UUs Defend Transgender Americans from State Attacks

UUs Defend Transgender Americans from State Attacks

All of our voices are needed to stop a wave of hateful bills.

Jeff Milchen
A multiethnic, multi-gender group of people in yellow shirts/tops in a foyer of a state building. The floor reads "Republic of Texas".

UUs convene in the Capitol rotunda for TXUUJM Legislative Action Day, March 13, 2023.

Photo courtesy of TXUUJM


As of early 2022, nearly 8 in 10 Americans supportednondiscrimination protections for LGBTQIA+ people, including 65 percent of Republicans and majorities in every major faith group (UUs led the field at 97 percent). Two-thirds of Americans opposed bills limiting the rights of transgender people specifically. And those majorities are growing.

But policy is influenced mostly by people who share their beliefs with the world. In the past three years, at least fifteen states passed laws barring transgender kids from joining sports teams that align with their gender identity. Eight states already have banned gender-affirming care for youth, with more such laws likely to come. And bills to enable myriad forms of discrimination are rampantacross the country. Some proposals would criminalize the very existence of our transgender and gender e xpansive(TGE) siblings.

Of course, this trend is aided by gerrymandering and other structures that give disproportionate power to rural voters, enabling minority rulein states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and others.

This doesn’t mean advocates for justice, equality, and civil rights will not prevail—including securing the rights of TGE people—but it eliminates the chance of winning without many more of us making our beliefs public.

“You already have everything you need” to testify to government officials, Rev. Erin Walter tells UUs. “Just telling them you are a progressive person of faith is a message that so needs to be heard.”

For Unitarian Universalists, our Principlesand values recognize that expression of the diversity of gender and sexuality is a gift. UUs are working to support the TGE community by resisting harmful legislation. Rev. Elizabeth Mount, minister of the UU Church of Cheyenne, Wyoming, says their state traditionally was both staunchly conservative and staunchly pro-choice. “Mind the fences and don’t scare my horse,” exemplified the attitude, says Mount.

Yet the state just passed a law banning transgender athletes from playing on girls’ sports teams (Sarah Burlingame, a Cheyenne UU congregant and director of Wyoming Equality, says a legal challenge is planned). Gov. Mark Gordon noted that just four transgender students were known to participate in Wyoming school athletics. He called the bill draconian and said it “pays little attention to fundamental principles of equality. ”Yet visible public opposition was limited, and Gordon allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Meanwhile, Mount believes that because Wyoming is the least populous state, “it’s being targeted by Three Percenters and other hate groups,” who often encourage followers to move to the sparsely populated states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana to create a power base.

Despite the loss on the sports bill, citizen engagement helped stop two harmful bills that would have banned gender-affirming medical care. Many UUs were among those joining a rally to defend trans rights at the Wyoming Capitol in late February, just before the bills were voted downwith help from many Republican officeholders. While Wyoming’s size makes it a target for some extremists, it may steer some lawmakers toward compassion. One advocate credited the sense of community and the more personal scale of state politics for the ability to garner key votes from Republican legislators.

Mount adds that UU activism also is vital for the personal support and comfort it can provide just by being visible in public. Their small congregation has attracted several transgender and non-binary members, including two former military personnel. “It’s clear to me that Unitarian Universalism is salvific,” says Mount, who is non-binary.

Texas is another state where right-wing extremists are pushing bills that would restrict civil rights or punish disfavored groups. The Texas Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry(TXUUJM) has been organizing UU responses to the barrage of dangerous bills there. The March 13 TXUUJM Legislative Action Day in Austin drew 165 UUs from twenty congregations around the state—their largest turnout ever, said Rev. Erin Walter, TXUUJM minister and executive director. TXUUJM also co-sponsored a rally about Black maternal mortality, organized by Friendship-West Baptist Church, to push legislation for twelve months or more of postpartum healthcare.

See Side With Love’s new The Body Politic webinar, with stories from UUs engaged in supporting trans folks and working for liberation. There’s a role for everyone, including UUs working in more progressive states to codify trans rights and expand healthcare coverage or advancefederal-level protections like the Equality Act.

Making a Difference With Our Words: Tools to help UUs thwart anti-transgender bills and attacksThis new toolkit from Side With Love provides a concise overview, talking points, UU-rooted quotes, sample letters, and more tools to help you make an impact

Video of Testimony to Texas Senate by Rev. Erin Walter

Walter chose to offer the testimony shown here after a regressive legislator lamented that there were not more clergy there to address the bill.

The maternal health bill served an important role because so much of TXUUJM’s current work is necessarily focused on stopping destructive bills. “We want to put our energy behind positive things even as we fight where we need to fight,” said Walter. Capitol activities included an hour of singing justice hymns and the youth caucus issuing their statement in the capitol rotunda at lunchtime for many legislative staffers to witness.

Action Day participants also met with legislators to discuss other issues, including racial justice, climate justice, and voting rights, and gained experience to keep showing up effectively throughout the legislative session. Action Day also set the stage for March 27, when many UUs returned with the company of several hundred more people to flood the capitol with pro-LGBTQIA+ rights banners and record opposition to HB 1686, a bill to criminalize gender-affirming medical treatment for youth. Just before midnight, the committee chair shut down the hearing with about 450 people still waiting to testify (almost all opposing) from 2,500 who registered.

While much of the work is defensive, TXUUJM partner Equality Texasis also tracking many positive bills that support the LGBTQIA+ community. Regardless of legislative outcomes, Walter celebrates the outpouring of support. “The activist queer community in Texas is incredible, strong, so full of love. We shouldn’t have to do this, but there’s no group of people that I’d rather be fighting with.”

Walter, who also serves as the minister for Joy and Justice with First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, is optimistic about turning back attempts to drive TGE people away or into hiding. “It’s not going to happen,” said Walter, “our rallies keep getting bigger.” She added a call to action to UUs everywhere: “The Seventh UU Principleof interconnectedness has never been more important—We need everybody.”