Teachable Moment

LGBTQ+ leaders discuss transgender facts versus fiction

Transgender Resource Center NM Education Director Adrien Lawyer (left) and Equality NM Executive Director Marshall Martinez. (Courtesy Adrien Laayer / marshall martinez)

A recent edition of the Reporter included an ad placed by the Independent Women’s Forum that criticized and mischaracterized New Mexico’s Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Health Care Act, signed into law last year. The ad also included a QR code link to an online anti-transgender video series.

SFR subsequently apologized for the ad, which runs counter to our long-time support for the LGBTQ+ community, and refunded IWF’s payment.

We then asked two leaders of New Mexico LGBTQ organizations to discuss the ongoing attack on transgender lives, among other issues.

Adrien Lawyer co-founded the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, and is its education director. Marshall Martinez serves as the executive director statewide LGBT advocacy and civil rights organization Equality New Mexico. The following interview took place on Zoom and has been edited for concision and clarity.

SFR: Can you put the type of ad we ran for IWF into context—is this indicative of the types of anti-transgender rhetoric out there right now?

Adrien Lawyer: Trans and nonbinary people have been unnecessarily and violently politicized, when what we’re really talking about is a minority characteristic, sort of akin to being born with red hair or being left handed. So just like those groups, we’re under fire right now. We were mean to left handed people within my lifetime—I’m 53. And you still had teachers tying up their little hands, sometimes in the early 2000s. So we don’t understand these minority traits. A lot of times, we tend to react negatively at the outset. And then we tend to integrate those groups and be like, ‘what were we even thinking about?’ We were exactly the same way with redheaded people. We said they were evil, we said they didn’t have a soul, we said they would steal your soul, and so you should be wary of them. You know, it’s just kind of nuts. And so with trans and nonbinary people, people in a lot of Western cultures, like the US culture, are only newly aware of this population, even though it’s really very well documented that we’ve always existed. Throughout all human history, there are stories of individual trans or nonbinary people, there are words for both trans and nonbinary people in tons of different human languages. Even here in the US, we’ve added a third gender marker to fundamental legal identity documents.

But we’re just at the beginning of the cultural moment of understanding this, acknowledging it and beginning to integrate it into the culture. And so it’s already a tough time for a group like ours. And now, we’ve been thrown into the political arena intentionally, which is setting us back even further; this should just be a natural trajectory of cultural understanding and growth and integration. And instead, we’re getting disrupted by the fact that this is being seen as political when truly it is not. It just isn’t.

Marshall Martinez: To also draw those parallels, historically, we’ve seen this subtle or hidden or covert transphobic messaging in anti-civil rights legislation and messaging. If I think back to right after the [1964] Civil Rights Act passed, how many folks across this country said, ‘Oh, we’re not here trying to attack Black folks; we’re just trying to make sure that our white neighborhoods are protected,’ or ‘We’re just trying to make sure that white people don’t get trampled over.’ What they were saying was, ‘we’re protecting our society.’ And what they meant was, ‘we’re attacking, the increase in power and increase in opportunity for Black folks.’ This organization is not saying upfront, ‘we’re attacking trans-people.’ They’re saying, ‘we’re protecting women’, right? ‘We’re doing this to make sure that we hold sacred those spaces for women.’ That’s why it’s called the independent Women’s Forum. And then what they really are saying is what we mean by women is exclusion or eradication of trans people. And so to Adrian’s point, all of these things, unfortunately, are just repetition of the same behaviors and attitudes—the same strategies that we’ve seen previously in the political arena.

The Southern Poverty Law Center includes IWF in what it characterizes as an anti-LGBTQ pseudoscience network. The ad we ran specifically cites the one-year anniversary for implementation of [the 2023] New Mexico’s Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Health Care Act, which it described as “New Mexico’s dangerous transitioning of minors law.” Is the pseudo-science aspect of these campaigns in response to the type of health care act New Mexico passed?

