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  • Writer's picturepwsewell

Ithaca Trans Safe Haven Resolution

Updated: Aug 2, 2023



At the June Common Council meeting, Republican mayoral candidate Janis Kelly spoke forcefully against an upcoming proposal to make Ithaca a safe-haven for trans individuals. Common Council meetings are not designed for public debate, so there was no space for a comprehensive response to Kelly’s concerns. However, it is worth giving a more detailed response to Kelly’s arguments, because any legislation put forward should be defensible on its merit.


The author of the proposal, Jorge DeFendini (4th Ward) explained the proposal as “a resolution and an ordinance to identify the city as a sanctuary for transgender and gender nonconforming folks who might be coming to the city seeking gender-affirming care or therapy, and not having to worry about being persecuted if they’re coming from states or municipalities that have adopted more regressive policies pertaining to the challenges that they’re dealing with”.[1] In short, Ithaca will protect access to transgender healthcare.


Before digging into Kelly’s concerns regarding the proposal, it is worth noting that New York State already passed legislation protecting access to transgender healthcare, including for those who travel to New York for healthcare. It is hard to see the purpose of developing a nearly identical policy at the city level, especially as the city already overwhelmingly supports the state policy and readily carries it out. The protection of civil rights is an important one, and both our State Senator, Lea Webb, and our Assembly person, Anna Kelles, have worked hard to codify these rights within state policy (indeed, both cosponsored the safe-haven legislation).

Map showing overall policy tallies for LGBTQ-related laws and policies. Taken from https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps

We might do well to acknowledge the policy already in place and focus our time and energy on more city-specific issues, like housing and budgeting. Regardless, access to trans healthcare is an issue which people feel deeply about, and it is coming before Common Council, so it is worth discussing.


Kelly’s concerns are two-fold: 1) gender-affirming medical intervention can lead to emotional and physical harm, and 2) at its heart, the trans rights movement is fundamentally an anti-gay movement.[2] The first concern, that medical intervention can lead to long-lasting harm, is widely raised and often the basis for outlawing gender-affirming care, especially for minors.[3]



The Harm Question

In her comments, Kelly referenced a statistic regularly used against gender-affirming care for minors; that approximately 80% of children experiencing gender dysphoria “grow out of it” by the time they become adults. If true, the argument goes, allowing children to undergo substantial and irreversible body modification is, at a minimum, reckless, and possibly even life-threatening.


Yet there are problems with this statistic, as trans-rights activists are quick to point out. Although the 80% number comes from a credible journal, the source paper is dated (2016) and has been increasingly criticized for inaccurate methodology. Additionally, a study published just last year found 94% of children who transitioned to a new gender continued to identify as that gender 5 years later. It is tempting, then, to simply say that Kelly’s statistic is outdated, that science now supports the practice of gender affirming care, and we should move on.


However, it is a mistake to use scientific research as the final arbiter of public policy. Not only are scientific studies rarely conclusive, it is easy to cherry pick data to support one’s conclusions, especially for a relatively new field of research like gender dysphoria. There will be new research that adds even more nuances to this debate, and it is hard to see theses nuances getting us any closer to a scientific consensus on trans issues. Importantly, this is at heart a question of values, so scientific research only gets us so far.

Illustration by Mark McGinnis from www.learningforjustice.org

Instead of trying to determine whether gender-affirming care is safe, we should be looking at a much more important question, who gets to make the rules about gender expression?


States that criminalize gender-affirming care criminalize one’s right to determine their own gender expression. And gender, like sexual orientation, is foundational to the very core of our identity, an attribute whose expression is indivisible from self-determination. As a nation founded in liberty, we have enshrined every American’s right to create a life as they see fit, and those attributes foundational to self-determination warrant the greatest protection of all. The argument that gender-affirming care may be harmful is insufficient to justify the State’s infringement on our self-determination.


What about minors, who are not given the same freedom to self-determination as adults? We allow adults to make mistakes that harm themselves, such as smoking, but we restrict those options for minors, under the auspices that they are not mature enough to understand the gravity of their decisions. Should that State restrict the ability of minors to receive gender-affirming care because they are not old enough to make well-reasoned decisions?


