at the YMCA. The ritual isn’t just about exercise. Over the last decade, the routine has given her a welcoming community of fellow retired women, whom she affectionately refers to as her “aqua sisters” in the conservative suburb of Santee, California.
Wood and her friends often go out for breakfast after class and, on occasion, spend weekends floating along a lazy river. When a teenage girl complained about Wood to the YMCA staff in early January ― and later asked the Santee city council why Wood, who is a transgender woman, was allowed to use the women’s locker room ― those same friends had her back.
Seemingly overnight the teen’s testimony gained traction in the far-right pockets of the internet, and far beyond southern California. Tucker Carlson brought the teen onto his now-canceled show, and various national conservative outlets ran stories stoking fears about trans women in bathrooms.
When Wood heard that some people were gathering to protest her and the YMCA’s trans-inclusive policies, she asked one friend if she should leave the gym altogether. “Don’t you fucking dare,” Wood recalls her saying. “We don’t run from bigots here.”
Wood is no stranger to discrimination. As a child, she saw Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign march in Washington and later battled racism as a Black naval officer. In 2021, with the help of the ACLU, she received a settlement from a Crunch Fitness gym which had tried to bar her from using the women’s locker room even after she provided legal documents proving her name and gender marker change, and gender-affirming surgeries.
In mid January, Wood waded into the crowd of her detractors at the protest and put a face to their fears. “I’m that scary transgender woman everybody is so up in arms about,” she recalled saying. “I explained to them: Listen to the sound of my voice, look at me. I am no threat to you,” Wood told them. “I’m a threat to their ignorance, stupidity, their bigotry and racism. Otherwise I’m no threat to anyone else at all.”
Over the next year, it would become clear that Wood’s experience was not an isolated event. Instead, it was indicative of a year that would be marked by rising anti-trans rhetoric, a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills filed in statehouses across the country, and even violence ― signaling that 2024 may prove to be a tipping point for LGBTQ+ rights. As the presidential election looms, Republican hopefuls have vowed to push bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth and adults, and state legislatures have already begun to prepare even more sweeping anti-trans bills.
A Country Divided
Over the course of 2023, Republican state legislators around the nation filed more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, many targeting the ability of trans youth to access gender-affirming care, participate in sports, or use school bathrooms and locker rooms. Republican members of Congress have also tried to elevate similar bills at the national level, and recently pushed to add anti-LGBTQ+ provisions into federal funding bills. This battle has permeated every corner of public life, with some Republican-controlled states banning drag performances, restricting how LGBTQ+ issues can be discussed in schools, and requiring school staff to out trans students to their parents.
Only 84 of these laws have passed nationwide, but Vivian Topping, who works with LGBTQ+ grassroots organizations on the state level for the Equality Federation, an advocacy and policy organization, said the ones that have succeeded are incredibly harmful.
“If you can’t access health care, if you can’t access community support, if you can’t talk to your teacher or your co-workers about who you are, if you can’t use the restroom in school, then you can’t exist in public life,” said Topping. “That’s really kind where we’re at right now.”
Advocates told HuffPost that the current attacks on LGBTQ+ people, and particularly trans people, are rooted in a broader right-wing push towards a white Christian ideological agenda. After civil rights groups achieved successes toward racial equality and the right to same-sex marriage in the 2010s, the conservative movement ― largely helmed by organizations like the Christian legal advocacy group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, The Heritage Foundation and others ― shifted its focus to trans people.
In 2019, the ADF tried to sue Connecticut schools over trans girls’ participation in school sports. The suit was unsuccessful, but the organization and others found an issue they could grasp onto, while fearmongering about the existential threat trans people supposedly posed to public spaces and the nation’s values.
“This is a coordinated, consistent and comprehensive attack on a tiny population.”
Heidi Campbell, a Democratic state senator in Republican-controlled Tennessee said that the state’s wave of anti-trans laws this year is the culmination of the GOP’s 50-year “Southern strategy” to appeal to white conservatives.
“The timing of it is something that [the GOP] could finally get through. We’ve been progressing towards this for a long time. Otherism is very effective in fueling divisiveness,” Campbell told HuffPost in July. “I think they were finding that they were losing traction doing that with the gay community, with Obergefell [v. Hobbes, which legalized same-sex marriage], and how the gay community has become normalized. So now the new ‘other’ is trans people.”
Tennessee, which passed the most anti-LGBTQ laws in the country this year, has become a testing ground for new anti-trans policies. Last fall, the state’s attorney general sought the private medical records of trans youth after a right-wing media star kicked up misinformation about a children’s hospital, resulting in the closure of its pediatric trans clinic and the cancellation of some surgeries for cisgender youth that could be viewed as “pathways to gender affirmation.”
“With the advent of pretty extreme and intense right-wing media willing to spread disinformation, we kind of had the perfect storm. Tennessee is just the tip of the iceberg,” Campbell added.