MM: Both Adrien and I are chuckling in large part, I think, because when you do this, you have to laugh or you will cry. We started to hear some of these claims that…it wasn’t real medicine or wasn’t real health care during the debate around the Gender Affirming [Health] Care Act, which Adrian, myself and a bunch of people worked really hard to get passed. And again, we’ve seen this tactic before. We saw this during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic: folks who disagree politically tried to invalidate the realities behind the health care and the science. I’ve done advocacy around access to reproductive health care and abortion healthcare for many years. And people continuously say things like, ‘it’s not health care,’ to undermine the fact that the American Medical Association clearly says that abortion is lifesaving health care, and the [American Academy of Pediatrics] has said that gender affirming care is suicide prevention and is lifesaving saving health care.

AL: So I love this article I just dropped into the chat: It’s an op ed from Lydia Polgreen [New York Times, Dec. 1, 2023: “Born This Way? Born Which Way?”] and in that she even contrasts the fact that we do more than 200,000 plastic surgeries on cisgender kids under 18 every year in the US, and no one’s trying to pass a bill saying,’ don’t let kids get plastic surgery’; only trans kids, right? That’s how we can see this as a prejudice. This is inspired by prejudice against a population, a little understood population, because otherwise we’d say, ‘don’t let anybody under 18 get plastic surgery because they don’t have the developmental capacity.’

You co-founded the Transgender Resource Center in 2008. Have there been significant changes or progress in how you’re approaching that work? Is it one-step forward, one-step back?

AL: That’s exactly how I would characterize it. We have had some really great forward movement, and it definitely has tied directly to the national political mood; the federal election cycle has definitely dictated a lot about how we get interacted with and how we have to deal with things. I’ve been teaching our transgender cultural fluency classes for 15 years, to doctors, police, cadets, nurses, therapists, teachers, students, I mean, churches, synagogues, anybody who will have us basically, and it’s never really changed because we continue to have people who need a training like that every single day.

But at the same time, I sometimes go into the room to start the training and I’ll say, ‘If you don’t mind…will you raise your hand if you know that you know a transgender person.’ And in the beginning of these trainings, the numbers were very low. And now I would say almost always, it’s more than 50%. So that’s the thing that’s going to push the culture forward is that personalization. And seeing that increase, as I’ve been educating about this over time, makes me feel really hopeful that we’re just going to naturally come to the proper conclusion. Education and personalization are what move culture forward, not policy and law. Policy and law helps your population—you’ve got to do it; it’s really important—but it doesn’t move the people who aren’t like you any closer. The more people realize that they already knew a trans person the whole time, the more they’re going to have to think about this differently.

Do ads like the one our paper ran have an impact?

MM: I think it does. Because people who might not know how to filter information, and may watch those ‘detransitioning’ videos and read that information and absorb it. And it moves their understanding, unless they have that education that Adrian talked about, and that personalization to question these things, and back up and say, ‘Hold on a second. This isn’t actually about protecting women, it’s about hating somebody.’ But I think the reality is, we have a long way to go, unfortunately, in our society for creating that education and personalization to give folks the lens to be able to be more critical.

AL: The other piece to me, what we see is happening, is that people are realizing their grandkids, their cousins, their nieces and nephews are trans and nonbinary, and that is typically what helps everything to actually get better is people realize that someone they truly love falls into this category. Except when we make it about stuff like this, then we put someone’s group belonging at stake if they change their mind about this topic. So then people are not just allowed to naturally evolve and grow around this because, if they do, they can’t remain in their political in-group, or religious in-group, right.

This is what we saw happen to the parents and friends of gay people in the ′80s and ′90s. It was like they had to choose sometimes between their marriage and their child. Because of these strongly held beliefs. The more this stuff gets encoded as part of an in-group…the harder it is for people to just do what they would naturally do, which is shift over to understanding it as soon as it comes closer to them personally.

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