‘The Hate Doesn’t Seem to Stop.’ The hidden history of drag bans in America and what it’s like to be trans in 2023.

This summer, I asked one of my best friends, who is also trans, how they were feeling about “all the trans ish” as we caught up over the phone this past summer. What I meant by “ish” was the record 174 anti-trans laws proposed in 2022, the sensationalistic coverage about it in the media, and the rage, fear, and organizing happening in our communities.

It’s a common occurrence amongst my loved ones and I to check in about each other’s emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing in the face of the various crises circulating this country and beyond, especially in the past few years.

Being non-binary, transgender, queer, disabled, and BIPOC, my chosen family and I constantly take in messages about the ways that who we are is a problem. We are told our existence is a sin, something that must be stopped. I personally know many people who have taken their own lives as a result of hearing these kinds of messages. These messages also embolden the daily onslaught of systemic and interpersonal violence that my loved ones and I face, such as medical neglect, verbal and physical abuse from strangers and loved ones, and murder.

Sometimes it feels like the love and support we give to one another is the only thing keeping us alive.

The hate does not seem to stop. This year, four states have passed “Drag Ban” and other anti-trans legislation, while several other states follow hot on their heels. Overall, 42 states have broken 2022′s anti-trans legislative record, with 460 proposed anti-trans laws so far.

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On the other hand, all of this anti-transgender furor is nothing new. Both at the founding of the American colonies and as recently as a few years ago, state and local governments punished people who wore the clothes of or lived their lives as what others judged the wrong gender.

When anti-trans “bathroom bills” were proposed throughout the country in 2016 and 2017, I was working as a high school teacher at a majority Black and brown continuation school in San Francisco. I also served as an advisor for my school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance.

Even in a city where trans students were legally protected, it was not easy for trans students to live and learn freely in schools. I still remember the experience of a Black transfeminine student of mine. When she enrolled at our school, the school staff and I tried to create the most welcoming environment possible for her. When she shared that she did not feel comfortable using any of the restrooms because she was harassed by other students, we gave her access to a staff bathroom.

One day, she visited my office in her usual outfit: nondescript jeans and a sweatshirt with the hood up to cover her short hair. She asked me with trepidation and excitement whether I thought it was okay for her to come to school the way she liked to dress, and I encouraged her to dress in whatever way made her feel most comfortable.

She arrived at school the next day looking happy and confident. She was wearing a skirt, a fitted t-shirt, and a long-haired wig. But later that day she put her hoodie back on, her shoulders caved forward as if to hide beneath the thin fabric. Some of the boys in her class had made fun of her and would not let up despite intervention from the teachers.

The next day, she was not at school and in the following months, her attendance became erratic. I could not help but feel that she stopped coming because our efforts to support her were not enough. To this day, remembering her struggles brings tears of sadness, guilt, and anger to my eyes.

If a young trans woman cannot feel safe enough to go to school in a city where she is supposedly most welcome, what does that bode for young people in places where the state is actively seeking to reject, shame, and punish them?

Still Surviving and Thriving Despite It All

Those that know me would probably say that I have a lot of opinions. I’ve been known to share a controversial statement or three on social media. I have witnessed a range of strong reactions, from accolades to my very own entries in alt-right message boards and online magazines, where fascist trolls whine about the “wokeness” of my writing.

But in the last year, I have taken a bit of a break from speaking out as much. Call it an attempt to let my life unfold less online and more for my own witnessing.

I’m ashamed to admit that the attacks on my communities have had their desired chilling effect on my willingness to put myself out there. Perhaps it’s the culmination of almost a decade of seeing the chaos and violence that transphobia exerts on our bodies, families and lives. From laws that seek to criminalize us, to bigoted attitudes of the majority of Americans, to the increasing extrajudicial murder of Black and immigrant trans women, I often question how we are supposed to exist under such conditions.

I believe that the answer lies not only in fighting like hell for our rights, but also in practicing unapologetic joy.

Most recently, I built my joy reserves by attending my first Mardi Gras in my new hometown of New Orleans.

I was happy to see many people who appeared to be in feminine drag parading in the streets–there were almost too many to count. Though some in the crowds were most likely cisgender men wearing dresses as a “joke”, I felt a lightness, a sense of safety in knowing that I was in a space, a moment, where transgressive femininity was okay for me and those around me.

But even in this atmosphere of festival, my mind could not help but stray to the recent anti-trans drag bans. How would these radiant, glittery beings dancing in the streets act if there were police ready to hand out citations because it was illegal to perform drag in public?

All I could do in the moment was have gratitude about the fact that this was not our reality and let myself get lost in the revelry. I pranced around in my purple lamé booty shorts, glitter, the N-95 mask that I had decorated with Mardi Gras beads, and not much else.

As the day went on and we reenacted this centuries-old carnival tradition, I was struck with ancient visions.

I saw echoes of Black and Indigenous ancestral transgressive joy all around me. I realized that even during colonization and enslavement, people found ways to be their free, whole selves, even if it was only for a limited time, in limited spaces.

I saw how we have built these spaces time and again in the face of unimaginable threats to our existence. From underground gay clubs in the 1900s that provided spaces for our communities despite the threat of constant police raids, to current gay clubs existing under the specter of mass shooters and drag bans, every effort to subdue us has failed.

When I asked my friend how they were feeling about “all the trans ish,” they reminded me of an important truth: ultimately, these transphobic politicians were gonna do what they always have done and we will keep doing what we have always done.

We will be our true, triumphant selves despite whatever laws or beliefs are imposed on us. We will defy any efforts to deny us our humanity, just as our ancestors have done throughout history. We will continue to love and support one another. We will win.

Looking Back to Move Forward: A Timeline of Trans Resilience

When I first started to come out as trans in my 20s, I was grateful to meet Black and brown trans people who helped me to see myself more fully and understand my place in the world. When one of my friends shared the words of the Dagaaba tribe spiritual leader Malidoma Patrice Somé, it changed my life. Somé explained that in many African tribes, non-binary and gender variant people were and still are revered as indispensable members of society. Their roles as spiritual leaders and healers ensured that their people could survive.

By looking back, I was able to imagine who I could become. So here below is a concise take on the long history in this country of anti-trans policies and our resistance to them. I hope that seeing ourselves reflected in the following timeline of trans resilience can provide similar inspiration.

Pre-Colonization/Time Immemorial: In many indigenous cultures from Africa to the Americas, gender is defined as an expansive concept. In some communities, it doesn’t exist at all. This stands in stark contrast to the European conception of gender that has been enforced over the last 600 years.

1300s/1400s: Before Europeans oppress gender variant people in the New World, they oppress their own. People like Eleanor Rykener and Joan of Arc show how claims of witchcraft and sin were used to punish Europeans who defied gender norms.

April 8, 1629: English-born servant Thomas/Thomasine Hall faces the colonial courts of Jamestown, Virginia for gender fluidity. The court forces Thomas/Thomasine to wear articles of “both” genders at all times because they are what we would now call intersex.

1819: Gender non-conforming children who we would now call two-spirit are kidnapped and denied the honoring of their sacred roles within their communities with the establishment of Indian Boarding Schools.

1877: We’wha and other Lhamana (Zuni two-spirit) from New Mexico are imprisoned by Christian missionaries. The Zuni tribe fights for their release and once freed, We’wha continues to be a respected leader in their community.

1880s: William “The Queen” Dorsey Swann, a formerly-enslaved community leader, coins the term drag queen and establishes a queer liberation organization. The Queen embodies the generations of activism, resistance, and resilience of the Black gender variant people who came before and after him.

1920s: Storyville, New Orleans provides a counterpoint to the repression of the times. African American queer and trans people, sex workers, and drag performers create a sustainable community. The arts and culture we associate with New Orleans is born in this unique enclave.

1940s: Masquerade laws that have been on the books for decades are used by police all over the country to harass, assault, and arrest gay and trans people based on the clothes they are wearing.

1950s - 1960s: BIPOC drag queens, trans people, and lesbians initiate organized and spontaneous activism all over the country during events like those at the Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco and the Stonewall Inn in New York.

1970s: Activists pressure local and state governments to remove laws that target trans and gay people and demand national protections. These movements are ongoing–some masquerade laws were still on the books until 2021 and trans people still fight for federal protections.

2010s: Neoliberal corporate lobbyists and right wing politicians create new tactics to oppress trans and gender non-conforming people with Bathroom bills and other anti-trans laws that continue the gender-policing policies of their ancestors.

2020s: Despite the fact that most Americans oppose them, a record number of anti-trans laws are proposed, such as those attempting to stop trans children from getting vital healthcare or attending school safely, and trying to steal them from their loving and supportive parents.

Nico Dacumos (they/them he/him we/our) is a disabled non-binary trans person, a parent, and an Indigenous descendant of the so-called Philippines, Mexico, and the US. They work as an educator, writer, and artist addressing topics like queer and trans BIPOC liberation, Indigenous spiritualities and Disability Justice. They have been known to dabble in drag performance, most notably in productions for the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco.

The Perspectives section at Reckon covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time and what it means for all of us.

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