Kentucky’s anti-LGBTQ legislation exposes a rift over how much Americans trust their kids
Opponents of the legislation say calls for “parents’ rights” and to “protect children” reveal a modern American belief in childhood ignorance.
Earlier this month, 11-year-old Max Davis was on the lawn outside the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort. He was carrying a homemade trans pride flag made out of poster board and blue and pink paper.
Max, who is trans, was there to protest a measure that would ban gender-affirming medical care for trans kids, including puberty blockers — which are reversible — and hormone therapy.
“I think it’s just ridiculous,” Max told LPM News.
“If you just ask a trans child what they think about all these laws and stuff you'll learn a lot … and people will understand way more than just sitting down, reading a Bible and making laws,” he said.
The GOP-led Kentucky Legislature eventually passed a version of the restrictions Max was in Frankfort to oppose, along with other measures that limit classroom speech on gender identity and sexuality and prevent schools from having policies that support trans students who want to transition socially.
“If I’m not old enough now, then how old is old enough?” Max asked.
Proponents of such measures say Max needs to be 18 years old before he decides to transition. They argue the anti-LGBTQ legislation is meant to “protect children” from making “life-altering” decisions.
“Surgery or drugs that completely alter their life and alter their body is not something we should be allowing until they are adults and can choose that for themselves,” Republican Kentucky Rep. David Meade of Stanford said on the House floor in support of the ban on gender-affirming care.
Opponents say the attention given to anti-LGBTQ measures this session reveals the depth of transphobia and homophobia in American society. But debates about the legislation have also highlighted another cultural rift over how much Americans trust kids to know themselves.
Conservatives rally around ‘parents’ rights’
Kentucky lawmakers pushing anti-LGBTQ bills have dubbed many of them “parents’ rights” measures, mimicking rhetoric conservatives have used to describe similar efforts in other states like Arizona and Florida.
Rep. Josh Calloway, a Republican from Irvington, was behind some of the most restrictive anti-trans proposals considered this legislative session. Though his bill — House Bill 173 — is dead, many of its proposals were incorporated into the sweeping anti-LGBTQ Senate Bill 150 that did pass.
Calloway is a conservative Christian Republican whose passionate floor speeches suggest genuinely-held belief in the supposed dangers of a society in which LGBTQ identities are increasingly visible.
“We're talking about our kids. We're talking about protecting their innocence. We're talking about making sure that our kids’ minds are not being perverted, and that our kids are not being indoctrinated,” Calloway said in a lengthy House floor speech in March.
Asked by an LPM reporter what he made of arguments that children should be empowered to come out as trans, Calloway seemed to suggest that being trans is a choice — a misguided one to be ironed out.
“In regard to children being empowered to be able to have a sex change or those types of things, that is not acceptable. It’s not acceptable in this society,” he said.
“My kids made a lot of choices when they were kids that I as a parent had to come back to them and redirect their life. And I think the important thing is that we give parents the opportunity to be able to redirect their life.”
Calloway and other proponents of the restrictive legislation say LGBTQ-inclusive school policies, like using trans children’s correct pronouns, are getting in the way of parents’ rights to control their children. His withdrawn measure, HB 173, is packed with declarations about the purported sanctity of parental control — going so far as to paint parental control as something fundamentally American.
“The interests and role of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children are implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, deeply embedded in our nation's history and tradition,” his measure reads.
The broad rights enumerated included parents’ “high duty and right to nurture and direct their children's destiny.”
According to Johns Hopkins University history professor Jules Gill-Peterson, there’s an underlying assumption in conservatives' calls for “parents’ rights” or to “protect children.”
“American culture has created a concept of childhood that is sort of linked to the absence of knowledge, right? To innocence or to ignorance,” Gill-Peterson said.
“I think people rightfully might imagine we've always treated children the same way and thought of them as helpless, vulnerable young people in need of protection,” Gill-Peterson said. “But that's not exactly true.”
The invention of the modern American child
According to Gill-Peterson, the concept of the innocent, helpless child is only about 150 years old.
It goes back to the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century when the U.S. and western European countries enacted some of their first child labor statutes and other child protection laws. Those regulations were spurred by a rise in a new culture of sentimentalism, Gill-Peterson said, and also the desire of middle- and upper-class white women to exercise their influence on society as “moral mothers.”
Gill-Peterson is the author of the 2018 book, “Histories of the Transgender Child.”
For much of U.S. history, working was the norm for most children. It was brutal for many kids, Gill-Peterson said, but they were also seen as having more agency and capability.
“I never mean to suggest that that era is somehow more desirable,” Gill-Peterson said. “But if anything, it just reminds us that culture shifts.”
Child protection laws were supposed to make kids’ lives better, and for many children, they did — especially white children.
But there were also drawbacks.
“This culture that treats children as incapable — one of the things that it does so harmful, is that it makes it impossible for them to stand up for themselves. It actually makes them more vulnerable,” she said.
When politicians started making child labor regulations, they wrote kids into the law as a kind of “quasi-property” of their families, Gill-Peterson said.
That idea of kids as quasi-property stuck. Gill-Peterson said she sees it manifest today in rhetoric around “parents’ rights” legislation, “that kids belong to their parents in this way that gives the parents a sort of right and entitlement to shape those children in their own image.”
Parents often have a gendered vision of who they want their children to be, and when kids go against that, Gill-Peterson said, it can be anxiety-inducing for parents in a binary, gender-segregated culture.
‘Letting him explain it to me’
As lawmakers debated Senate Bill 5, which many have criticized as a “book-banning” measure, opponents argued that children need access to LGBTQ-inclusive books at school to feel affirmed or to learn about people who are different from them.
Nicholasville Republican Sen. Donald Douglass rose to push back.
“Are we now supposed to start letting our kids educate our parents?” Douglass asked with incredulity. “Because many of the things you’re looking at are not things that parents have had exposure to.”
Luca Dries, 16, says the answer is “yes,” that adults don’t have a monopoly on knowledge.
“The whole relationship between a parent and kid is that you grow and learn with each other,” Luca told LPM News. Luca, who is trans, was at the Capitol in Frankfort the same day as 11-year-old Max Davis.
Max’s mother Christy Davis told LPM News that one of the most important and challenging lessons she’s learned as the parent of a transgender child is how to truly listen to her kid.
“Shaking off all of the things you know about gender … and letting him explain it to me,” she said.
Knowledge in the Davis and Dries families flows both ways — from parent to child, and from child to parent.
Standing beside Luca on the Capitol lawn, his mom, Lorna Dries, said being his parent has taught her a lot, especially about gender.
“I think it did spearhead all those thoughts,” she said. “But I’m grateful for it, I’m a better person for it, and I’m grateful for him.”
That’s something Johns Hopkins professor Gill-Peterson said she hears a lot from parents of transgender children — that it makes them more thoughtful, better people.
“We could really be so lucky as a culture to learn from trans youth by loving and supporting them,” she said.
All children, including trans kids, have a lot to teach adults, Gill-Peterson said. But it requires parents to part with their own fantasies about their children’s futures.
“To me, the big shift would be if we listen to kids as who they are — the person flesh-and-blood sitting right in front of you … hear what you're saying right now,” she said, “Remind you that I love who you are right now, not just who you might become.”
Divya Karthikeyan contributed to this report.