Beautiful, sacred and powerful: Inside the roller coaster fight for trans kids in Arkansas

When Arkansas became the first state to ban healthcare for transgender youth, Rumba Yambú felt both hurt and hope.

A trans organizer, Yambú has spent the past four years creating a refuge of resources for Black, brown and immigrant trans people after co-founding InTRANSitive in Little Rock, Ark. The trans migrant-led organization helps trans survivors escape domestic and sexual violence, assists the hungry and homeless during a pandemic and supports trans immigrants by connecting them to resources in Spanish and organizing to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As lawmakers seek to erase trans rights in healthcare, Yambú, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, took their expertise in grassroots organizing to the Arkansas State Capitol. They linked arms with other activists, parents and medical professionals to remind officials of trans youth’s existence.

After all, the majority of trans residents live in the South. And Yambú said they should be seen and heard by their state representatives. This visibility fuels Yambú’s optimism when they become tired.

“Movements are birthed in the South,” Yambú said. “So knowing that trans people are here and we’re able to stand together, hold hands and scream together and pray together…they’ll know that we’ve been around for centuries and we’re going to keep being around for centuries. So regardless of what the state does or doesn’t do, we still got each other. We’re still people.”

A coalition of trans youth supporters are protesting Arkansas’ surge of anti-trans bills both on the ground and online. They’ve hauled sports gear to the Arkansas capitol and played ball as legislators debated the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” which prohibits trans girls from competing in school sports teams aligning with their gender identity. That bill became law late last month.

When lawmakers sought to ban gender-affirming care like hormones and reversible puberty blockers by introducing the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, Yambú launched a social media campaign urging people to contact their representatives and produced Tik Tok videos that taught activism novices how to talk to politicians. When the SAFE Act was sent to Gov. Asa Hutchinson to be signed, Yambú remixed Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” as a way to get people to call the governor and demand his veto.

Yambú and the American Civil Liberties Union in Arkansas credits grassroots organizing for Hutchinson’s veto of the SAFE Act. The Legislature overrode that veto, allowing the SAFE Act to become law on April 6.

The fight for trans rights can feel like a tug-of-war between political power and people power, but it is necessary work, Yambú explained. As they join virtual panels along with actress and activist Laverne Cox and post open letters, such as the one written by trans rights veteran Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Yambú hopes people are beginning to recognize what grassroots work can do in Arkansas.

“People power in organizing is always at the root of revolutions,” Yambú said. “The victory around Asa vetoing the bill has to do with the years of people on the ground making these shifts and pushing people farther left so whenever this moment came, it was a little bit easier to mobilize folks into action.”

‘The worst we’ve seen in a long time’

Trans activists, medical professionals and families are standing up against a wave of legislation that puts more than 45,000 trans youth in 10 states at risk of losing gender-affirming healthcare, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. The bulk of that population live in Texas, with 13,800 trans youth, and Florida, which is home to an estimated 9,050 trans youth.

But it’s more than just healthcare at risk. The ACLU said more than 30 states have introduced multiple bills aimed at multiple areas in trans youth’s lives, including competing in school sports. In March, Arkansas lawmakers passed three anti-trans bills in three weeks. After the passage of the SAFE Act, ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said the organization will take legal measures to stand up for the state’s 1,450 trans youth.

“Attempting to block trans youth from the care they need simply because of who they are is not only wrong, it’s also illegal, and we will be filing a lawsuit to challenge this law in court,” Dickson said in a statement.

The ACLU has been tracking the shapeshifting nature of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation over the years, which include anti-marriage equality laws and bathroom bills affecting transgender students. Christian said this year’s legislative fight has been notable.

“This wave of anti-transgender bills is probably the worst we’ve seen in a long time, maybe forever, in state legislatures in terms of the amount and nastiness of these attacks,” Christian said.

The various bills weave a patchwork of punishments. Texas has a bill labeling trans healthcare as child abuse. North Carolina has a proposal barring trans people under 21 from gender-affirming care subjects medical professionals to license revocation plus a $1,000 fine. Activists in Alabama are fighting against a bill that criminalizes trans healthcare as a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

Some trans advocates saw this coming. President Joe Biden has made several moves to support the transgender community. His first executive order directed federal agencies to extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people in multiple areas like housing and healthcare.

