While defending against attacks, opportunities emerge to extend trans rights in Maine / Evan Popp

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.  

Photo: A chalk drawing of the Transgender Pride Flag | MaineTransNet

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.” 

Challenges remain 

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.” 

Photo: Beacon

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 evan@mainebeacon.com.

Maine News: Activists protest outside Maine mansion of conservative Supreme Court architect / by Evan Popp

Photo: Activists at the protest by Leo’s house on Saturday | Tina Stein  

Activists in Maine protested Saturday outside the Northeast Harbor home of Leonard Leo, the co-chairman of the Federalist Society who has played a leading role in building the conservative Supreme Court majority that recently overturned federal abortion rights. 

Leo famously developed a list of right-wing jurists that included all three of President Donald Trump’s eventual nominees to the bench. Each of those justices — Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — joined in a June court ruling described by advocates as “dangerous and chilling” that overturned Roe v. Wade

The New Yorker has called Leo “in effect, Trump’s subcontractor” on high court nominations. And a writer with the National Review stated in 2016 that, “No one has been more dedicated to the enterprise of building a Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade than the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo.”

Leo bought a nearly 8,000 square foot mansion in Northeast Harbor — on Mount Desert Island — during the fall of 2018. In 2019, activists protested outside the house when Sen. Susan Collins attended a private campaign fundraiser there. 

Collins, a Maine Republican, famously cast a pivotal vote in favor of confirming Kavanaugh, one of the conservatives Leo helped elevate to the court, and also voted for Gorsuch. Activists warned that both were hostile to abortion rights, but Collins — who says she is pro-choice — still voted for them, arguing they would respect precedent set by Roe. Wade. Both Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, however, ultimately voted to overturn abortion rights.  

A participant at the protest Saturday | Courtesy photo

Saturday’s protest was the continuation of a number of rallies outside Leo’s mansion, including one in June at which participants celebrated the elevation to the Supreme Court of President Biden nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson and gathered to let Leo know “we are for justice, equity and love, not hate.” 

Dixie Hathaway, one of the people at the demonstration over the weekend, said the goal of the rally was to “raise awareness that this person is the one who’s primarily responsible for our Supreme Court and for all the horrible” rulings the court has made. She noted that such awareness is important given that many people don’t know who Leo is. 

“We would like to make him feel uncomfortable,” Hathaway said, adding that some participants have contacted local nonprofits that receive money from Leo to let them know about his background and to make the argument that his donations are “intended to buy acceptance in the community.” 

Hathaway said the court’s June abortion decision is just one harmful ruling the majority Leo helped seat has recently made. During the last term, right-wingers on the bench also severely limited the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to combat climate change and struck down a New York gun control law. 

Hathaway and another demonstrator, Tina Stein, both told Beacon that Leo seemed upset by the protest on Saturday and that the police were called about the demonstration, and Hathaway shared a photo with Beacon of an officer on the scene. However, she said activists stood their ground.

Overall, participants have had a number of productive conversations with people passing by during the demonstrations, Hathaway added. She said many of those people know about Leo and are sympathetic to the protests. 

An attempt to reach Leo for comment about the rally was unsuccessful. 

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 evan@mainebeacon.com.

Maine Beacon, July 25, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/

Maine Opinion: There’s no such thing as ‘pro-life,’ and no such thing as ‘pro-life feminism’ / by Aspen Ruhlin

If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you may have noticed that I don’t refer to people who oppose abortion access as “pro-life,” but instead as “anti-abortion.” Along with being vague, the “pro-life” label simply doesn’t reflect their views. Denying the autonomy and wellbeing of pregnant people certainly doesn’t align with the idea of being in support of life, and in fact actively devalues the lives of people who have had and will have abortions.

There are as many reasons that someone would seek out abortion care as there are people that have abortions. These reasons are sometimes boxed into strict categories of “necessary” versus “frivolous.” Like most binaries, this doesn’t come close to accurately describing a person’s lived experience. 

All abortions are necessary. Control over your own body is a human right, and that includes continuing or ending a pregnancy. A common retort from the anti-abortion crowd is that having an abortion violates the “autonomy” of a fetus, a claim that ignores both that a fetus isn’t a person, and that people do not have the right to use someone else’s body. If I needed a kidney transplant to live, I wouldn’t have the right to force another living person to donate theirs to me. In fact, I wouldn’t even have the right to make a dead person donate their kidney to me, as people have to consent to being an organ donor, even if they end up in a position where they no longer need those organs. If people can understand bodily autonomy in this context, why can’t they grasp it for pregnant people?

