Bit by bit, the trans pride flag rose above Serna Center in south Sacramento on a breezy Monday in March. Pastel blue, white and cotton-candy pink fabric fluttered above a crowd of dozens, many of whom were teary-eyed, smiling and clutching each other as their eyes moved upward.
As two of the Sacramento City Unified School District board members hoisted the flag onto its new vantage point in front of the district’s main office, one woman chanted: “Justice! Justice! Justice!”
Just three days later and 27 miles away, justice looked different to other community members in the region: The Roseville Joint Unified High School District ended its board meeting early during comments from a Proud Boy who sent death threats to and showed up at the house of a local gay pastor.
In the Sacramento region, parents and groups have framed drag shows for youth as overtly sexual, a framework amplified by a video released last month by known right-wing group Project Veritas, which also sent volunteers to the board meeting. It portrayed a local LGBTQ+ support group’s founder and work as dangerous, and parent concerns elicited a response from the board before it met that week.
Those in support of The Landing Spot raised "Misinformation" signs when the group's work was mischaracterized.Claire Morgan/CapRadio
The district had already cut ties with the group, called The Landing Spot, in February, citing its lack of a formal agreement to provide on-campus services and rescinding permission for it to host its third annual drag show fundraiser — for which profits went to a summer camp for LGBTQ+ youth — on district property.
“Our district did not make this decision due to homophobic or intolerant views,” RJUHSD superintendent John Becker told the Sacramento Bee in response to community members’ critique of the rescission.
It’s no coincidence that these local conversations are taking place in school districts. They’re a microcosm of the anti-trans legislation being introduced across the country, many of which focus on “parents’ rights” — a rallying cry invoked by many of the parents who came to defend the RJUHSD decision.
Still, both in celebration of and beyond the 14th annual Trans Day of Visibility, groups in the Sacramento region are fighting for trans people’s rights to safety — from creating spaces centered on trans joy to providing gender-affirming healthcare — and an expansive vision of trans justice.
Trans youth at risk
In this year alone, AB 1314 is one of almost 500 bills introduced in 47 states that would cause varying degrees of harm to trans people if passed. That’s nearly three times as many as last year, which saw 174 similar bills enter state legislatures.
And last month, the Human Rights Campaign released a report that found over 50% of trans youth in the United States between ages 13-17 are at-risk of losing access to gender-affirming care. Last Wednesday, that became more of a possibility for trans youth in Texas: The state’s Senate gave initial approval to a bill banning puberty blockers and hormone therapy for trans youth not already receiving them in June.
Many bills target the school experiences of gender-nonconforming and trans youth, which Evan Minton, who sits on California’s Transgender Advisory Council, addressed during the SCUSD flag raising.
“All this together puts trans people’s lives at risk and it tries to rob us from living our most authentic, happy lives, especially our trans youth,” he said.
For example, AB 1314 in California, introduced by state Assembly members Bill Essayli, a Republican representing southern Los Angeles County, and James Gallagher, a Republican representing the northern Sacramento Valley, would mandate public schools to report to parents when their child expresses a gender other than what’s listed on their birth certificate.
For many trans youth, the practice — which would out someone before they’re ready to discuss their gender on their own terms — can be life-threatening if their family is unsupportive.
At the Roseville board meeting, over a hundred community members gathered to speak, and the board cleared its agenda for discussion.
Those attending the board meeting filling out public comment cards in the lobby of West Park High School in Roseville, Calif., on March 23, 2023.Claire Morgan/CapRadio
The meeting began with comments from current high school students, all of whom spoke in favor of ensuring wellness services like The Landing Spot be preserved and celebrated on campuses; many talked about their own mental health struggles. Landing Spot volunteers worked with campus wellness centers to be a listening ear for LGBTQ+ students, prior to the district discontinuing its relationship to the group.
Parents were more split — those who supported the board’s decision said it was commendable to create more transparency between parents and students, preventing “locked-door” activity.
Others said the decision reflected a life where LGBTQ+ people are “living threatened every day, all for the crime of existing outside your comfort zone.”
“All the kids see you — they see a future of you calling them perverts or pedophiles, they see you taking away your rights to marriage, they see you dehumanizing them, they see you and wonder if suicide is easier than growing up in a world that you’re creating for them,” said parent Alicia Watkins. “They see you sending death threats to those who are showing them the world is filled with empathy, love and joy. They see you and you are breaking their hearts.”
Over the past three years, in tandem with the rise of anti-LGBTQ legislation, more LGBTQ+ youth have had suicidal thoughts. That’s according to the 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health, which also found trans and gender-nonconforming youth were most likely to have considered suicide. Of the LGBTQ+ youth surveyed, 50% of those between 13-17 reported experiencing suicidal thoughts, a pattern which was amplified among non-white LGBTQ+ youth.
Anoosh Jorjorian manages Yolo Rainbow Families, which provides support to LGBTQ+ parents in the county raising gender-expansive and trans kids. It’s part of Davis Phoenix Coalition, which unites LGBTQ+ community members and their allies in fighting intolerance.