While these anti-trans bills are being introduced nationwide, Christian notices that Southern governors are signing the bills into law faster than the rest of the country. Mississippi was the first to pass a law banning trans girls from school sports in early March. A similar bill was signed into law in Tennessee a few weeks later. But Christian stressed these measures may not be what people want.

“Overall acceptance of LGBTQ people, and particularly acceptance of trans people, has increased over the past few years. People are more familiar and more aware,” Christian said. “So the general public is not as interested in attacking trans people, but many of the states’ legislatures are.”

‘Fight for the kids and the kids to come’

Housed in a Presbyterian church in downtown Little Rock, the Center for Artistic Revolution, also known as CAR, has been raising the next generation of trans youth activists. Founded by two queer Chicana activists and artists, the organization has spent its 18-year existence fighting oppression by merging art with community education and advocacy.

This legislative year, CAR made signs for rallies and coordinated banner drops. Trans youth and allies created Tik Toks, music, and memes to express their displeasure about the bill during a virtual event called “memes vs transphobes.” Those who testified against the bills wore homemade buttons.

CAR taught teens how to become their own political activists through its program for LGBTQ youth called Diverse Youth for Social Change (DYSC). Although the program is closed due to COVID-19, it have been the place where teens hone their leadership skills and learn about different power structures. The program’s curriculum is vital in continuing community activism, said Willow Breshears, who works as a community organizer for CAR.

“Without equipping our youth with critical thinking skills, the desire to continually learn and grow, and teaching them how to care for themselves and be sustainable while doing the work, we will never achieve liberation,” Breshears explained.

CAR not only forged Breshears’ path to leadership within the organization. When she was younger, she once tiptoed around her gender identity because the term was not widely used. DYSC helped Breshears find the language to identify and advocate for herself. Now 18, she has trained youth to do the same while facilitating weekly meetings with CAR. She stands up for trans youth now as anti-trans bills rush through the state legislature. After founding the Young Transwomen’s Project in January, Breshears will be supporting trans women once the legislative session is over.

Breshears said CAR gave her the tools to fight and build the life she wants to see for trans people in the South. She wants them to get the same healthcare that she received when she started hormones at 13. She was able to dodge gender dysphoria, which is the emotional distress that occurs when one’s gender identity doesn’t match their body, and watched her self-confidence bloom instead.

As medical professionals rallied for trans youth at the capitol earlier this month, Breshears used mantras to encourage trans youth during her speech.

Trans people are beautiful

Trans people are sacred

Trans people are powerful

“While legislators attempt to block access to this care for trans youth, it’s important to fight for these kids and the kids to come after them,” Breshears said. “Arkansas doesn’t want to see trans kids live openly and this legislation is furthering the message that every trans kid is taught very early in their transition — that we are different and people don’t like that.”

While the anti-trans bills mention words like “care” and “protection,” advocates say these laws will encourage the opposite by increasing the likelihood of suicide attempts amongst trans youth. A 2020 survey conducted by the LGBTQ nonprofit The Trevor Project reported that more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have considered suicide the past year. Researchers have noted a decrease in youth’s emotional stress when they receive trans-friendly health care and when friends and family use their correct pronouns. Christian said news of the anti-trans bills are affecting trans youth already.

“We have seen spikes in risks of suicide attempts for trans youth in a variety of states that have these bills,” Christian said. “Listening to these hearings and having legislators really debate whether these children are allowed to exist, that is so harmful.”

CAR and other organizers are already preparing for the aftermath of these bills. For CAR, Breshears said that includes relaunching DYSC and talking to therapists to provide free sessions for low-income trans kids affected by the bill. For Carmen Gresham, that means helping homeless LGBTQ youth find stability and family at Lucie’s Place while studying to create better experiences for transgender patients in the healthcare. After graduating in May, the 24-year-old transgender nursing student will enter a field where trans people face stigma, discrimination and lack of access to care.

“There is always a need for people who are underserved to be the people serving you,” Gresham said. “So if there’s a trans nurse, I can be there to help them with the next trans person or kid that comes along needing help.”

Gresham’s entrance into the healthcare world is timely. In late March, Hutchinson enacted the “Medical Ethics and Diversity Act,” which allows medical workers to deny providing healthcare if it goes against their “religious, moral, or ethical beliefs or principles.”  The law doesn’t mention LGBTQ+ patients, but advocates are concerned about the potential for discrimination.

