Anti-LGBT laws like the new one in Alabama are ‘ridiculous,’ ‘harmful’ and ‘unconstitutional,’ Sydney Duncan explains

We are seeing wave after wave after wave of legislation in this country that targets LGBT youth and adults. Especially the trans community. In Texas, an order issued by the governor would allow the state to take children away from their homes if their parents are trans affirming. In Florida and Alabama, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law could penalize teachers that displayed family photos with their same sex partners. Other laws and bills would require teachers to out gay students to their parents.

Some politicians have tried to mask their intent with these bills as a way to “protect women’s sports,” though as the governor of Utah pointed out when he vetoed one anti-trans bill, the number of trans athletes competing is an incredibly small number. It’s a cynical effort to target a marginalized population in order to gain political power. It’s an approach to governing that has real consequences for real people.

This week on the Reckon Interview, we hear from Sydney Duncan, an attorney with the Magic City Legal Center in Birmingham, Ala. She offers pro bono services to queer and trans youth in Alabama. Students that know exactly who they are and are forced to deal with a society that is going out of its way to attack them. Sydney is a trans woman herself, and she walks us through a lot of the myths that politicians use to misinform a public that knows very little about trans people.

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

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Reckon: We are here to discuss the latest wave of anti-trans and anti-LGBT, in general, legislation that is sweeping across the country, seems to be something I guess that’s constantly happening, but really takes off every few years, like happened in 2016 with the North Carolina bathroom bills.

What do you see right now? And what do you think is driving it?

Sydney Duncan: What’s driving it? Well, it’s politically popular. I mean, long story short. I think people offer bills for a variety of reasons, but usually they’re to correct something that’s happening within society or to address something that’s happening in society that you know is often a negative thing, to solve a problem, or they’re done for political purposes. The problems that proponents of these bills say exists just simply don’t. I mean, it is just factual. The things that they say are happening within the trans community and to children within the trans community just aren’t happening. If it’s not to solve a problem that exists then it must be for political purposes, and this is clearly a hot button topic right now, I think in our community. In our nation.

That’s true, I think, for a variety of different reasons that we can for sure get into. What’s simply driving it is that it is a wedge issue that they’ve identified a population– or a audience maybe is a better word to use– for which it is well-received, and an audience for which it is against. And those things happen to exist on two different spectrums of the political stratosphere of the country. Um, and they fall neatly into right and left categories, right?

If that’s true, then it can be used as a political advantage for certain candidates to get behind. And because it’s well-received and because it’s popular, there’s a constant drive to make these things happen. And what supports that infrastructure, that sort of political round table, I guess, is that there is little to none education on people of trans existence.

So your average Alabamian does not know someone who’s trans. And therefore they may be subjected or open to ideas about the trans population that wouldn’t be true. Because they have no frame of reference. They don’t know someone who lives next door that is trans and they can say, “oh, that’s not true.” So things that aren’t true are easily accessible and easily consumable by the general population of this country.

And it’s not just an Alabama problem. As you said, it’s sweeping across the nation. So it’s happening everywhere unfortunately.

You know, we talked about the fact that this is a hot button issue and it seems to be a hot button issue in part because the right wing media apparatus has pushed it as a wedge issue, particularly the sports aspect of it. Can you talk a little bit about, how common and how prevalent it actually is for trans athletes to compete in NCAA level sports or in the Olympics or things like that?

Duncan: The rules allowing for trans athletes have been around for literally decades. NCAA and the Olympics have had rules for this for a long time. This is not a new thing to occur within our population. It’s been around for awhile. So I think what has happened is the community of trans existence, in the pop culture at least, has become a little more accessible. You’re now seeing celebrities that are trans and you’re seeing people identifying as trans publicly now and coming out and it’s celebrated in a portion of our society at least. I think the greater portion of our society celebrates that. What you see in sports is, because there’s such a misunderstanding, I think, of trans existence, you know, the science behind trans existence, the medicine behind trans existence, and the things that that does, it is open to reimagination of those athletes’ experience. And the things that it does.

