Vanessa Nichols didn’t watch President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. But she made sure to catch a clip of the speech later: She specifically wanted to see the part where Biden addressed transgender youth, like her 12-year-old son, Dylan.
“To all transgender Americans watching at home, especially the young people, you’re so brave,” Biden said. “I want you to know your president has your back.”
Nichols felt a rush of emotions.
“For me, it was this huge — ‘Wow, listen to this, this is the president, this is a leader, this is inclusive,’” she said. “But then after I watched it, I was like, ‘What does that mean? What does that mean that he has our kids’ back?’”
In November 2020, Nichols and Dylan left their home in Florida and moved to Costa Rica after state lawmakers nearly axed gender-affirming care for trans youth.
“With the new legislation that keeps being discussed every year, and because that legislation gets so much media attention, kids talk about it, especially at the middle school age,” Nichols said. “Those things combined just felt very unsafe to me.”
As Biden gave his speech Wednesday night, the Florida legislature was reviving and passing a bill barring transgender kids from playing sports. If signed, the bill would be the eighth of its kind in the nation.
So despite the president’s words, Nichols has to face the harsh reality that, to ensure her son’s safety, the United States might never be home again.
Nichols, like a lot of parents of transgender kids and advocates, supports Biden but is desperate to see the federal government do something about the flood of anti-transgender legislation moving through more than 30 states.
Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, said he is relieved that the president is no longer pursuing the anti-trans policies pushed under former President Donald Trump’s administration but still feels an urgency for further action.
“The attacks on trans kids are escalating and they are deadly, and both the president and Congress can and should do more,” Strangio said in an email.
Under Biden, the Department of Justice did revoke support for a lawsuit challenging the rights of trans track runners in Connecticut to compete. The Trump administration had supported the lawsuit, which aimed to bar Andraya Yearwood and Terri Miller, both Black trans women, from competition. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in April. Strangio acknowledged the constraints on Biden as bills have to face challenges in the courts and the Senate remains divided on the issue of LGBTQ+ equality.
“That said, saying you have trans kids’ backs will ring a little hollow when they are denied health care, kicked off their sports teams, and fleeing the only home states they know,” he wrote.
Sasha Buchert, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, said the president has used what leverage he has when it comes to stopping anti-transgender bills.
“I think there are a number of things [the administration] can do, and they are doing many of them,” she said. “There’s no lack of demand with the administration on the issue, and I believe that they have heard us and that they are considering this a very high priority in the work that they’re doing now.”
On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order enforcing the Supreme Court’s June 2020 ruling that employment discrimination protections apply to LGBTQ+ people. The order extended those protections beyond employment to areas of life where where sex discrimination is barred federally, like sports. On that basis, many legal experts believe that anti-transgender bills won’t hold up against court challenges.
However, advocates say that the Equality Act, landmark legislation that would enshrine LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections into federal law, is the only way to settle all legal questions from the spate of bills from statehouses. That’s the because the Equality Act would explicitly bar anti-transgender discrimination in health care and athletics, instead of asking courts to interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling to do so.
Biden had promised to sign the Equality Act within his first 100 days in office. The White House said the president still has the bill as a top priority but is waiting for Congress to send it to his desk. The bill has cleared the House but awaits a vote in the evenly divided Senate, where it would need 60 votes to pass. The White House did not respond to a request to comment for this article.
Vivian Topping, director of advocacy and civic engagement for the LGBTQ+ coalition the Equality Federation, wants to see Biden press harder for passage of the Equality Act, working directly with lawmakers to get it passed.
“I think it needs to be done, because at this point, transgender people are in danger,” she said. “I mean, we have had a significant increase in the number of transgender people who’ve been murdered this year.”
Transgender homicides have nearly doubled in the first four months of the year from 2020 to 2021; 2020 was the deadliest year in history.
Still, Topping acknowledges that other progressive bills are also tied up in Congress.
“At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily even about what the administration can do, or about what any elected officials can do, because elected officials and the federal administration, they’re not going to save us,” she said. “What does save us is ourselves in our community.”