Not far from Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers once attacked voting rights activists, a Black and transgender-led nonprofit is fighting off attacks on the lives of transgender youth.
The strategy for The Knights and Orchids Society, Inc., known as TKO, takes many forms. On social media, TKO orchestrates an awareness campaign focused on three anti-trans bills coursing through the state legislature through. The organization has partnered with The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama to amplify its message. Trans athlete Chris Mosier has posted about TKO weekly ever since the bills were introduced. TKO is also filming a storytelling project in which trans youth, their parents and transgender and gender nonconforming people share how the legislation will affect them.
Quentin “Que” Bell, a Black trans activist who founded TKO in 2012, believes anti-trans bills send a message that trans youth are not worthy of adequate protection and care. Such transphobic messaging, which creates a non-affirming social environment that increases the risk of suicide.
But Bell and the TKO team believe Alabamians can make life better for trans teens by creating an environment free from transphobic comments and misgendering by family and friends.
“There has to be a community and safe spaces that they can go to for support. And if you know that you’re unable to create that for them, help them to find those spaces,” Bell said. “You wouldn’t believe the relief that comes from knowing you have a place to retreat to where you feel fully affirmed and fully yourself especially for the youth.”
More than trans youth at risk
Alabama’s three anti-transgender bills focus on healthcare and school sports. House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 10, both dubbed the “Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act,” criminalizes medical professionals who provide gender-affirming care to trans youth. Gender affirming healthcare can include access to hormones, chest binders and professionals who provide proper medical care without misgendering patients.
House Bill 391 affects trans athletes in public K-12 schools. Freedom For All Americans, a bipartisan campaign for LGBTQ+ protections, reported that 29 states across the nation have filed similar legislation that shares the same language .
Ten of these states are located in the South, with Texas alone introducing 11 bills — the most of any state. The wave of proposed legislation comes at the same time when U.S Congress members are debating the Equality Act, which will expand LGBTQ+ protections on a federal level. President Joe Biden rolled back a ban on transgender troops in the military earlier this year.
TKO isn’t going to let Alabama lawmakers make decisions for their trans youth. Since 2018, TKO has created a space where transwomen and teens can express their full selves during TKO’s support group meetings. Here, they not only find a helping hand as they go through their transitioning journeys. It’s also a space where they speak out against the bill.
Que said the bills corrodes trans youth’s support systems, from their households to their doctor’s office to the classrooms. Another part of the “Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act” is forcing educators to disclose a student’s gender identity to their parents.
“These bills not only harm trans youth, but they are all a collective impediment to the parents, healthcare providers, and people who just want to provide trans youth with the love and respect that they need during such a receptive age,” Que said.
The impact of these bills will spread beyond the trans youth community if passed, TKO said. Collectively, the bills will create a more hostile environment for a group of people who are already vulnerable to homelessness and poverty due to transphobia.
When COVID-19 swept across the state, the organization transformed themselves into community care practitioners when they noticed an uptick in requests for food, hygiene supplies, and housing. In the past year, the organization donated 92,051 pounds food and helped house 27 nonbinary and trans people.
Christina Nicholson, TKO’s digital media and public relations coordinator, said Alabama’s anti-trans efforts intensifies an already transphobic climate, worsening disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.
“When bills like this come up, you have people who come to us who have been hindered from getting support and getting put out of their homes because of anti-trans laws,” Nicholson said. “That has been the bigger issue.”
‘Stand up. Fight back’
About an hour down the highway from Selma, nine social justice organizations and nonprofits from across the state recently gathered at the Alabama State House to protest the “Vulnerable Child and Compassion and Protection Act.”
Travis Jackson, a bisexual U.S. Army veteran who cofounded LGBTQ nonprofit Montgomery Pride United, led a 40-person march around the Capitol.
“When trans lives are under attack what do we do?,” Jackson called out.
The protesters responded: “Stand up. Fight back.”
Although Jackson isn’t a transgender person, he wanted to remind lawmakers trans people exist in the South and that they matter.
“I’ve been in the fight for the last few years and I am probably going to be in it for the rest of my life,” Jackson said. “America needs to understand the importance of the transgender and queer community who have been in existence for the longest.”
Alabama lawmakers have long pushed for legislation affecting the trans community. The bill aimed at trans athletes follows a previous attempt last year. That effort was derailed by the pandemic, which brought legislative operations to a temporary halt. In 2017, lawmakers pushed for a bill that banned transgender people from using a bathroom matching their gender identity.
If the Alabama bills become law, Jackson anticipates a court battle.
“It wasn’t about bathrooms like it was never about water fountains,” Jackson said, referring to the Jim Crow provision requiring separate facilities for African Americans. “This is hatred. This is bigotry. This is bias.”
In recent years, civil rights groups have had some success in the federal courts against actions aimed at transgender people. In 2018, the ACLU of Alabama filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s requirement citizens to get gender reassignment surgery in order to change the gender marker on their driver’s licenses. But not all transgender people undergo surgery. A judge ruled the policy unconstitutional and stated the requirement increased the risk of harassment, thus compromising the safety and wellbeing of transgender and nonbinary drivers.
Destiny Clark, 36, who was one of the plaintiffs in that three-year-long battle said the lawsuit didn’t mark the end of the fight for trans rights in Alabama.
“So what we realize is, yes, we won one particular lawsuit, but we have to go forward and protect the trans youth because they are constantly under attack,” Clark said.