What we have found is that there aren’t a lot of trans athletes. We were positioning to respond to the sports bill as it passed in Alabama with a lawsuit. And to do that, we would need a plaintiff. And we went border to border in the state, north and south, east and west, looking for a trans athlete and could not find a single one to object. The sponsors of the bill have been on record in the legislation as saying they’ve never known anyone within their own district, let alone the state that have experienced a disadvantage to a trans person.

So, it doesn’t happen. The proponents in support of that bill brought in people from out of state to talk about the bill and talk about their experiences. So it just doesn’t happen a lot. I’m not saying there aren’t trans athletes out there, but it is such a micro micro part of our population that it’s almost ridiculous to have these laws in place to affect them. Now, if you had like a law that affected, you know, trans participation in Dungeons and Dragons, I could probably get you about 25 plaintiffs to fight that. But I mean, we’re not experiencing a lot of standout athletes who are trans. And I know that right now with Lia Thomas, I know that she’s a popular sort of pinpoint for this, but, like, she’s it. There aren’t a lot, right?

Reckon: Well, when Utah’s governor vetoed the bill in Utah, he pointed out, I think, statewide that were four trans athletes. I think there are people who would ask reasonable questions about, you know, is a trans woman who went through puberty and experienced full testosterone, might they have some advantages over a woman that did not go through that process? But it would seem like that’s something that’s already being decided by the rules governing committees of these sports, not something that would be governed by the state of Alabama or the state of Texas or the state of Florida. I mean, is that fair to say?

Duncan: That is fair to say. And, you know, I think historically NCAA and the Olympics, particularly, those are institutions that have had rules in place for a while now, have not experienced these massive disadvantage scenarios where trans people have dominated the sport. It just hasn’t happened.

Now, what you’re asking is sort of a different question though. It’s could there be a disadvantage that exists? And the reality is that there’s like zero research being done right now in this area. There is just none. And I think what both sides are relying on are the same two studies. And I’m pretty sure they’re both British studies. They both came to conclusions that support both sides in a certain context. You know, when you’re talking about testosterone and those advantages, there can be an advantage that dissipates over the course of a couple of years, I think is the standard understanding. But there just isn’t research in that.

I mean, nobody is throwing a lot of money into the transgender experience to understand the science and the research behind it. The medicine as it exists has existed for decades. And that is largely anecdotal. I mean, it’s clearly effective and it’s clearly not dangerous. And it is good medicine learned through the use of that medicine over the course of decades. So what we have here is just a lot of anecdotal evidence, I think, with regard to sports in that trans people have been playing sports for decades and just haven’t dominated at all. There has been no takeover of transports, right? There just hasn’t.

Reckon: Let’s walk through a couple of these bills, or a couple of the states, and what they’ve been doing and kind of break down the reality of the lived experience and what this legislation does. So, Texas, for example, I think it was actually a governor’s order and not state legislation that passed. It does some pretty insane policing of the trans community in Texas. What’s happening in Texas?

Duncan: Texas is, I mean, you started on the worst one. It is far and away worse than any other state reaction to trans existence that has happened. It’s shocking to me what they’re doing. I think it should be shocking to any parents to have the state come in and question the parental rights that are in place with the child and the parenting of that child and then subject that child to potential removal from the home. I mean, that’s unbelievable. It’s hard to even put in to words. It’s just stuff that you haven’t heard about since the 30s or 40s or something like that. It’s just.

Reckon: Yeah, they have said that they would take away children from parents if those parents are willing to provide them with trans affirming care. So basically if you support your trans child, that child could be taken away from you.

