Persistent efforts by North Carolina's legislature to restrict transgender lives cast a shadow over Callum Bradford as he grew up in Chapel Hill, following him through his journey of self-discovery, coming out and obtaining the gender-affirming health care the 16-year-old credits as lifesaving.
After Republicans swept most state-level elections this month, Bradford and other trans and gender-nonconforming residents are bracing for the possibility of new or reintroduced legislation targeting LGBTQ people, and especially trans people, that could survive Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto if Republicans wrangle enough supporters.
“Before I came out, I was thinking about those laws, and I was like, I know I’m male, but do I really want to deal with this?” Bradford said. “Can’t I just go back to when I was innocent and untouched by hate?”
Statehouse victories for Republicans around the country in this month's midterm elections are resonating for trans people as they mark Sunday's Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international observance honoring victims of anti-transgender violence and raising awareness of the threats trans people face.
The reverberations are particularly intense in North Carolina, which provided the blueprint for the present wave of nationwide anti-trans legislation when, in 2016, legislators passed a bill to restrict transgender access to public restrooms and prevent municipalities from enacting new anti-discrimination ordinances.
The resulting backlash hit North Carolina's economy as sports tournaments, businesses and conventions cut ties, costing the state hundreds of millions in revenue before the policy was eventually rolled back in 2017 and settled in federal court in 2019.
For Bradford, who had not yet come out, it was the first of many bills that eroded his confidence and exposed him to the harsh reality for transgender youths, who have been primary political targets this year as the United States saw a record number of anti-trans bills — more than 145 introduced across 34 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Republicans gained a supermajority in the North Carolina Senate and fell one seat short of a supermajority in the House. The outcome narrowly preserves Cooper's veto power if Democrats approach override votes as a united front.
But GOP House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters Nov. 9 that he views House Republicans as having “a governing supermajority” because some moderate Democrats have voted with them in the past.
While Moore said the party hasn't solidified its priorities for the long session beginning in January, Senate leader Phil Berger is already reconsidering a “ Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which passed the Senate this year but didn't get a vote in the House before the session ended.
Touted by GOP senators as a toolkit to help parents oversee their children’s education and health care, the bill included provisions to bar instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 curricula and require schools to alert parents prior to any change in the name or pronoun used for their child. Cooper condemned the measure and likened it to Florida's “Don't Say Gay” law.
“As far as a Parental Bill of Rights, parents have made it clear that they are not happy with some of the things that are going on in our public schools," Berger said. "A number of members who supported that bill when it passed the Senate this past year are coming back. I suspect that there will be good support for moving forward with that again.”
Bethany Corrigan, executive director of Transcend Charlotte, a service provider for gender-diverse adults in Mecklenburg County, said the mandated reporting aspect of such bills constitutes “forced outing," which can put LGBTQ youths at greater risk for housing instability, mental health crises and violence.
But Corrigan warned it's not just explicit anti-LGBTQ bills that might affect trans rights in North Carolina. They said further abortion restrictions, which GOP leaders have already expressed interest in imposing next year, could later be used to limit access to gender-affirming health care.
“Bodily autonomy being threatened for folks in terms of reproductive health care — where does it end?” Corrigan said, noting that abortion policy affects trans and cisgender people alike.
Bradford, who has been taking testosterone for a year and a half, said he worries his treatment access could be limited. His father began researching apartments in Virginia before the midterms to give his son a backup plan. The teen is now weighing whether North Carolina will be a safe place to attend college.
Among the motions lawmakers introduced last session but didn't pass was a bill limiting medical treatments for transgender people under 21, and another restricting the ability of transgender women and girls to compete in school sports. Mitchell County Republican Sen. Ralph Hise, sponsor of the former, did not respond to messages inquiring whether he plans to reintroduce the bill.
Cooper spokesperson Mary Scott Winstead said the governor will continue advocating for transgender North Carolinians, who too often “face inexcusable and unacceptable violence.”
In neighboring Tennessee, the GOP-controlled legislature announced after Election Day that its first priority will be to ban medical providers from altering a child’s hormones or performing surgeries that enable them to present as a gender different from their biological sex.
Guidance from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health says youths experiencing gender dysphoria can start taking hormones — estrogen or testosterone — at age 14. As of this year, it lowered the recommended minimum age for some surgeries, including breast removal for trans boys to age 15, and genital surgeries such as womb or testicle removal to age 17.
Katherine Turk, a historian of women, gender and sexuality at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the recent surge in anti-trans legislation follows a historical pattern of pushback after marginalized groups gain visibility and political momentum.
“Increased visibility often brings increased vulnerability,” Corrigan said. “Several states that have introduced these harmful bills have also seen elevated rates of fatal violence against trans folks, especially Black trans women."
According to a new Human Rights Campaign report, at least 32 trans and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the U.S. this year, including Sasha Mason, a 45-year-old trans woman killed in Zebulon, North Carolina.
Events for the Transgender Day of Remembrance were planned throughout the world Sunday against the backdrop of a fatal mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado the night before.
Kori Hennessey, education and programs director at the LGBT Center of Raleigh, led a Sunday evening vigil outside the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh. About 60 people gathered to read the names of the 32 known victims killed so far this year and pay special tribute to Mason, the sole North Carolinian.
Between tears, a local drag performer also honored the memory of those killed Saturday in the Colorado shooting.
“With every attack on our community, physical attacks but also legislative, our supporters become more outspoken,” said Hennessey, who is nonbinary. “We're hopeful it'll happen again. In the meantime, we'll be at the governor's doorstep reminding him that we're here, and we're worth fighting for.”