NASHVILLE — Last year, two families in Wilson County, Tenn., signed on as plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging Tennessee legislation that prohibits transgender students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identities. But as WPLN News reported last week, both families have since left the state, believing their children would not be safe here long enough to see the lawsuit through. Now that the plaintiffs have moved away, a district judge has dismissed the suit.
In many ways, this development tells us more about the state of human rights in the red states than either the lawsuit or the law it challenges. When people are so committed to justice that they sue the state they live in and then are forced to leave anyway, it serves as yet another stark reminder that fighting institutional prejudice always comes at a cost.
When Tennessee’s so-called bathroom bill went into effect last year, Amy Allen’s son, a middle-schooler, responded by skipping liquids and avoiding the school bathroom altogether. As the bill was making its way through the legislative process, Ms. Allen, a former teacher who has done extensive research into transgender issues, tried to educate state legislators about the damage the law would do to already vulnerable children. She also tried to talk with someone in the governor’s office. All her efforts were rebuffed.
With no recourse, she enrolled her child in a private school. When that school didn’t work out, the family moved to Massachusetts.
The boy is happy in his new school. His mother is happy, too. “Moving here, for me personally, has been just this sigh of relief,” Ms. Allen told WPLN’s Marianna Baccallao. “Like, I can just go back to just being a human being and not the activist mom, you know?”
News reports from the red states right now tend to be centered on the legislative fallout of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and that’s understandable: The news is nothing less than horrific. Physicians afraid to treat life-threatening conditions in their pregnant patients because the language of the laws is so vague. Women forced to carry babies that will not survive outside the womb. Abortion bans with no exceptions for rape or incest, even when the victim is a young child.
But the red-state scramble to out-“Handmaid’s Tale” their neighboring states isn’t the only human rights crime that legislators are perpetrating against their own citizens. In Tennessee, new laws went into effect on July 1 that perfectly illustrate the point. One measure criminalizes homelessness by making it a felony — a felony! — to camp on public property. Another bans transgender athletes from participating in school sports. Still another requires public schools to block online resources “deemed to be harmful to minors.”
We should note that the far right deems a lot of things harmful to minors, including educational materials related to sex and gender. In practice, this is a book-banning law affecting the only database that most public schools in the state have access to.
“When people ask me if I miss Tennessee, I say I miss my friends,” Ms. Allen told WPLN. “But Tennessee broke my heart. It’s a wonderful place full of so many wonderful people who, if they were paying attention to what the legislature does, would be horrified.”
Ms. Allen is right. Tennessee is a wonderful place, and it is filled with truly wonderful people, most of whom are paying absolutely no attention to what the Republican caucus of the Tennessee General Assembly is up to. According to a survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, nearly 79 percent of Americans — including 65 percent of Republicans — support laws that protect L.G.B.T.Q. people from discrimination. “In states with anti-L.G.B.T.Q.+ legislation pending, approximately two-thirds of people support expanding, not restricting, L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights,” noted a statement by the Human Rights Campaign in March. As it turns out, most Americans today can be trusted to know which things are truly harmful to minors and which are only dog whistles aimed at far-right zealots.
When states are led by zealots, many of the people who live there are governed by laws they vehemently oppose. And with no help coming from the U.S. Supreme Court for the foreseeable future, we now have a country in which the citizens of red states don’t have the same rights and civil liberties as the citizens of blue states.
All of which presents a conundrum for the people who are paying attention to what’s happening in their state legislatures, especially those with children whose happiness and safety are made even more precarious by legislation that targets already vulnerable students.
I think often these days about Ruby Bridges, the first grader who integrated New Orleans public schools in 1960. Tiny Ruby had to be escorted to her new school, William Frantz Elementary, by federal marshals to protect her from the mob of white people that formed every morning along her route. With marshals stationed just outside the door, Ruby spent all day that year in a classroom in which she was the lone student.
Five other Black children were also chosen to enroll in William Frantz Elementary in 1960, but only Ruby’s parents stayed the course. And even with the protection of the federal government, they surely considered changing their minds countless times during that dangerous first year of integration.
This has always been the far right’s strategy for spreading hatred: Silence voices for acceptance and change, and drive the oppressed to disheartened abandonment. It’s the strategy they are using against their most vulnerable citizens now.
“The South, which is home to one-third of L.G.B.T.Q. Americans, is poised to become the epicenter of the next focused wave of attacks on our legal rights,” the Campaign for Southern Equality, a nonprofit advocacy group, said in a statement last week. Today it would be illegal to exclude transgender children from public schools, but legislators across the red states have made it nearly impossible for them to stay. Impossible, at least, for families who have the means to leave. Many, many don’t.
Last year, in an irony they failed to recognize, the Williamson County, Tenn., chapter of Moms for Liberty challenged a children’s-book version of Ruby’s experience as a pioneer for school integration. They claimed the book was in violation of a new Tennessee law prohibiting any teaching that individuals “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.”
Ruby Bridges grew up to become a powerful voice for ending racism, but our children shouldn’t be asked to bear the responsibility of challenging the unjust status quo. Nevertheless, a powerful minority of Southern white conservatives today don’t want their children to know what Southern white conservatives did in the past. Presumably, the Southern white conservatives of the future won’t want their children to know what Southern white conservatives are doing today, either.
But justice is justice, whatever they may believe to the contrary. People driven to limit the rights of L.G.B.T.Q. citizens are in the minority, even here, though being in the minority hasn’t stopped them from making young people suffer. The only thing that will stop them is pushback from voters who recognize injustice when they see it — and the parents of vulnerable children shouldn’t be the only ones who do.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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