Duncan: They define it as child abuse. And you’re seeing… that seemed to be like a threshold in the Republican party that hadn’t been crossed. And now that it has been crossed by Texas, though it isn’t in the legislation and other laws, you are seeing proponents of those laws– like you are in Alabama– start to insert that phrase into their description in their discussion of the laws itself. Child abuse. It’s a stunning, stunning thing for them to accuse a parent of doing for their child. I mean, and I feel horrible about this because I can’t imagine a parent of– I mean, I am a parent, but I can’t imagine being a parent of a trans child and then having to learn about it, first of all, which, like I said, nobody knows any trans people, generally, in the United States. It’s such a small portion of a portion of the population. You know, having to educate yourself, learn about it, accept your child as they are. And children generally are doing this as sort of a last– not really a last grasp but I mean, they’re struggling with their identity. They’re going through some things. And when they find this and it helps them, to be a parent and to go through those emotions of trying to understand and then address and then seek… which there are no resources out there. Just about. We’re lucky to have the Magic City Wellness Center here in Birmingham, but that is an oasis comparatively to other states.

And so to go through all these steps to try and desperately find something to help your child and then for the state to come in and say you’re abusing your child. When this could be the last resort for that child, this could be the last thing that they’ve turned to that makes sense to them and makes them feel better.

And for them to call it child abuse, it’s just stunning to me. I’m so saddened by it.

Reckon: I know there are different ways to transition. What does the transition process most commonly look like for trans women and trans men and what is actually happening with children? You know, like with people who are under 18? You know, are there irreversible surgeries and things like that happening for people under 18?

Duncan: First of all, I’m not a doctor, but generally speaking, no, there are no irreversible effects. What we’re dealing with when it comes to youth is suppressants, right? It’s basically hormone suppressants, no surgeries whatsoever. And no hormones until late teens. Which has been sort of the fundamental insanity of the laws is the things that they’re seeking to address aren’t happening.

They don’t want surgery in Alabama for children. Well, that’s never happened. It’s not happening. It’s not happening across the country. And you could not find a doctor to do surgery on a child with regard to their gender. That isn’t a thing that happens. Hormones aren’t really a thing that happened until very late in their teens.

And what you’re talking about is hormone suppressants and that just keeps puberty at bay for a little bit, until they’re old enough to take it to the next level if they want to.

For adults, it’s a different situation. It’s the suppressants and the hormones. And trans guys get the testosterone, trans women get the estrogen. And it just sort of does its thing. It’s medicine that’s been around for a long time. It’s been used for a very long time and it just couldn’t be safer. I mean, there’s like no evidence whatsoever in the decades of the use of these drugs that they’re problematic.

The phrase that you see a lot of the GOP and proponents of the bill use is that it’s “experimental.” And they’re trying to lock on that it’s like off-use. All of it’s FDA approved, but it’s sort of off-use. So it’s not like approval for use, which a lot of drugs do. So they’re saying it’s experimental. And it’s new and crazy. And it’s been around for 40 years. Older than I am. It is older than I am. And I’m old enough, I think.

Reckon: And then in Florida, I think that’s another case where that seems to be the kind of template bill that states like Alabama and other places around the country are using. What would Florida’s legislation do?

Duncan: Well, all along, I’ve kind of been talking about one of the problems that we have in the trans community, is that not a lot of people know us, right? Or know about us. Two of the same things. And so if you don’t know a lot about trans existence, you don’t know a trans person, then the bills and the efforts to sort of dehumanize them or oppress or discriminate or whatever you want to say. That population is a much easier prospect if there’s no education or understanding about them. And that’s true for LGBTQ people across the board and always has been. And I think it’s true for every minority in every oppressed population that’s ever existed. The less you know about them, the easier it is to keep them oppressed. “Don’t Say Gay” is just an effort to keep that understanding from happening basically. Right?

If you’re not learning about it in school that these people exist, then it’s very easy to have a negative understanding of who they are. A negative misunderstanding, I should say about who they are. And that’s basically it. It’s not a terribly complicated endeavor. It is, again, political in nature. Because it’s not solving a problem. People aren’t learning about being trans and then saying, “now that I understand it, I’m going to be a trans person.”

That’s not how it happens. I had no understanding of trans people. None whatsoever. I had zero understanding of it. And I’m a trans person.

Reckon: When did you first start to have an inkling that you might be trans, even if you couldn’t put it into words?

