When Owen Bondono transitioned 15 years ago, he said in some ways it was safer for him back then than it is for his students who are transitioning today.
“People were much more ignorant about transgender issues 15 years ago, but it meant that in a lot of ways, I got to give them accurate information,” said Bondono, an award-winning Oak Park High School teacher and board member of the transgender youth advocacy org Stand with Trans. “I wasn't fighting against misinformation or a rising tide of hatred as we've seen in the last half a decade or so.” By the same token, Bondono sees positive trends like kids who support the diverse identities of their peers.
Bondono was reflecting on the findings of a recent Williams Institute report, "The Impact of 2023 Legislation on Transgender Youth," which focuses on five categories of legislation that either restrict or protect the rights of transgender teenagers ages 13 to 17. Gender-affirming care bans, bathroom bans, sports bans, conversion therapy bans and gender-affirming care “shield” laws and policies were evaluated for each state and Washington, D.C.
In all, nearly 500 pieces of new legislation were introduced in 2023 that restricted the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Over half of the bills targeted trans youth, and while most proposed bills have not passed, many are still pending and some state legislatures have enacted laws that have restricted transgender youth and their families from accessing necessary medical care or are actively harming transgender youth in other ways.
Christy Mallory is legal director of the Williams Institute and co-author of the report.
“I think it was interesting, once we kind of pulled it together by type of legislation, to see where the most movement has been over the last year and how the areas of focus have shifted over time,” Mallory said. She noted the proliferation of gender-affirming care bans — 19 out of 22 were introduced in the 2023 legislative session alone.
Mallory also pointed out the increase in bathroom bans, but that introducing sports bans has become less popular. Overall, an estimated 96,800 transgender youth live in states that restricted their access to health care, sports or school bathrooms in 2023.
Michigan is not one of those states. This past July, the Michigan Legislature passed a conversion therapy ban, protecting its estimated 8,900 trans youth ages 13 to 17 from the harmful practice, which also protects cisgender queer youth. There are more than 300,000 total trans youth in that age group in the U.S., an estimate based on a separate report by the Williams Institute that calculated the number of transgender people in the U.S.; those under the age of 13 were not surveyed. Nationwide, about two-thirds of transgender youth in 27 states and D.C. are protected by laws and policies that ban or limit the use of conversion therapy.
“There are sort of two main benefits that I see to a ban on conversion therapy,” Bondono said. “One of those is the literal harm that trans youth will be spared because they cannot legally be put through conversion therapy, a therapy designed to tell you that you're wrong and broken and need to be fixed just for being who you are.” The other net positive is that the ban serves as a broader message from the state government that there is nothing wrong with trans youth being who they are.
Rep. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing) also applauded the legislation.
“This is a win for mental health," Dievendorf said. “It's a win for overall stability. It's a win for being able to function better at school. What we need most is for our parents and our teachers and everybody involved in our youth's lives to validate their experience, not to suggest that our youth don't understand who they themselves are.”
A second category of positive legislation, gender-affirming “shield” laws or executive orders, protect trans youth in 14 states, covering about half of all trans youth in the U.S. age 13 to 17. “Shield laws basically support access to care for transgender youth by protecting doctors and parents who either treat youth or seek access to treatment for youth,” Mallory said. Provisions vary by state, though some include additional protections through licensing boards or protection for parents who seek care for their children outside their home state.
“I very much am interested in sponsoring a shield law,” Dievendorf said, “and [I] am really just waiting for the green light, letting me know that it is the time and that I'm going to have the support of my colleagues on both my side of the aisle and the other side of the aisle.”
Those protections would be a game changer for medical professionals and others, says Bondono. “It's a team effort whenever a trans youth is receiving care, and everyone has to feel comfortable as a part of that conversation for that care to really be the best thing for that child.”
Beyond the scope of the Williams Institute report, Michigan has made other strides in protecting trans youth. Most notably, amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include LGBTQ+ people means that the civil rights of those 8,900 trans youth in Michigan are assured. And for this, the state has been nationally recognized.
“It was a big deal that Michigan amended its nondiscrimination laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Mallory said. “So obviously another good development in this state, in this year.”
Further, the gay/trans panic defense ban that’s currently making its way through the state Legislature is another potential layer of protection. Bondono said by and large his students can’t believe it’s currently a valid legal defense.
"When Bondono thinks about the safety of all of his students, he is also concerned about homelessness and the foster care system, particularly because queer youth represent 40 percent of all homeless young people."
“When they learn that that exists, they're so flabbergasted,” Bondono said. “They can't believe that there was ever a time when someone could justify violence and murder just because somebody was trans.” Transphobia on a personal level is bad enough, but trans and cis students alike find it shocking that it is codified into law. However, the disbelief expressed by his students gives Bondono hope that attitudes truly are changing.
Dievendorf would also like to see the passage of updates to Michigan’s hate crime laws. And they believe trans youth in Michigan must be fully protected in their schools, too, in terms of access to bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity and access to all school activities.
“Certainly everything we're working on impacts and is progress for LGBT people because the LGBTQIA plus community is disproportionately impacted by all of these overlapping disparities and the oppressions that cause them,” Dievendorf said. That includes but is not limited to gun safety and access to equitable medical and mental health care.
“The list really goes on and on because we know that helping people to access their basic needs is just inherently going to especially help our most vulnerable, including and especially Black, Brown, and LGBT people,” Dievendorf added.
When Bondono thinks about the safety of all of his students, he is also concerned about homelessness and the foster care system, particularly because queer youth represent 40 percent of all homeless young people.
“I've experienced students of mine who are trans contacting me to say, ‘My mom said if I'm going to live as a boy, I can't live in her house,’” Bondono said. “And I have a 16-year-old who is wandering the streets in Detroit with nowhere to go, and there aren't that many legal steps that I can take to help them.”
Bondono noted some progress, too. Two cisgender girls at his school recently ran for the title of Duke for their homecoming court because they felt that best suited their gender expression. They won in a landslide.
“So it's an interesting moment in history where we live, where it can feel bleak,” Bondono said. “But it seems, at least from my perspective, that overall, the world is getting better for trans people and especially trans youth.”