Clark didn’t start her transitioning journey until about 10 years ago. But she had a feeling when she was a teen that she was different than everyone else. She said having gender affirming care earlier in life would have saved her mental health from deteriorating. She used drugs and alcohol to cope with her depression. Now she is making sure other trans youth in Alabama don’t have to go down that same path.
“Once I was able to receive gender affirming care, I was able to get clean and sober,” Clark said. “Now we have to fight those who can transition at such a young age.”
Saving the minds of Alabama’s trans youth
Advocates are concerned the Alabama legislation will further restrict access to gender affirming care, which is already limited in the state.
TKO is the only organization in Alabama to directly provide support for hormone replacement therapy through the organization’s Fast Affirming Innovative Testing Healthcare, or FAITH, program. Transgender and gender nonconforming individuals can see a gender affirming medical professional for free. TKO’s team of doctors provide a range of medical service, including testing for sexually transmitted infections and transition care.
Nicholson said lawmakers misunderstand why trans youth need gender affirming care. She said hormone replacement therapy helps prevent gender dysphoria, distress that happens when someone’s physical appearance doesn’t match their gender identity.
“There’s no sex change operation. It is literally just giving the youth time to figure out how they want to progress in their lives,” Nicolson said. “It can be so jarring recognize that you are trans and at the same time puberty is happening. It can really wreak havoc of your mental health as you get older.”
Fighting for trans youth is a family affair for Sim Butler. Holding a sign decorated with the pink, blue and white stripes of the Transgender Pride Flag, Butler said his middle-school aged daughter started affirming her gender identity when she was about 7. Butler said his daughter was very adamant about telling her parents that she wanted to grow up to be a mother and that she is a girl.
According to a 2020 survey conducted by the LGBTQ nonprofit The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth are 40 percent less likely to commit suicide when they have accepting family members in their homes. Butler witnessed his daughter flourish once she realized she lived in an affirming household.
“Just seeing the way she changed in our house, she went from a young child worrying about herself and her environment to a happy child who loved being herself and living life once we started socially transitioning,” Butler said. “It was shocking watching the difference.”
Butler said there are a lot of conversations on the way about how his daughter wants to continue her transitioning journey. Which is why parents of trans youth need access to health professions and experts to help them support their children. The anti-trans bills gets in the way of that progress, Butler said.
“As a parent, when you watch something like this, you think, ‘I wish I would have done something more from the beginning,’” Butler said. “It’s really just talking to experts and knowing at each phase what is appropriate, and that is one of the most terrifying things about this bill. It’s a way of fear mongering to remove all appropriate care and take that out of the hands of folks who have done research on what is appropriate care for people who are living this life and for the parents who are trying to help their children be happy and be themselves in a way that they can be proud of.”
Butler, who calls himself a child of Alabama, said he wants his family to be comfortable in their home – that includes his daughter.
“I always want to be proud of this state and want to defend the state,” Butler said. “This makes it really hard to do that because when you attack the folks who have the least, it makes it impossible to defend.”
A more transgender-friendly Alabama
According to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, so far this year at least 11 transgender or gender nonconforming people have been killed nationwide , triple the number of victims compared to this time last year. Most of the victims are Black and brown transwomen. However, HRC stresses that more the number of victims could be higher because police and media often misgender victims or identify them by using their deadname, or the name given to them at birth, instead of their chosen name.
TC Caldwell, TKO’s communications director, said a trans and gender nonconforming-friendly Alabama is possible by bulking up the state’s hate crime law to include sexuality and gender identity. The current law punishes crimes based on a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability.
“We could create anything, but without protections in place it would be difficult to maintain that progress,” Caldwell said.
Felicia Scalzetti found their love of local activism in Alabama. A gender fluid New Yorker who moved to Alabama seven years ago, Scalzetti would sometimes write to their Congress members but didn’t get involved in local activism until they joined Hometown Action, a social justice group made of small-town Alabamians.
Scalzetti listened to stories from trans youth and their parents as they expressed their anger and grief about the bills, which brought the issue closer to home: Scalzetti was no longer fighting for strangers. They were fighting for their friends. Their courage inspired Scalzetti to come out as gender fluid in Alabama, a place where they thought they would have to hide their identity.
“A lot of people are not surprised that there is an anti-trans bill in Alabama, but they may be surprised when they see a lot of push back against it,” Scalzetti told Reckon at the State House protest in early March. “The perception is that the South is not really trans-friendly or LGBTQ-friendly. But we live here and we will always be here because we are Southerners, too.”
Scalzetti believes the myth of a bigotry-filled South can fuel hopelessness. So they encourage people to find a group or cause they care about, listen to the stories of those within the disenfranchised community and organize with them.
“I think a lot of the white supremacy in the South in general is giving the impression that if you are not an old white man with generational wealth, you do not matter,” Scalzetti said. “If you can convince people that they have no power, that they have no agency, then they will never attempt to try to get it themselves because they feel like there’s no point.”
Trans rights was Scalzetti’s introduction into advocacy work. They have joined other groups since then such as Cell A65 in Birmingham, a group of young activists who fight against police brutality. While Cell A65 mostly focus on racial injustices, Scalzetti said there is a lot of intersectionality in the social justice arena. The National Center for Transgender Equality reports that transgender people, especially Black trans people, are over represented in jails and prisons.
Cell A65 has transgender and gender nonconforming members who were misgendered and deadnamed by police during the protest last summer, Scalzetti said.
“There’s so much overlap in our identities. It’s not reproductive justice and racial justice. They are all the same thing. We are all trying to empower people to fight against white supremacy,” Scalzetti said.