She said the dynamic of kids coming out at school — whether to friends, teachers or both — before coming out to their parents is not unfamiliar.
“Many of us in the LGBTQ+ community have memories of growing up in families where our families did not accept us, and not being able to come out to our parents for fear of experiencing disapproval, or even getting kicked out of the house once we came out,” they said. “For us, it’s been a matter of survival and a matter of mental health.”
That pattern isn’t an anomaly.
Elevate Queer Yolo, a program that’s part of Communicare Health Center, serves queer and trans people from 12 to 26 in Yolo County. An employee of the program, who chose to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said many of the people who are 18 and under are “extremely closeted.”
“They cannot be out in their homes, it could be potentially very dangerous for them,” she said. “Most of the time, the only safe space they have is school.”
And Jorjorian, who also helps facilitate the Davis LGBTQ+ Youth Group, called the current moment “an incredibly frightening and insecure time” for gender-expansive and trans kids.
“I cannot tell you how much this is negatively affecting their mental health,” she said. “They are very much aware of what is happening, they are very much aware of the incredibly poisonous and untrue rhetoric around who they are, and how mature they are, and whether or not they know who they are.”
“Visibility is a double-edged sword”
This year’s International Trans Day of Visibility arrived in a much different environment than the first one 14 years ago.
The initial celebration, according to its founder Rachel Crandall Crocker, was intended to highlight a broader spectrum of trans experience that went beyond honoring trans life after death.
“Whenever I hear about our community, it seems to be from [Transgender] Remembrance Day which is always so negative because it's about people who were killed,” Crocker, who also co-founded advocacy organization Transgender Michigan, said in a 2009 interview.
The celebration has gained traction, with Trans Day of Visibility being recognized on a national level for the first time last year.
And locally, SCUSD wasn’t alone in recognizing the week leading up to March 31 as one of increased visibility for trans people: Sacramento’s City Council unanimously passed a resolution on March 21 celebrating Trans Week of Visibility, and Sacramento County supervisors voted 4-1 to pass a similar resolution on March 28.
After the March 20, 2023 ceremony to raise the trans pride flag at Sacramento City Unified, board members and other speakers pose for a photo with the flag in the background.Janelle Salanga/CapRadio
From March 27 to March 31, state legislators wore trans flag buttons reading “trans people belong” while sharing messages of support via social media.
Minton, who also works in the state Legislature, had a hand in organizing all three events.
“Transgender people currently find ourselves at the center of a war not of our choosing,” he said at the March 21 City Council meeting. “In Sacramento, our community continues to struggle for visibility, it continues to struggle for healthcare, it continues to struggle against homelessness, against poverty, it continues to struggle for restroom access in schools.”
Outside of Sacramento County, the city of West Sacramento raised the trans flag at its City Hall on March 30. Washington Unified School District, located in the city, also raised the flag at its district office and passed a resolution recognizing International Trans Day of Visibility this year and all years moving forward.
But despite growing awareness and acknowledgment of the day and increased representation both in entertainment media and politics over the past few years, the possibility of harm to trans people in the country has escalated, with levels of anti-trans legislation at an all-time high.
“For anyone who is marginalized, visibility is a double-edged sword,” Jorjorian, from Yolo Rainbow Families, said.
“On the one hand, being visible means that we can recognize each other and that we have a presence in our society and our culture,” they said. “We’re not hidden, we're not erased.”
With more opportunities for kids to learn about different gender identities, whether through school, the shows they watch or the Internet, Jorjorian said there are more parents interested in Yolo Rainbow Families.
In rural areas — like some portions of the Sacramento region and broader Central Valley — resources for LGBTQ+ youth can be sparser.
Al Walton, who’s the gender-affirming services community coordinator at Sacramento-based One Community Health, said the disparity often leads to queer youth looking outside their locality for clinics and resource centers that may be tens if not hundreds of miles away, even for primary healthcare.
“We have so many patients from outside counties, because they're like, ‘I found you and you were the only thing in this huge radius,’” they said. “And you’re like, ‘Let’s make it work — you’re not in the county so technically this isn’t the go-to spot, but you deserve this care, and you deserve to feel safe when you’re getting health care.’”
A comparative lack of representation in rural areas means seeing people around you who aren’t celebrities is incredibly impactful, said another employee at Elevate Queer Yolo who similarly chose to remain anonymous due to safety concerns.
“They don’t have the means or the media or the community that suburban and metropolitan areas do,” he said. “We are a mobile safe space … teaching them how to advocate and create safe spaces for themselves and also learn about their community, learn about things from actual people — history that is not in textbooks, but spoken through elders in the community.”
Despite the increased dangers that come with being a “professional queer” — including doxxing via social media accounts like Libs of TikTok — the employee said they believe it’s an incredibly important job to work with queer youth in a less-resourced area.