Current estimates show that transgender adults make up around 0.5% of the U.S. population, and 1.4% of youth ages 13 to 17 years old, according to data from the Williams Institute.
“This isn’t just an isolated attack on sports, health care, bathrooms or outing provisions. This is a coordinated, consistent and comprehensive attack on a tiny population,” Sasha Buchert, an attorney at Lambda Legal, one of the largest LGBTQ+ legal advocacy groups, told HuffPost.
She and other advocates have pointed to the impact of conservative organizations like the ADF, which helped 23 states bar trans athletes from women’s and girl’s sports; drafted “Don’t Say Gay” model legislation for numerous states; and also recruited a cadre of fringe anti-trans doctors and patients to testify at statehouses. Through this legislative effort, these organizations have manufactured moral panic about trans identity and helped take that rhetoric to the national stage.
“We are seeing more and more Republicans and conservative politicians use anti-trans rhetoric to rile up their base to be able to win their primaries in the next general election,” Topping said.
Crossing A Care Desert
Some of the most disruptive legislation in the lives of trans youth have been the bans on gender-affirming care. So far, 22 states have passed these kinds of bans, though the laws in four states ― Alabama, Florida, Indiana and Montana ― are not currently enforceable under court orders.
Health care bans have created a divided legal landscape for trans Americans, where some can easily access care, and others face sometimes insurmountable financial and geographical barriers to care, which most major medical associations have deemed necessary and lifesaving.
Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said that the bans have had an especially devastating impact in the South. “The vast majority of transgender youth in the South now live in a state where parts of gender-affirming care have been made illegal,” she said, estimating that around 90% of trans youth live in a block of states, from Texas to North Carolina, where care is banned. She suspects that the last two, South Carolina and Virginia, will also put access to gender-affirming care on the chopping block in 2024.
To date, a third of trans youth, or around 105,000 kids, now live in states that bar them from accessing puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy to alleviate gender dysphoria. Some states have also barred trans adults who use Medicaid from accessing care. In Florida, adult patients are saddled with new requirements to see physicians in person and obtain psychological evaluations prior to starting hormone therapy, which makes care next to impossible in a state already facing a doctor shortage.
One southern doctor, Izzy Lowell, has been trying to find ways to meet the new reality in which many trans youth and their families have to travel hundreds of miles out of state to get care.
Access to care, she said, has gone from “bad to extremely bad.” An arsonist recently burned and destroyed their Georgia-based office, one of the latest instances in violence against providers of gender-affirming care, amid a year of rising domestic extremism and threats on children’s hospitals. Before the new year, she and her team are working on getting licensed in all 50 states so that they can meet patients wherever they are through virtual appointments.
“It’s nearly impossible,” Lowell said. Recently one of her providers conducted an online appointment with a trans teen who was passing through Boston’s Logan Airport on a Friday night layover before they flew back to Mississippi.
“We’re just getting creative and figuring out how to get these people seen at times that they can get out of the states,” Lowell said.
But gender-affirming care is not a one-time medical event. Lowell’s patients and their families have to coordinate appointments every three months so her team can closely monitor their blood work and hormone levels.
“It’s just an incredible hurdle for patients and families to overcome. But they’re doing it because they need this care,” she said.
Some of her patients are only able to travel to states where they can access care with the help of grants from outside organizations like the Campaign for Southern Equality, which launched its southern trans youth emergency project earlier this year.
The North Carolina-based organization distributes $500 grants to families in need to cover the cost of travel and accommodations, in addition to helping them establish care with a new provider in a different state or find one of the few providers still treating patients in the South.
“The state of trans care, not to mention lots of other civil rights issues, is worse than ever, and worsening in a developed democracy.”
As of mid-December, the organization has given out $320,000 to around 300 families of trans youth and 300 trans adults. In southern Texas and Florida, where it can be onerous to travel by car to a neighboring state, Beach-Ferrara said the organization has referred 25 families to Elevated Access which partners with volunteer pilots to fly people seeking abortions and gender-affirming care.
Beach-Ferrara said these strategies were born out of conversations with organizers working on a parallel issue: facilitating access to abortion in states where it has become banned or severely restricted following the overturning of abortion rights last year.
“Some of our very first phone calls when we saw what was happening politically was with people in the abortion access space,” Beach-Ferrara said. “These two movements are absolutely entwined in terms of being about personal freedom, and people’s autonomy and freedom to make decisions that are best for them without the interference of government.”
As she looks ahead to next year, she said the organization will continue their rapid, crisis response approach “to create bridges to care.” She and other advocates don’t anticipate Republicans to slow down on attacking LGBTQ+ rights in the coming year.
“The state of trans care, not to mention lots of other civil rights issues, is worse than ever, and worsening in a developed democracy,” she said.
The Field Of Court Battles
But some advocates are heartened by the record number of LGBTQ+ candidates who have secured seats in races across the country for school boards, city council, mayor’s offices, the U.S. Senate, and more.
“We love to say that we keep having rainbow waves, that they keep coming,” said Sean Meloy, who helps campaign and fundraise for queer and trans candidates through the advocacy organization, the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund. “Our candidates are pro-choice and pro-privacy, they don’t think the government should be interfering with your private life and voters have resonated with that.”
The organization listed 148 openly LGBTQ+ candidates that won in the November off–year elections, including Danica Roem, the first openly trans person to be elected to the Virginia state Senate; Fabian Nelson, a Black gay man elected to Mississippi’s legislature; and council member Olivia Hill, Tennessee’s first trans elected official.
Much of the battle of access to care and other civil liberties has been waged in the courtroom by various legal advocacy groups. The ACLU and other LGBTQ+ organizations found success in the district courts which initially blocked the enforcement of many of the health care and bathroom bans.
“It’s almost jaw-dropping how universal the decisions have been on the district court level this year, that the courts have listened to both sides and in person, and have held that the justifications for the bans just don’t hold water,” Buchert said.
She also said the Biden administration has been effective at “really shifting and repairing the judiciary” by appointing progressive judges who aren’t going to let their personal beliefs influence their decisions.
But with many Trump-appointed conservative judges filling the 6th and 11th circuit appellate courts, which serve seven states across the South and Midwest, the fight to secure equal protection under the law is still underway. In the fall, federal appeals judges reversed lower court decisions and allowed bans on gender-affirming care for youth to go into effect in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. The lack of consistency creates a climate of uncertainty for LGBTQ+ people and their families.
“Now we are seeing a very confusing, legalistic process underway where an injunction may stay parts of a law, and then the stay is lifted and goes back. So some providers adhere to that and others do not,” said Beach-Ferrara. “It just becomes a very confusing environment for families to navigate.”
In November, the ACLU of Tennessee petitioned the Supreme Court to take up a case involving the state’s ban on gender-affirming care. The court has not yet decided whether to accept the case.
Rhetoric And Risks
Advocates say that reporting and journalism about trans people, like the fear and media fervor over Wood’s use of a locker room, can have an enormous impact not only on public perception and treatment of trans people, but on laws governing trans people’s access to resources as well.
The explosion of misinformation about LGBTQ+ people on social media this year, boosted by accounts like LibsOfTikTok and others, has had real life consequences. Schools, hospitals and libraries have grappled with dozens of bomb threats and harassment. Advocacy organizations have reported more than 700 instances of anti-LGBTQ violence in 2023.
Evan Urquhart, a journalist and writer who tracks anti-trans media for his project, Assigned Media, lists examples of skepticism about trans identity and the key actors behind the anti-trans movement across the media landscape. He has debunked former Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s statements comparing trans boys and men to cancer, and provided crucial context in a Washington Post profile of a detransitioner activist with anti-trans political ambitions.
Urquhart points to The New York Times, which has published a drum beat of stories raising questions about the risks of puberty blockers on bone health, and that regret about transition is widespread.
“When [they] started this crusade against trans youth, particularly with blowing up every little thing… about trans people, acting as if they were coming from another planet, like they never heard about how side effects work, or how diagnoses work, or how an informed consent process works, that was really deeply alarming to me,” Urquhart said.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, which provides guidance for treatment of transgender people, responded saying that the Times’ reporting pushed “inaccurate narratives” and misinterpreted the science. And in January, nearly 1,000 New York Times contributors published a letter condemning the paper’s coverage of trans youth and their barriers to gender-affirming care. The New York Times later defended its reporting of trans people as “important, deeply reported and sensitively written.”
Nearly a year since she was made the center of a right-wing campaign, Wood has seen both the good and the bad of heightened media attention. She has received some threats of violence, but overwhelmingly she said she’s been embraced by her community. She was honored as a “champion of pride” in this year’s pride parade, has joined San Diego County’s PFLAG, and helped bring trans-affirming books to the local school libraries.
In October, she was invited to Florida to march alongside hundreds of others in protest of the state’s bathroom ban, which makes it illegal for trans people of all ages to use bathrooms in schools and other public buildings. She joined five trans activists as a plaintiff in the first legal challenge to the state’s law, though a district judge later denied their request to block the ban.
“After all this happened, society hasn’t caught fire,” she said. “This is only meant to be a form of massive discrimination that this particular political group has embraced because they have nothing else to offer except hatred, lies and misinformation.”
For Lowell, the doctor, she hardly pays attention to the news cycle, mostly for her own personal sanity, and instead focuses on making sure patients know how they can access care.
When HuffPost spoke with her, Lowell was about to meet with a patient, a 24-year-old trans woman. She was anxious to discuss options about her care, even though in Georgia, her access to gender-affirming care was — for now — protected.
“She knows I’m not going anywhere, she knows I’ll go to jail before I stop treating her,” Lowell said. “I never could have predicted any of this stuff, so we’re just taking it as it comes and working around it to get people what they need.”