Anti-transgender sentiment has become a popular mobilization strategy for everyone from extremist politicians and electoral blocs, to religious leaders and parts of their congregations, to some school boards and parents. In Wisconsin, attacks on the rights of the transgender community attempt to worsen conditions which are already dire.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee created a new policy on “gender theory” which formalizes transphobia in Milwaukee Catholic churches and schools. The policy forbids anyone from sharing their pronouns, requires staff and students to conform to the clothing, sports teams, and restrooms that match their assigned sex at birth, and bans gender transition medication on archdiocesan property.
The policy’s attempt to erase trans people from Milwaukee’s Catholic community is extremely harmful and only succeeds in further damaging the health and life of the trans faithful and trans youth in Catholic schools. Critically, LGBTQIA religious leaders in Wisconsin state that transgender identity does not go against Catholic teaching, but inflicting religious trauma on trans youth does.
For more than a century, the ACLU has championed religious freedom as a fundamental American right, but we also firmly believe that religious liberty is never a license to discriminate. Aside from narrowly understood exceptions for houses of worship and ministerial positions that protect the preaching of even bigoted religious beliefs and practices, the public interest in eliminating discrimination justifies application of civil rights laws to religiously affiliated organizations. Whether or not the archdiocese’s policies violate those laws, they are undoubtedly harmful and likely to be looked back upon as hopelessly benighted, like Bob Jones University’s religious policy of first excluding Black students and then prohibiting interracial dating on campus.
The archdiocese’s transphobic religious stance comes on the heels of two anti-trans bills proposed by the Wisconsin legislature in the last year including banning trans women’s participation in women’s sports, and banning gender-affirming health care for trans children. Fortunately, Governor Tony Evers vetoed the sports bill after it passed the legislature, but depending on the results of the November gubernatorial election, these bills and more could pass in the next session in the absence of a veto.
So far in 2022, over 300 anti-LGBTQIA laws have been proposed around the country. These bills overwhelmingly have targeted trans youth, and we’ve increasingly seen the lives of trans youth being used for purposes of political point scoring.
But transphobes do not even need to wait for policy to redistribute life and death chances to the detriment of the trans community. Transgender Wisconsinites, and especially multiply marginalized trans people, face disparities in socioeconomic status and health outcomes. Trans teens experience higher rates of homelessness, violence, and suicide risk. The disproportionate chances of interpersonal and state violence against our transgender community members are yet increased by racism, particularly against trans women of color.
At the ACLU of Wisconsin, we have long fought to ensure the rights of trans people to health care and equitable treatment while incarcerated. But such problems persist, and the anti-trans policies being pushed by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Wisconsin legislature confirm that we must continue to fight for trans liberation. Trans people belong in, and indeed enrich, our churches, schools, and public life in Wisconsin.
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