No. Whether we are talking about adults or children, it is not the State’s role to dictate gender. Providing the option for gender-affirming care, as safe-haven legislation does, places the expression of a child’s gender in the hands of their parents and their healthcare providers. Doing otherwise, lays that responsibility in the hands of the State. It assumes parents are unable or unwilling to navigate the welfare of their own children. It assumes that the State is more informed and more invested in the outcome of a parent’s child than they are. Or, to quote Kelly, it assumes that “in order not to be seen as transphobic or not gender affirming, adults are too easy to push vulnerable kids into medical decisions they are not yet confident to make.”

Christy and Max Davis at the Kentucky Capitol 3/2/23 to protest a bill that would prevent trans and nonbinary children from receiving certain types of gender-affirming medical care. Max is an 11-year-old trans boy from Louisville. Image taken from https://www.wkms.org/government-politics/2023-03-02/gender-affirming-care-for-minors-would-be-banned-under-bill-passed-by-ky-house

Finally, it assumes that gender-affirming care is necessarily harmful to children, a highly dubious claim as there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.


All of this is woefully cynical. I know many parents whose kids have experienced some sort of gender confusion – every single one of those parents was, and is, deeply, deeply, concerned about the emotional and physical welfare of their child. They certainly do not put social pressures above the health of their children. We trust parents with a responsibility for every other aspect of a child’s welfare; why would gender expression, and the potential health impacts that come with it, not warrant the same respect?



The Anti-Gay Question[4]

The second piece of Kelly’s argument posits that the trans movement is an anti-gay movement. “Many kids with gender dysphoria are gay or bisexual and most of those, about 80%, turn out to be healthy gay adults unless they're pushed through the trans pipeline. . . I myself, an energetic tomboy, who loved tools and science, would have been at great risk for being shoved on the trans-train if I hadn't been born so long ago.”


The argument here is that trans acceptance is de facto anti-gay, because it pushes folks to reorient their gender instead of embracing their sexuality. While this is not something I have a great deal of experience with, having lived my life comfortably as a cisgender heterosexual, this argument seems to be missing the point. Trans rights broaden gender identity, not impede sexual orientation. In a very narrow sense, trans rights might be construed as anti-gay insofar as it moves society towards non-binary gender identity, but this is really a push against binary sexuality, generally. If trans rights are anti-gay, they are also anti-straight, and neither of those characterizations ring true.


It is worth noting that Kelly’s example highlights the growing gulf between the older, rigid conception of gender and the more malleable version increasingly embraced. In today’s society, where drag performance is a commercial powerhouse and men are the new target market for balms and conditioners, there is a much greater acceptance of gender expression for children of all sexes. Were Kelly born today, her interest in tools and science might push her through the STEM pipeline[5], but they certainly would not be indicative of a gender deviance. I would hazard that a large part of the concern around trans rights is really discomfort with the changing notions of gender mores than demonstrable harm to either individuals or groups.


Pride flags strung across DeWitt Park during 2021 Pride Celebration. Photo by Mikayla Rovenolt for The Ithaca Voice

Supporting Safe-Haven Legislation

Older readers may note the striking similarity between Kelly’s argument and the logic driving the anti-gay movements at the turn of the 21st century. At that time, it was argued that homosexuality (not gender) was a fad, that people chose to be gay due to social pressure, that identifying as such led to both physical and emotional harm, and this was especially harmful for children.


The weakness of this argument was its depiction of sexual orientation as a choice made capriciously due to social pressure. Of course, many of us who lived during that time remember the exorbitant social, familial, and economic costs that coming out entailed. Only those insulated from the realities of gay life would have assumed it was a choice of social whimsy. We do not want to make that mistake again.


So, should Common Council support legislation that protects gender-affirming care? Yes, on the grounds that it is essential to the fundamental right of self-determination. Should protect gender affirming for minors? Yes, as the parties best suited to determine the health of gender affirming care on minors are their parents and their health care providers, not the State. Is this necessary legislation? Probably not, as New York State has already enacted it. Regardless, if it comes before the Common Council, it should be approved.



[1] https://whcuradio.com/news/025520-defendini-hopes-ithaca-becomes-a-sanctuary-city-for-transgender-people/. [2] I have transcribed Kelly’s full comments from the meeting here. I emailed Kelly asking for a written copy of the comments, but had not heard back by the time of publication. [3] Texas’ Attorney General Ken Paxton argues that providing gender-affirming care to children is a form of “child abuse” [4] Using appropriate language in culturally charged debates is challenging. I have decided to stick with Kelly’s usage of “gay” for consistency’s sake, though I understand the word’s cachet may have shifted in the queer community. [5] Though still underrepresented in specific areas, women made up 44% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the STEM field

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