John Oliver looked into the extraordinary legal attack on transgender rights in the US on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, and particularly at deliberate disinformation around gender-affirming care. Since Oliver first covered the topic of trans rights seven years ago, “more people do seem comfortable coming out as trans and gender non-conforming, which is great,” he said. “But as you have undoubtedly noticed, in the past few years, some on the right have truly lost their minds about trans rights.”
There are the bad “jokes” – such as conservatives claiming their pronouns are “patriot” or “asskicker” – and, more concerning, over 100 anti-trans bills introduced in state houses this year. “Frustratingly, there are many on the left who seem at best, reluctant to engage on this issue,” said Oliver. “And at worst, outright hostile to it, either complaining about pronoun police or arguing that this issue will cost Democrats elections.”
Oliver pointed to former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who in a recent talk said an emphasis on trans rights wasn’t a “winning formula” for elections.
“Set aside the notion that it is worth sacrificing protections for a vulnerable to chase a ‘winning formula’,” Oliver retorted. “Let’s also remember that it’s not actually the left talking about trans rights non-stop. It’s Republicans who see an advantage in demagoguing this issue. And to ignore them doing that can have a real, calamitous impact on people’s lives.
Oliver promised to take the arguments behind anti-trans bills seriously, but not sincerely, “because so often they seem to be based more on political calculation that what is actually happening”.
To wit: 18 states passed laws “protecting youth sports”, such as in South Dakota, where Governor Kristi Noem made an anti-trans law the center of a campaign ad touting “protections” for girls sports. In fact, only one trans female youth athlete had competed in South Dakota, and had graduated several years prior.
“It is pretty remarkable that a trans athlete could theoretically compete in the Olympics but not in South Dakota under-12 soccer, a sport that genuinely only exists to obliterate parents’ weekends,” Oliver quipped.
In other words, the conversations around anti-trans laws involve “massively overheated rhetoric that does not match the reality of kids’ actual situations”, said Oliver.
He pointed to Christopher Rufo, one of the rightwing scholars who helped poison critical race theory from an academic concept to a winning culture war issue for Republicans, and has since shifted to targeting trans people and specifically how transgender people are discussed in schools. “Say what you want about Chris Rufo – like, for instance, that he’s a fear-mongering troll who looks like what would happen if someone made the recipe for Ryan Gosling but forgot to add the hotness – he’s very deliberate in how he tries to influence public opinion,” said Oliver.
Rufo has suggested branding the discussion of trans issues as “radical gender theory”, and tweeted that drag queens should be referred to as “trans strippers” because it’s more “lurid” and has a “sexual connotation” – part of the conservative strategy of linking transgender issues with sexual predation or social contagion.
Oliver tore into Rufo’s fearmongering about minors exploring their gender identity. “To the extent that some young people are just exploring their gender identity, how exactly is that a bad thing?” he fumed. “Who the fuck are they hurting?
“Watching the conversation around this,” he continued, “it is hard not to feel, to the extent that there is any social contagion here, it is among adults who’ve whipped themselves into such a frenzy that they can find themselves repeating some humiliating nonsense.”
Conservative disinformation around gender-affirming care – such as that kids can order on-demand surgery, or invoke permanent changes with no consultation – has a devastating impact on young people looking to access crucial healthcare. “Basically, no kid is casually dropping into an operating room because they just decided to get their uterus removed with the impulsive recklessness normally associated with getting bangs,” said Oliver.
“The benefits of providing care are immense and the risks of withholding it are dire,” he added, citing a 2019 study of 28,000 trans people by UCLA, which found that of those who wanted hormone therapy and didn’t receive it, 58% reported suicidal thoughts in a given year.
Such consequences from withheld care have forced some trans kids to become activists, such as 11-year-old Kai Shappley, who testified before the Texas legislature and has since fled the state.
“If a child has to become an activist, we have already failed that child,” said Oliver, because kids like Shappley “should just get to be a kid and enjoy her life”.
“All the kids we’ve seen tonight shouldn’t need to be activists,” he added. “They should get to dress how they, go to the right bathroom for them and play the sports they want to play.”
Oliver ended with a quote from trans actor Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, who called on trans joy when faced with hate: “We have to live our lives and show people how happy we are.”
“Hope and joy are crucial here,” said Oliver. “They are the fuel that power the ongoing fight for equality. And while there is a lot of fear and uncertainty right now, it is worth remembering that progress, while not always linear, is always possible. Because we are working toward the goal of every trans kid knowing that they are loved, valued and indispensable as” to cite several of the kids featured in the segment, “Dolly Parton-loving, weird pet-owning, freakin’ dope individuals”.