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As Utah and others take up bans, trans visibility is the political counterweight

Five transgender flags on display outside of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, March 30, 2023.
Saige Miller
Five transgender flags on display outside of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, March 30, 2023.

A “They/Them” was clipped onto Dr. Colleen Kuhn’s black blazer. They wear it often, both to avoid being misgendered and to leave the door open for those who feel prompted to start a conversation.

At a Salt Lake Community College Transgender Day of Visibility event “Beyond the Binary”, Kuhn, a Utah-based adolescent psychologist specializing in gender, led the discussion. It was the first time they ever spoke publicly about their gender journey as a nonbinary trans-masculine person.

“I'm really happy to be here,” they told the audience. “I'm grateful to share my story with you all and to be seen.”

Transgender Day of Visibility feels different for some trans people this year, including Sue Robbins. She’s a member of the transgender advisory council for Equality Utah and said the day is a time when her community typically celebrates “trans joy,” which is “the joy of being ourselves.”

Utah was the first state to pass a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth in 2023. Since then, at least eight other states have established similar laws so far this year and 20 more have introduced legislation to do the same.

Robbins said these policies have an impact on transgender folks, especially young ones, to “drive people back into the closet for safety,” during a time when she says their visibility is most needed.

“Our visibility is what we need to be able to make progress against these unwarranted attacks,” Robbins said.

For Kuhn, trans visibility was important to them later in life. Raised by an Irish Catholic family in rural Pennsylvania in the 80s, Kuhn said they always knew they were LGBTQ, although they “didn’t have a word for it.” They believed “God made a mistake” and that they were supposed to be a boy because they were attracted to women from a young age.

“I can remember praying at night that I would wake up being a boy,” they said. “No representation around sexual orientation or representation around gender. I felt like I was just in this cocoon that nobody else existed like me.”

Now in their mid-40s, Kuhn feels at home in their own skin. They’ve medically transitioned, begun testosterone and got top surgery.

“My authentic self is this,” they said.

With targeted legislation, Kuhn understands and respects that people on the gender spectrum are struggling with being open about their identities. But in their talk, they wanted to let people know the conversation and representation around gender has evolved substantially from two decades ago.

They pointed to all the openly queer and trans lawmakers across the country and states like Minnesota and California that have enacted laws protecting the rights of transgender people.

Kuhn said those stances give them hope, because even if some lawmakers might not understand gender identity, “a whole lot of other people do.”

They added that they will continue sparking conversations with those in positions of power. Kuhn sent the Zoom link of their speech at the community college to every Utah lawmaker and Gov. Spencer Cox. Two legislators expressed interest and one actually joined the meeting. To Kuhn, that’s another signal of potential progress.

“Whatever we can do to be visible, to put ourselves out there, to use the power that we have and the privilege that we might have to be the role model, the better, because we never know who's going to see us,” they said.

Robbins shares a similar sentiment around trans visibility. She believes it's one of the best tools the community has to fight back against policies that isolate trans individuals.

“If we are not out there where people meet us and get to know us, then all they're going to have to learn from is all the rhetoric out there against us,” Robbins said.

Robbins also called on LGBTQ allies to step up and help advocate for trans rights. She said it isn’t enough to condemn these laws, allies need to take “strong stances.”

Robbins applauded the ally advocacy work from Nebraska Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh who has spent weeks filibustering the state legislature in an effort to block gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

“It sends a strong message that this is not acceptable,” she said.

Allyship is something Elisa Stone, a Salt Lake Community College professor and organizer of the “Beyond the Binary” event, tries to honor. Stone identifies as pansexual and said she has tried to create a space in the classroom where all her students can present as their authentic selves.

In her queer studies courses, students are welcome to miss class to protest at the Utah Capitol. She also strives to reinstate queer history that she says has been erased from the public sphere.

To Stone, teaching queer studies and letting students exercise their right to be visible allows more people to understand and connect with a community they may not have ever interacted with before.

“If you meet somebody with an identity that you thought you couldn't deal with and there is that human being in front of you, I have found that it seems to change people more than anything else,” she said.

Even though Transgender Day of Visibility feels different for Robbins this year, it’s not going to hold her back from participating in the celebration and spreading trans joy for Utah to see.

“I am not going away. And my life is so much better as me.”

Corrected: April 2, 2023 at 9:59 AM MDT
This story has been updated to correct the spelling in two instances of Dr. Colleen Kuhn's name.
Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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