With help from Teresa Wiltz.
What up Recast Family! We’ve been eyeing the rapid growth in anti-trans bills and wondering: Why now? What’s driving this? So we tapped journalist Imara Jones, who just launched a limited-run, investigative podcast on these bills, to offer her perspective on what’s really going on. Let’s jump into it.
Growing up Black and transgender in 1980s Atlanta, Imara Jones says she felt invisible. She couldn’t speak her truth, couldn’t tell the world who she was. And she didn’t want others to go without a space for self-expression.
After a stint working on economic policy in the Clinton White House and communications at Viacom, Jones turned to journalism, calling attention to equity and social justice. In 2019, Jones chaired the first-ever U.N. High Level Meeting on Gender Diversity. And she says she launched TransLash Media, a media collective, to elevate the voices of transgender people.
But 2021 has become a record year for legislation targeting the transgender community: There are nearly 130 bills spanning 35 states affecting transgender children and young adults. Many of them focus on banning transgender student-athletes from competing with their cisgender counterparts, and limiting access to hormone therapy for transgender youth.
Jones and her team spent the past year digging into why — even during a pandemic — these bills became a priority for conservative lawmakers. She says she uncovered evidence of dark money and a campaign by far-right activists that was a decade in the making. States are advancing anti-trans legislation with help from organizations including the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom, designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
I talked to Jones about The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality, her new, limited-run investigative podcast series. We explored her reporting process, the ideology behind these bills and the generational impact they could have.
“There’s nothing organic about this moment,” she told me. “It is an engineered battle.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
THE RECAST: How did you start digging into these bills?
JONES: One of the things that I learned from my time in Washington: When you see the same thing happening in two disparate places, it’s usually not a coincidence. There’s something that’s behind that. Maybe it’s two people who spoke to each other, and then they both did the same thing — or it can be more complex, the result of an organized effort.
And something just said that I needed to find out, I needed to see what was behind the bills. The bill in Idaho was the first anti-trans sports bill to be introduced. But the year before, in South Dakota, there was a different one banning trans kids from getting medical care. That didn’t pass, but it gained national attention. So when a very similar thing happened in Idaho, I just thought, “I don’t know, something’s going on.”
Even in the midst of the pandemic, the bills were getting introduced into last year’s session. So that added to my sort of question, right, because why would during a global pandemic, why would anti-trans bills be coming up in several states? Like, that’s weird, too. So I literally just started to make phone calls. And the more that I learned, the more alarmed I became.
Every week, we sit down with diverse and influential characters who are shaking up politics.
Who should we profile next? Let us know. Email us at [email protected].
THE RECAST: I mean, 2021 has been a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation. How did we get to this point, why are we seeing it center stage now?
JONES: Yeah that shocked me, how this moment that we’re in is not an accident. It is a consequence of what these groups and the money and the ideology behind them have been setting up for a long time. This is a fight that they’ve wanted to have.
A lot of this comes out of groups that began to want to infuse religion into legal and political life, beginning in the 1980s. Particularly the early 2000s, they got really animated around gay marriage. They lost gay marriage, the fight against gay marriage, in 2015, and then decided that they could not lose the fight on trans issues. And they really do perceive it as a threat. For them, family life is the bedrock of American life, so they really do see LGBTQ issues as a threat to the Republic. I’m not being flip when I say that.
There began to be a little bit of experimentation with bathroom bills [around 2017]. And that literally was a road test of “What can we do?” They’ve spent the last couple of years focus-grouping trans issues, focus-grouping places where they believe Americans are most uncomfortable with trans people, and then setting up a political fight in those weak points.
And so again, there’s nothing organic about this moment; it is an engineered battle. For the extreme Christian right groups that we talk about in our series, this fight is not marginal: It is a central battlefront for the heart and soul of America. And that’s why they put so many resources into it, to where we had less than 10 bills in 2019 and now have nearly 130 bills in 2021.
THE RECAST: How do you think these bills — regardless of how many pass and are upheld by the courts — will impact generations to come? Can we say that they will?
JONES: I think we can. We can say that in a lot of different ways, it’s a really smart question and way to look at it.
[State Rep.] Garry Smith, who’s one of the co-sponsors of the bills in South Carolina, told me on the record that passing the bills is only a part of their strategy — that they believe this argument and this fight are going to be consequential. That what they’re doing is making people uncomfortable through public discourse with trans people and trans issues. That’s kind of the goal. Right?