Duncan: It’s an evolution. But for me and I think for a lot of people that I have met, you have these feelings that you can’t really define. You struggle to find a definition for that. And then once you do or once you kind of figure out what it is, then you sort of have to go through the motions about, well is this the thing that I should be? Or that I am? You know, it’s just a struggle. That’s sort of the coming out process is the self-acceptance part, which is definitely the hardest part.

What we’re talking about here is one of the most important reasons why representation matters in media, education, everywhere. Because if you can’t see yourself reflected back in your community, then it’s very hard to see where you fit in it. If how you feel isn’t represented anywhere in your community, or if what you are isn’t represented anywhere in your community, then that’s a struggle. I mean, you kind of feel isolated and you tend to maybe shut those things off and live in misery.

Reckon: How old were you when you transitioned?

Duncan: Very late. I mean, I’ve been, you know, going at it I think publicly for about five years now. So not a long time. I’ve had these feelings for a long time, a very long time.

Reckon: In general, what is life like for trans youth and trans people in Alabama and in the South?

Duncan: I mean, you look at the programs that we have at Birmingham AIDS Outreach, you can kind of maybe piece together what’s going on. We just opened the Magic City Acceptance Academy. And why did we do that? It was because there is a large community of school aged kids out there going to schools and they’re being bullied. And they’re not only being bullied by the kids that are there. I mean, that’s one thing. The heartbreaking thing is they’re being bullied by teachers.

And what do you do about that as a parent? If the teacher is bullying your child about their identity, I mean, who do you go to? Superintendent? They’re going to support the teachers, is what we see. They support their system they have in place. They don’t want to admit that there’s a problem. Certainly don’t want education. Because they often subscribed to the sort of, Don’t Say Gay philosophy of it, “if you teach kids, they’ll become it.” Well, they are that already. And they’re just being abused for it right now by the system they’re exposed to.

So the Acceptance Academy was a reaction to that. My clients have just a spectrum of different issues related to their transition. None of them are internal to themselves, though. It is all sort of the community that they’re in, the parents that they have, the job that they have, the place that they’re living. And those places don’t like who our clients are. It’s not that our clients have these sort of internal problems that are manifesting and causing issues with their lives. The world is having a problem with them and causing issues in their lives. And we’re having to react to that.

It’s heartbreaking. Probably the most common problem that we have that is a real heartbreaker for us is, you know, in a divorced family, you’ll have a kid who decides he’s either gay or trans or whatever on the spectrum of LGBTQ. Has a supportive parent and then has a very unsupportive parent, who’s oftentimes abusive in a different way. And then they go to a court system and both are fighting for their position, which is that they are the better parent. And if, you know, the court subscribes the Don’t Say Gay sort of philosophy of LGBTQ, then who are they going to go with? The bad parent. “The bad parent” from the perspective of the child.

It’s hard because religion, especially here in the South, sort of intersects very heavily with this population’s acceptance, unfortunately. There aren’t a lot of churches out there that are accepting or welcoming, but there are a whole lot of very religious people out there who have kids who are trans or have friends who are trans. And the shaping of their understanding, since there’s a lack of it, there’s a vacuum of education about the LGBTQ experience. They go with the religious understanding of it. And that’s not great. We have churches here in Birmingham that are wonderful churches that prove for sure that you can be both LGBTQ and subscribe to the religion of your belief. And those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Reckon: I know that you’ve gone to Montgomery, and you’ve spoken to legislators who are involved with bills like this. And I guess it’s worth pointing out like there’s some speculation that bills like this would keep you as a trans woman from being involved with, you know, PTA or things like that, because acknowledging the existence of a trans parent would fall under the Don’t Say Gay aspect of these bills. And there might be a question mark for whether or not the Magic City Acceptance Academy could exist as a public school. So I’m curious, when you talk with legislators, it seems unlikely that they know trans people and they don’t really think about how these bills will affect trans people. Like you said, it’s a political thing. What do they say when you point out the real world impact that it does have on people?