“Religious freedom is based on each individual’s ability to practice in their own religion,” Christian said.  “It does not give anyone the right to discriminate and harm another person.”

According to a state report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 35 percent of the 222 respondents from Arkansas reported being denied care, verbally harassed or physically and sexually assaulted by a healthcare provider because of their gender identity. About 30 percent said they didn’t see a doctor when needed because they feared discrimination and stigma.

But it’s more than just stats for Gresham. During a checkup when she was 15, she asked her doctor about puberty blockers, which prevent the release of sex hormones. She was aware of her gender identity at that time and was uncomfortable about the process her body was going through with puberty. The doctor then told her mom about the conversation.

“He kind of like laughed it off and said, ‘You know, your kid said they want to be on puberty blockers because they feel like they’re born in the wrong body,’ and that there wasn’t enough research about this” Gresham said. “He was just basically spreading misinformation.”

When Hutchinson did veto the bill, Gresham, Breshears, two mothers, a trans teen and a therapist tried to persuade three Republican politicians to vote against a legislative override. Gresham said they pleaded the case that if the law passed, Arkansas would be setting the tone that it’s OK to legalize trans discrimination and that voting against gender affirming care for trans youth meant denying the existence of trans Arkansans.

Two of the three lawmakers voted for the override; the third abstained. But Gresham isn’t giving up. Along with writing an open letter to lawmakers who supported the bill, she is creating videos to dispel the myths about transgender healthcare, such as the idea that children are getting gender reassignment surgery or that puberty blockers are experimental.

Guidelines from the Endocrine Society, an international medical organization, an international medical organization, recommends that clinicians wait until a patient is 18 or older to receive gender-affirming surgery. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the use of puberty blockers goes back 40 years. They’re also used to children who go into puberty early and are reversible.

Gresham said lawmakers are relying on fear instead of medical facts and are determined to keep the political status quo.

“As in most places, it just really reflects how our government and the people who represent us really don’t represent us, and that the system that we have in place is not effective,” Gresham said. “They don’t want the people who’ve never had power to be in power, but it’s not even about power for me. They just don’t want us to have the equal opportunity to say what we think we deserve because they think they should be able to keep making the decisions for us.”

‘Why should people leave their home?’

Lawmakers didn’t stop with the passage of the SAFE Act. Arkansas politicians have debated a series of anti-trans measures since then, including an anti-trans bathroom bill, a bill that requires educators to misgender students and a bill that hits medical professionals providing gender-affirming care with a Class D felony punishable to up to six years in jail.

Yambú said if politicians want to continue creating anti-trans legislation that makes life unsafe for trans people, organizations must continue build community outside of government systems. InTRANSitive plans to do that by continuing the work trans Arkansans and starting a program for trans youth between the ages of 13 and 17.

But more work means more funding, which is the number one need for Southern organizers. Out In The South, an LGBTQ nonprofit, reports that one in three LGBTQ adults live South, but only three or four percent of domestic LGBTQ funding is sent to the region.

Yambú said their organization typically operates on a $5,000 annual budget. But thanks to community donations and a grant from the Trans Justice Funding Project, InTRANSitive was able to distribute more than $21,000 of emergency funds last year to Black transwomen and girls and undocumented trans people experiencing COVID-19-related financial difficulties.

Yambú said those who applied for the funds were the people the government forgot during the pandemic: Black and brown trans women between the ages of 17 to 26 who were going hungry and being evicted and displaced from temporary housing

More wealth needs to be distributed down South so people can be housed and fed and protected.

“I feel like whenever folks talk about Southern organizing, or Southern movements, Arkansas doesn’t get mentioned,” Yambú said. “There is a scarcity in resources here. That causes a lot of work to not be able to advance. It also causes conflict because organizations are fighting for crumbs.”

Frustrations towards lawmakers have gotten to the point where people have talked about leaving the state, Yambú said. They understand the concerns. But as an El Salvador native who moved to Arkansas when they were 12, they know how hard it is to leave your roots.

“I already gave up home once to come to this country. It was the hardest thing I had to do,” Yambú said. “Why should people have to leave home? The more of us to stay here, the more we can create outside of  systems so that people can stay here and make more change together.”

Correction: This story originally stated that the bulk of the estimated 45,000 trans youth who will be affected by the health care bans live in Alabama and North Carolina. It should have stated Texas and Florida.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.