This brings us to the more specific topic of so-called “pro-life feminists.” As I’ve already established, I take issue with the label of “pro-life” anyways and consider it a misnomer—given the disrespect towards pregnant people inherent to being anti-abortion coupled with the violence that is frequently displayed by those activists. Defining feminism can be a bit trickier. As a feminist myself who prioritizes a practice that centers marginalized voices and keeps the influence of intersectionality in mind, it can be easy to simply claim that someone is not a real feminist. While I do think that can be true, as people can slap on any label they want in a bid for legitimacy, it can also quickly turn into a “no true Scotsman” purity test. More useful than simply writing off self-proclaimed feminists who hold anti-feminist values is pointing out the cognitive dissonance they are displaying. This is true of white-centered feminism that ignores the impact of race, thus ignoring the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other women of color, and of TERFs, or trans eradicating radical feminists, who rely heavily on biological essentialism and the notion that a person is defined only by their reproductive capabilities.

An anti-abortion feminist would be someone who claims to support gender equality, but doesn’t support the autonomy of pregnant people. Given that anti-abortion sentiments and transphobia tend to be common bedfellows, this would also likely be someone who views all people who have abortions as women, meaning that they specifically don’t view women as deserving the right to self-determination, while simultaneously claiming to be pro-woman. I do not buy the idea of genuinely believing in feminism and also viewing women as less-than. Just as “pro-life” is a misnomer, “pro-life feminism” is as well.

This notion of a “pro-life feminist” is fresh on my mind after a draft Supreme Court opinion was leaked Monday evening showing the court planned to overturn Roe v. Wade. Also, the March 30 arrest of Lauren Handy, a well-known anti-abortion activist currently working with Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising. Handy was found to have five stolen fetuses in her possession, and claimed to have stolen a total of 115 fetal tissue samples in her apartment. Nothing says “progressive” like opposing the autonomy of pregnant people and stealing medical waste products, right? This behavior certainly pokes holes in the argument that anti-abortion advocates make that they are concerned with the respectful and safe handling of fetal tissue samples, as it is not best practice to store biohazard materials in coolers in an apartment.

When it comes down to it, there is no good reason to oppose abortion access, particularly if you claim to have feminist values. To truly value life, you have to value the lives of pregnant people and trust that they know their needs.

Photo: Hundreds turned out for a pro-abortion rally in Portland on October 2, 2021. | Sam Spadafore, Beacon

Aspen Ruhlin is a Client Advocate in the Bangor area, where they help people overcome barriers to accessing healthcare. They have a particular focus on serving the trans community and increasing access to gender-affirming care. In their off time, they enjoy embroidery, gardening, and participating in an array of activism.

Maine Beacon, May 3, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/

Report: Gaps in data limit Maine’s ability to support marginalized women / by Maine News Service

Photo: Lewiston resident Rose Walker, who works as an Ed Tech, has struggled to find and afford childcare for her own children throughout the pandemic. | courtesy of Rose Walker

A new report finds the pandemic disproportionately impacted women, but that gaps in data limit Maine’s ability to help those in need.

Women are more likely than men to be caregivers in their families —whether for their children, family members with disabilities or the elderly — and they’re also more likely to be employed in the care economy.

Anne Gass is an independent historian and the report chair for Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, which released the report. She said there are barriers to adequate data collection, such as privacy concerns and lack of uniformity in the way data is collected.

“How many of the women are women of color?” asked Gass. “How many of them are refugees? How many of them had children who have disabilities, or are women with disabilities themselves? What we find is that, it’s just really difficult sometimes to parse that data out and find that information out.”

The report says better data is needed regarding women in the care industry and those who provide unpaid care to their families.

It also stresses the need for information on how many women are enrolled in social-service or public-assistance programs, and how eligibility and demand for programs lines up with enrollment.

Gass noted that many assistance programs are siloed, meaning they don’t share any data with each other.

She said when Mainers apply for assistance programs, they have to share personal information with intake workers they’ve never met — and sometimes having to do that over and over again keeps folks away from these benefits.

“We do need to make sure that they’re eligible, and that involves asking some questions,” said Gass. “But is there a way to do it so that it doesn’t just re-traumatize these women with as they’re going about trying to find help for themselves and their families?”

The report notes 141 child-care centers closed in Maine during the pandemic, and many more closed temporarily. Gass said two years since the start of the pandemic, child-care costs and availability is still hampering many women’s ability to return to work.

Beacon, April 25, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/