Duncan: Yeah. So I think I disagree with you a little bit that they don’t understand. The conversations that I’ve had with legislators, I think they absolutely understand it. I think there’s a calculus that they’ve done that the population is so small, that the harm that they’ll do to that population is an unknown quantity and since the population’s so small anyway, the political benefit of doing it far outweighs what the negative connotations might be. Or the negative impact might be. Especially on a thing like a sports bill. I mean, they didn’t know anyone who was going to be affected. So why not go for something like that?

The absurdity of these things is, I’ve spoken to some legislators. They aren’t intellectuals, I think maybe is a polite way to put that, in a traditional sense. I think they are at their hearts, maybe, good people. A lot of them are family people. They come from various small places in the state.

They have a very narrow understanding of the world and that doesn’t make them bad. It just makes them, for lack of a better word, ignorant to some extent. And I think in my conversations with them, they have been very open to learning and open to the things that I’ve spoken to them about.

And I’ve spoken to them both on the trans experience and the legalities of it. These laws are just completely… They’re just jokes. I mean, there’s so unconstitutional that we’d laugh about it behind the scenes a little bit in our little cohorts, if they weren’t doing so much damage. But I mean, there are ridiculous in every sense of that word, they are ridiculous.

You know, they understand, I think, the realities of what they’re doing. I do think that. And I think they understand, a lot of them, now, especially, after two years of this, they’re educated on it. And they understand, the perspective of people of trans experience and they understand what it’s going to do. But what they’re having now is, because it’s such a popular thing to champion in the right wing, they’re having like their pastor come up to them and tell them,” you go to Montgomery and you protect those girls from those trans people” or whatever. You know, “keep them out of the bathrooms where they’re going to be raping.” It’s absurd. Wes Allen’s bill, the medical bills, in their worldview, it’s protecting kids from, kids right? In their mind, children are going to school and raping other children, trans children are going to school and raping other children. And it’s just absurd. And a little bit sick, actually. I mean, Scott Stadthagen I think is now on his second bill that has to do with children’s genitals. I mean, out of the world that I’ve been living in, he’s the one that I’m worried about my children hanging out with.

Reckon: Well, yeah. And then there’s something to the extent that these legislators are obsessing over the idea that the existence of trans people equals sex. You would not be able to have trans teachers, you wouldn’t be able to have trans coaches, trans lunch ladies, trans parents involved with school. And it’s not like cis parents go in and people have this presumption that their existence equal sex. And it seems somehow pathological.

Duncan: It’s been one of the hardest things to get the legislators to understand. And to be fair, it’s not just the Republicans. The Democrats have struggled a little bit with this too. We’ve had a couple of really good Democrats Chris England and Neil Rafferty had been fantastic in sort of bringing the old guard into the new world. It’s been a struggle, I think, across the board for them to kind of get it.

Reckon: Well and on a national level, it does not seem like there’s been a lot of urgency for Democrats to pass laws that stop states from doing this, that would intervene. I mean, I know Joe Biden says all the time, “trans kids I’ve got your back,” but there hasn’t been any legislation or prescriptive policy action put into place for that, right?

Duncan: There hasn’t as far as I know. I mean, there are executive orders. What you have is the Bostock decision that kind of exists out there. That’s the Title VII employment case that was decided, I think, two years ago now. What is time? I don’t even know. And so, you have that decision that happened which reframed– didn’t really reframe– but it kind of stated the obvious that obviously discriminating against somebody based on their gender identity or sexual orientation would be sex discrimination. And therefore it pulled it into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

And a little bit before that, and I can’t remember what Trump did, I know that Obama sort of tried to address it at the EEOC. But what you have following that are some executive orders that affect school that are Title IX in nature. And so they kind of bring in that definition and say schools can’t discriminate on the basis of sex orientation or gender identity. So you have some executive orders that extend. What typically happens is… civil rights kind of happen like this. They usually start at the job level, because people tend to get discriminated at their job and then want to do something about that, as opposed to other places.