“I think that's what is beautiful is them seeing us [older queer and trans people] have these goals [and] obtain these goals,” he said. “Now they're like, ‘Okay, I can actually plan for my future. I can actually plan for these goals because I see elders in front of me, who have had all these idealizations, goals and thoughts and are able to obtain them, so I can do that, too.’”
But some mainstream representation or trans visibility does cause harm. Researchers have found that press coverage overly focused on the negative outcomes of detransitioning or questioning trans peoples’ rights to participate in society — for example, sports — has increased adverse mental health outcomes in trans youth.
And “visibility can also lead to backlash,” Jorjorian said. “It can lead to a surge of hate from people who have always been prejudiced against our community.”
Leaders at a Sacramento detransitioning rally earlier this month insisted their event wasn’t anti-transgender, rather focused on disallowing any children to medically transition.
Medical associations from the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics argue that access to gender-affirming care — which spans counseling, hormone replacement therapy and surgical treatments — is crucial in supporting the mental health of trans and gender-nonconforming kids.
Walton, the gender-affirming services community coordinator at One Community Health, said that for them, the current moment — with more visibility, juxtaposed with more anti-trans legislation — is a “weird turning point.”
“This is the first time in our nation’s history where gender-affirming care is actually covered … and now I can actually argue for things to get covered in my patients’ plans,” they said. “But there are still barriers and frustrating things, like having to get letters for surgery — that’s such a weird barrier that so many people can’t access.”
Beyond visibility: creating safety
Because visibility isn’t a guarantee of safety, often trans and queer people take safety into their own hands.
Last month, two counter-events were organized in response to right-wing radio host and commentator Charlie Kirk speaking at the UC Davis campus: one by Davis Phoenix Coalition, aimed to direct people away from the event, and another which mobilized counterprotesters as a line of defense for queer and trans people on campus.
And during the “De-transition Awareness Day” rally, anti-facist group Pride Was a Riot–Sacramento led a counterprotest against supporters.
“Although Chloe Cole Brockman’s event is framed as a rally for ‘Detransition Awareness,’ it is actually no different than the transphobic organizing of Turning Point USA and the hate-rally they’ll be hosting with Charlie Kirk,” the group said in a media statement. “The goal of these events are the ‘elimination of transgenderism’, to quote one of Chloe’s co-speakers at CPAC, Michael Knowles.”
“We respect the will of our community to defend itself against threats of elimination,” the group added.
Their counterprotest followed a celebration of queer and trans joy in Southside Park, and another part of visibility, other local groups say, is about making space to celebrate trans joy safely.
Locally, that’s looked like support groups, like Yolo Rainbow Families or its parallel group for queer and trans teens, or events where trans youth can go to be surrounded by others like them, like the one Elevate Queer Yolo and One Community Health organized for Trans Day of Visibility.
“This ... is so serious all the time, and that’s legitimate,” organizer Ember Ward said. “And joy is also legitimate. Silliness is also legitimate … I do not want us as trans people to fall into the trap of becoming hollow from the trauma, and hollow and empty from the onslaught of attacks that are constantly occurring.”
Safety for trans people needs to have different dimensions, as transphobia is compounded by different intersections of identity: Black trans women and femmes, for example, are impacted by patriarchy and racism, and experience disproportionately high rates of housing insecurity and police violence compared to other trans people.
“Trans justice, to me, looks like Black trans women being able to live long into their old age and in communities that love them,” Ward said.
Discussing gender identity with parents can similarly be impacted by race and culture. Jorjorian said many kids in the Davis Phoenix Coalition’s queer teens group are in their high schools’ GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliance/Gender-Sexuality Alliance), but have immigrant parents who are coming from a different cultural frame.
“Not only is there a difference in identity between their straight parents and the child, but also there's a lack of language across those cultures about how to talk about it,” they said. “And so these kids really feel isolated. And also, feel like they're going through something that a lot of their LGBTQ+ peers don't relate to.”
It’s what makes support groups and other places where trans people can come together so crucial: They provide an unspoken understanding that they won’t have to over-explain one element of who they are, and there’s safety inherent in that.
Another element of the Trans Day of Visibility event Ward and others organized: Sobriety.
Because trans people are more likely to experience depression and other mental health disorders, they’re also more likely to depend on substance use as a method to cope, and organizers said making sober spaces available is just as important as making spaces for joy available.
The employee from Elevate Queer Yolo who spoke about the experiences of queer youth in rural areas said a focus on education about substance overdose and HIV prevention offers a framework of harm reduction that doesn’t shame folks. Instead, it equips them with more information to navigate use safely.
He framed safety as composed of multiple different elements, from harm reduction with regard to drug and alcohol use in the community to “affirmation from home and at school, letting them live their true authentic self.”
Ultimately, Ward wants to widen the scope of trans justice to include not just visibility and safety, but abundance and care for all.
“Trans kids are able to have parents that affirm who they are, and trans students are able to have teachers that support them when they come out,” he said. “And religious leaders are able to understand that people who are different from them are not inherently bad.”
They added: “Trans justice, to me, means the folks that are at the margins the most, they have what they need.”
By Janelle Salanga, CapRadio