[State Rep.] Barbara Ehardt, another one of the sponsors, told me that when she introduced the anti-trans sports bill in Idaho, that she and the Alliance Defending Freedom did so with the explicit goal of it going all the way to the Supreme Court.
We know that this is already having a generational impact. The Trevor Project found that the bills increase the pressure young people feel, who are trans or nonbinary, and that increases the likelihood of suicide. A tremendous amount of damage is being done to young people, just through the dialogue.
THE RECAST: Your podcast really highlights the trans students facing down these bills. Was that a big goal for you, for the way you wanted to report this story?
JONES: My primary duty as a journalist is to tell the truth about what I find — that’s my North Star. And for me, the truth of this is that the only thing that’s standing between the success of these groups and the introduction of these bills, are these young people and their families.
The large organizations, besides the ACLU, are all kind of flat-footed. There’s been this massive increase in bills, and that pressure has been so sudden and so massive and so universal, that a lot of those groups have been totally caught off guard. The thing that has really stood in the way of these bills are teenagers who are standing up. That’s what the public is latching on to, are the stories of young people.
You normally think in Washington that it’s like interest group versus interest group. No — this is really an interest group versus individuals. And that, to me, was really heartbreaking. That we’re willing to put our young people at risk like that.
THE RECAST: In the first episode, you’re speaking to Barbara Ehardt and you ask her whether she ever considered the students’ perspectives. And she essentially said no. What were you thinking at that moment? Have you heard that often from legislators while reporting?
JONES: Usually when you legislate on something, you take the time to learn about it. They haven’t actually spoken to these kids, they haven’t spoken to their families, they haven’t spoken to the half-dozen medical organizations — from global to state — that say there’s 40 years of research that allows them to be able to practice in certain ways that are safe. So I don’t think that it was unique.
I was astounded. The total willingness to live and legislate from a place of ignorance, in a democracy, is frightening to me. I was astounded that a person who felt those issues so personally, never considered that there was another person who they would impact.
THE RECAST: You’ve got two episodes out. What’s coming next?
JONES: What we are going to continue to do is to widen the lens, to show how backed this movement is, to show how it flows from Washington to the states, the way in which it impacts all areas of public life from the intersection of policy to politics, to donors and the donor class, and then to religious ideology.
We’re taking people on the journey that I went on, from thinking about this in a more confined way to learning just how extensive and broad this network is. It involves household names. And they’re serious about it. They’re not playing.
THE RECAST: I want to ask: We’ve seen a spotlight on journalists recently and how they’re challenging “objectivity.” You’ve been interviewed several times about being a Black, trans journalist. How has that been for you? Is this interest new?
JONES: Yes, it is. I don’t think anyone is ever objective. It’s only when you are in some way not cis and not white that there’s a skepticism about your ability to be able to cover your community in a way that’s effective.
What makes me an effective journalist is that I actually know my beat. Like, I know my beat. And no one ever says that a white Congressional reporter who lives on Capitol Hill, is married to a congressional staffer and who plays softball with the people that they cover, somehow can’t be objective. And that’s normal in Washington, The situation I described is replicated about tens of thousands of times, and no one ever says anything about that.
Our role is to be fair, to be skeptical, and to go where the stories and the facts end up leading us. But this idea that somehow we’re compromised by covering the communities that we’re a part of? Then every journalist is compromised.
So I get a little animated and enraged about this, because I’ve found the very question offensive. Because I think that I get asked that only because I’m Black and trans — and I cover Black and trans communities.
It’s the (much-needed) weekend. As always, send your thoughts on what we’re doing well — and not so well — to [email protected]. And don’t be shy about giving us some book, food, TV or podcast recommendations to feature! For today, here’s what we think you should check out.
Definitely read this piece from Allure about how transgender and nonbinary people shouldn’t be reduced to simple “befores” and “afters.”
We’ve got another book rec. In Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News, Dr. Ava Thompson Greenwell documents their boldness, their bravery and the toll racism and gender bias took. (Full disclosure: Dr. Greenwell was one of Rishika’s professors in college).
This crucial piece from NYT Cooking lists recipes for 20 simple sauces that will transform any meal — from Nuoc Cham to Buffalo sauce. We can’t wait to try all of them.
Why do people like K-pop so much? The Washington Post has you covered with this interactive experience that breaks down the catchy writing style, choreography and some of the most popular songs. Sound on.
While we’re on the subject: Let us put you on to this Spotify playlist of major K-pop hits, from 2000 until today.
Tweet of the Day: The White House public health campaign has tapped two Gen Z faves to read fan tweets. Hello to teen pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
TikTok of the Day: Blood quantum isn’t important.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .