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Young Transgender Tennesseans Feel Bullied By Anti-LGBT Legislation

“It feels like they’re telling us that they don’t see us as actual humans,” says Adam, a trans middle school student. "We are just kids.”
Paige Pfleger
“It feels like they’re telling us that they don’t see us as actual humans,” says Adam, a trans middle school student. "We are just kids.”

Adam remembers turning to the internet two years ago to pinpoint the exact right words for his gender identity. That’s when he came across articles about anti-transgender legislation.

He felt demonized.

“It feels like they’re telling us that they don’t see us as actual humans,” Adam says. “They just see us as these scary monsters that are going to trans your kids genders and steal scholarships from the girls on the sports team. But we are just kids.”

A slate of anti-transgender legislation is moving through the Tennessee capitol, including a bill that makes it more difficult for transgender kids to get health care and a new law that limits transgender athletes. For young transgender Tennesseans, these bills are making finding their place even more challenging.

More: A Series of Anti-Transgender Legislation Is Progressing Through the Tennessee General Assembly

Adam is in eighth grade now, and he came out to his family and friends as transgender when he was in sixth grade. We’re not using his last name to protect his privacy. He says anti-transgender legislation makes it hard for him to just be a kid and focus on normal things, like making new friends or finishing his homework.

Instead he always has an eye on the state capitol. He’s worried about what will happen if he can’t get gender-affirming health care here in Tennessee, or if he’ll have to move to another state just to have access to the same things other kids do, like sports.

“I would like to at least try to play other sports in the future, but with this new law I won’t even have the opportunity,” he says. “I’ve never been a huge sports guy, but I’d like to have the choice of saying no to sports.”

Tennessee’s new sports law is seen by many in the transgender community as careless: Politicians haven’t even cited a case in which a transgender person playing sports took opportunity away from other kids.

In fact, playing on sports teams or using the bathroom that matches their gender was already off the table for a lot of trans kids well before the legislation.

Fox Schweiger says that was the case when he came out to his school administrators in Knoxville.

“As soon as I told them I wanted to use the boys bathroom that wasn’t okay,” Schweiger says. “Or I needed sports credits to graduate from the school but I couldn’t play a sport because the sports organization they belonged with made you play with your gender assigned at birth.”

He says even just the debate about trans athletes signals to trans kids that they’re not welcome in sports.

‘This isn’t protecting kids’

Schweiger is in college now, but says growing up trans in Tennessee made him feel like he didn’t belong. The messages from politicians only made that worse for him.

“I just hear them talking about protecting kids, but this isn’t protecting kids,” he says. “It’s putting them in more danger, and it’s going to worsen their mental health and their physical health.”

Transgender youth have disproportionately high suicide attempts compared to their cisgender peers.

The environment in Tennessee can be so unwelcoming that it prevents kids from coming out until they are able to move elsewhere. James Daniel grew up in Tennessee, and now lives in Washington.

“At the time when I was realizing who I was and everything in Tennessee, I could see the writing on the wall basically about how far in the future any of this was likely to change, or be safe for me to come out,” says James Daniel. “And I felt like leaving Tennessee was pretty much my only option at that point.”

Daniel says he felt an enormous pressure lift when he moved to Washington for college and came out as transgender. Transgender kids are already vulnerable without feeling bullied by politicians at the state capitol, he says.

Now he watches from afar as bill after bill is introduced or signed into law, and thinks of kids like him.

“If anything for the sake of my own self at 11 or 12, I will say, ‘Can’t you leave some kids alone?’” Daniel asks. “Just leave the kids alone, man.”

Copyright 2021 WPLN News

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.