So you have a Title VII case that sets a new definition, a new federal definition, for that discrimination. And then that tends to extend to Title IX, like school cases, and then Title II, public accommodation cases. And those are usually brought in by lawsuits, by more cases that go through the Supreme Court. But then the Supreme Court applies that definition that they’ve already decided. What we have in the Bostock case is a very conservative court, which has decided that definition. And there’s a little bit of panic in the community that, oh my God. Well now we have this very, very conservative court and they’re going to go back and change their definition. I do not see that happening. They’ve decided. That is a two-year old case. I don’t think they’re going to undecide that case based on the change of, I think, one judge has flipped. Believe it was a six-nine [sic] decision at the Bostock level. The Supreme Court isn’t going to say, “here’s our definition. Wait, we changed our mind. It’s now this definition.” They’re going to keep to what they’ve already decided.

Reckon: I think it would also be, I guess, easy for somebody who’s listening to this that maybe lives in a different part of the country to say, “well, Sydney, why are you still there?” You know, if a state like Alabama is about to pass one of the harshest anti-trans bills in the country. You know, obviously somebody has to stay here and do this work. It doesn’t seem like your life is as easy as it could be maybe elsewhere. So what keeps you rooted in Birmingham?

Duncan: I mean, look, it’s home. I like it here. I think Alabama gets a bad rap, but it’s a wonderful place to live, despite some very narrow-mindedness that exists in the state. The city of Birmingham has been wonderful to me. Very open and accepting. I love it. I mean, I want to make it better for the next generation. I don’t want to just leave it. It’s my home too. I want to fight for it. I think my voice is just as important as the proponents of this bill. We won’t be shoved around by them. We’re going to stand and fight for the Alabama that we think should exist.

Reckon: You are also an author and a comic book writer. Tell me a little bit about your work.

Duncan: I write for Dark Horse Comics. Right now, we had a comic book graphic novel that came out 2019. It was like December, I think, 2019, is when it debuted it so just in time for the pandemic. It was a lot of fun. It’s called Kill Whitey Donovan. Because of course, if you live in Alabama, I think you have to write about the Civil War at some point. But we did that and it was really well received. It got a movie deal, which is sort of in development right now.

And I got another book coming out with Dark Horse in 2023 and just write novels and have fun with it. It’s kind of an escape for me. Everyone has something, right? I’ll tell people that this is my golf, right? This is what I do when I need to get away from everything is I sit down and start writing ridiculous stories about vengeful women in the South.

Reckon: What can you tell us about the movie deal? Should we expect to see something in the next few years?

Duncan: I think so, yeah. Hideout Pictures is the production company and they had a recent hit called Old Henry. They’re doing a lot of stuff with financing other films. And they’re excited about this. We have a script that wasn’t written by me. It was written by somebody else. Sigrid Gilmer was the writer and she’s, she’s really cool. She had a great take on it and we’re excited to see where it goes.

Reckon: Can’t wait to see it. As we wrap up, if there were one thing that you wish our listeners understood about what it’s like to be trans in the South and ways to talk to their friends and neighbors and push back on legislation like this, what would you tell them?

Sydney Duncan: Well, I mean, if I’m talking to friends and neighbors, I think my friends and neighbors know everything that I need them to know. If I’m talking to a population that I don’t know, what I would hope that you would do is that you would educate yourself a little bit on trans identities and the trans experience before you go believing the things that you’re hearing out of people who are using my population, my community, as a political wedge issue. Talk to someone. Go out and meet someone who’s trans. We are mostly cool. I’m a big proponent of curiosity, right? I want people to be curious about me. I don’t mind questions. I want them to be curious about the things that they don’t understand. And I think when you are curious, and when you do seek to learn about the things that you don’t understand, you have a humane approach to maybe that issue and that topic. So go out and meet someone who’s trans. Talk to them. Hear their story. What you need to know is that trans people just want to exist. I mean, we just want to be private in our little world and enjoy our existence in our country, in our state, the way that you do. And that’s about it.

Support the Magic City Legal Center herePurchase Sydney Duncan’s graphic novel, “Kill Whitey Donovan” here.

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