Morgin Dupont, 25, a trans woman, holds up the flag for Transgender and Gender Noncomforming people at a rally for LGBTQI+ rights at Washington Square Park | Yana Paskova, Getty Images
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on January 30, 2023
With the new year has come renewed attacks on transgender kids in Maine.
The assault is coming via bills introduced by Republicans in the state legislature and in the form of campaigns by conservative activists at the local level, including those behind a recall of officials in a western Maine school district who pushed for an inclusive gender identity policy.
Still, with Democrats in control of the legislature as well as the Blaine House and some pro-LGBTQ legislation being introduced this session, advocates are hopeful that bills targeting trans kids will be defeated while measures to increase protections for transgender Mainers will become law.
“We’re in a place of friction, but I think we’ll see our way through this,” Gia Drew, executive director of EqualityMaine, said. “So I’m positive that we’ll get through this legislative cycle, and I think we’ll end up in a better place.”
Maine is far from the only state where policies related to trans people will be debated this session. And in some of those states, the situation is much more tenuous, as conservatives across the country have already introduced more than 100 anti-LGBTQ bills in 2023, including measures that target the safety of transgender students and their access to health care. The issue has become one front of the national right-wing culture war in schools, which has particularly targeted education on racism and gender identity.
However, Drew noted that trans people have powerful allies, including in the Biden administration and many elected officials in the Maine Legislature as well as the majority of the American people.
“There is good news,” Drew said. “I know it’s hard to say that, but there is good news.”
Legislation looks to expand trans rights
Drew said she’s excited about a number of bills this session that seek to build on gender equality measures from past legislatures. One such bill that EqualityMaine will be pushing for would allow health care settings to collect data on gender identity and sexual orientation, similar to how information for other protected categories is gathered.
Drew said such information is important, particularly given what happened during the height of the pandemic, when health data showed that COVID-19 was impacting certain groups — such as Black Mainers — at a higher rate. However, it wasn’t possible to tell how the virus was impacting LGBTQ people, Drew pointed out.
Another measure the group is advocating for would update Maine Department of Education regulations for schools when it comes to the Maine Human Rights Act, including for trans youth. Drew noted the regulations haven’t been updated for 18 years and that she believes that delay is part of the reason issues related to trans kids are now frequently being debated at the local level.
“The state has not done their job to update their regulations,” Drew said. “So I think this would be really helpful for schools across the state and for kids and parents to know where they stand in terms of their rights and what schools are expected to do, what the minimum is.”
Quinn Gormley, executive director of MaineTransNet, said she is also excited about a couple bills this session. One measure would protect MaineCare coverage for gender affirming care. Gov. Janet Mills’ administration in 2019 issued a rule requiring MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to provide such care for people. However, leaving that policy as is would make it vulnerable to being rolled back under a future Republican governor hostile to trans rights, Gormley said. As a result, advocates are looking to enshrine health coverage for trans people in statute.
Gormley added that MaineTransNet will be supporting a couple of bills around forms and documents, pointing out that only about 30% of transgender Mainers have their legal information aligned with their gender identity. The bills the organization is pushing for would improve systems to make sure there’s a universal option for non-binary people across state forms and systems.
Given the national environment targeting transgender people in many states, putting forward measures that create additional protections is crucial, Gormley said.
“As much as we’re playing defense, I think we also have to be pushing bills that support trans people of all ages,” she said. “It can’t just be that we’re fighting back against this hate, it also has to be that we’re making progress and showing that there’s another side to be had here.”
Along with those bills, Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono) is also introducing several measures to improve health care for trans Mainers and to protect access to gender affirming care. One bill would ensure that medical professionals are trained in cultural competency in order to provide adequate care for transgender, intersex and gender diverse people and that such individuals are consulted in the creation of that training.
In addition, Osher is proposing a sanctuary bill that says Maine wouldn’t cooperate with law enforcement from states that have banned gender affirming care who are investigating people who have sought such treatment in Maine.
Osher said both bills are based on measures successfully passed in California, adding that she has been in conversation with advocates from groups such as EqualityMaine and MaineTransNet about the legislation.
“We want all citizens in Maine, all people in Maine, to be treated with dignity,” Osher said. “The bills I’ve put in are about treating people with dignity who have been marginalized and treated poorly … in other states. We don’t want Maine to be one of those states.”
Still, despite the opportunity to make progress on trans rights this session, advocates must also defend against a series of bill titles put forward by Republicans that appear designed to roll back protections for LGBTQ people.
One of those measures, Gormley said, is “An Act to Eliminate Critical Race Theory, Social Emotional Learning and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion from School Curricula,” sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Adams (R-Lebanon). Measures seeking to curb education about diversity and inclusion are typically targeted at teaching about race and gender identity.
Adams has also introduced a bill title that Gormley said likely seeks to ban transgender women and girls from participating in school sports in accordance with their gender identity, a retread of a pair of Republican-led measures that lawmakers voted down last session.
In addition, there are various measures aimed at creating a parental bill of rights, an idea floated by Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage during his 2022 campaign. At a press conference introducing the policy, LePage featured a parent complaining about education on gender identity in schools.
Another bill proposal, put forward by Rep. Katrina Smith (R-Palermo), would require parental approval for school employees to use a name or pronoun other than a child’s given name and pronouns. That legislation would be in conflict with the Maine Human Rights Act, Gormley said.
Other GOP bills include several that appear aimed at prohibiting or holding school employees liable for medical decisions for children, such as gender-affirming care, without parental approval. Drew said such measures are not based in reality, pointing out that while “schools are trying their best to support students where they are, they’re not providing gender-affirming care.”
Gormley added that the current debate over parental rights in schools — particularly in relation to trans kids — lacks nuance.
“An ideal situation is one where the parents are involved, of course that’s what we all want,” she said. “But there are legitimate situations where involving the parents is going to endanger the minor.”
Both Drew and Gormley added that they see a direct link between the plethora of anti-trans bills introduced in the legislature and the recent campaign in MSAD 17, based in Paris, that resulted in the removal of two school board members who pushed for a gender-inclusive education policy. Voters in the school district earlier this month recalled school board director Sarah Otterson while fellow board member Julia Lester — Maine’s second openly-trans elected official — resigned before the vote.
Lester and Otterson were targeted over their support for a policy designed to foster a school environment that supported students of all gender identities and gave students the option to talk about their identity with adults at school, with the understanding that such conversations would remain private.
Drew said she is disappointed by the result of the recall election and said it shows how the issue of trans rights has been politicized.
“This is a concerted, organized national movement to remove LGBTQ people — especially transgender people and kids and adults who support LGBTQ people — from public schools, from being teachers, from after-school programs,” she said.
Gormley also pointed out that one of the leading advocates of the MSAD 17 recall effort, Republican Rep. John Andrews of Paris, has put forward several bills that worry her, including a measure to allow for the recall of municipal elected officials for any reason — a possible attempt to replicate what happened in Paris around the state.
The anti-trans measures put forward by Republicans are unlikely to pass Maine’s Democratic-controlled legislature. Still, Gormley said the bills can do lasting damage to trans people, and youth in particular, who are forced to see their very identity questioned and delegitimized by certain elected officials.
“I still hope that at some point in my life, I will be able to know a generation of queer and trans kids who don’t know what it feels like to have their existence debated in the legislature,” Gormley said. “It hasn’t happened yet. I think we’re going to defeat these — we’ve defeated most of them before. But the debate does real harm.”
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.