Lil Nas X, Gender Nonconformity and the Fight Against Transphobic Legislation

The fact that Lil Nas X’s recent queer, campy music video and song became an instant hit at the same time anti-trans legislation swept the country demonstrates a serious contradiction.

Lil Nas X's Gender Nonconformity can Help in the Fight Against Transphobic Laws
Over half of all states will vote on transphobic bills in the 2021 legislative session. (Twitter / @KristinaS_Trib)

The new year ushered in an onslaught of dehumanizing anti-trans state legislation. Throughout the country, over half of all states will vote on transphobic bills in the 2021 legislative session. Last week, the Arkansas legislature became the first state to ban gender confirming health care for trans youth after it overrode Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto of the law. And dozens of states are currently considering bills which would prohibit trans youth from playing sports on a team that matches their gender. Three states—ArkansasTennessee and Mississippi—have already passed this legislation.

Despite the widespread and vehement transphobia this legislation reveals, polls show most Americans are increasingly supportive of transgender rights. And the positive reception of celebrities like Elliot PageHarry Styles and Hunter Schafer has demonstrated that transness and gender nonconformity are more than just accepted—they’re celebrated, especially by the young people who shape pop culture. 

Recently, the American public once again proved its celebration of gender nonconformity. Lil Nas X, the gay rapper who found fame in 2019 with his single “Old Town Road,” released a gender-bending music video on March 26 which has already garnered well over 100 million views. 

The video, released for the chart-topping single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” celebrates Lil Nas X’s queerness through campy (and controversial) reimaginations of Christian imagery. Notably, it highlights the musician’s gender nonconformity: Throughout, he dons a bodysuit covered in rhinestones, thigh-high stilettos and towering pastel wigs. 

The fact that such a music video and song became an instant hit at the same time that anti-trans legislation swept the country demonstrates a serious contradiction—if the American public is increasingly supportive of trans rights and increasingly celebratory of gender nonconformity, why are Republican legislators hooking their talons into revoking trans rights? 

Those advocating for anti-trans legislation have been quick to paint these bills as responses to dangers they claim trans and gender nonconforming people pose, particularly to women and children. But this legislation comes from anything but concern—rather, it’s a calculated Republican tactic to misinform voters and win votes.

A 2019 New York Times article reported that when conservative strategists found that anti-trans “bathroom bills” weren’t pushing voters to support their right-wing candidates, they moved on to anti-trans legislation centered on school sports. 

Why? This issue did best in the polls. 

Instead of focusing on improving the lives of their constituents, these lawmakers are methodically vilifying trans kids, most of whom already feel unsafe at school—and doing so in a cheap attempt at winning votes.

Trans Sports Bans and Gender-Conforming Health Care Are Most Common Types of Transphobic Legislation

Two different flavors of transphobic legislation have been proposed throughout the country. The first and more common set of bills are the trans sports bans. Language for these bills, it’s worth noting, was drafted by the Alliance Defending Freedom—an organization that’s been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The second group of bills grew out of a conservative media storm surrounding a 2019 custody battle over Luna Younger, a 7-year-old trans girl. While the legal battle focused on Luna’s father’s refusal to let her socially transition, conservative sensationalists launched a disinformation campaign, claiming that Luna’s mother was intending to “chemically castrate” her. 

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These bills that emerged out of this inflammatory coverage fully criminalize gender-confirming health care for children, banning essential care including puberty blockers, hormone treatments and gender-affirming surgeries.

In response to the passage of the Arkansas bill banning this health care, Dr. Robert Garofalo of Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital said, “This legislation perpetuates the very things we know are harmful to trans youth,” and went on to call these bills “anti-science” and “anti-public health.”

Expressing a similar sentiment, a 2019 statement from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry said legislation like these bills “directly oppose the evidence-based care recognized by professional societies across multiple disciplines” and are of “serious concern.”

Health experts maintain the health care these bills have banned or seek to ban is life-saving. Treatments like puberty blockers have been proven to seriously decrease the odds of trans youth considering suicide.

To make matters worse, these bills are often purporting to protect women—but in reality, they are targeting women and girls, and feeding off of misogynist standards for girlhood. The legislation banning trans kids from playing on teams that match their gender by and large fixates on trans girls. Through these bills, their participation in a joyful activity becomes illegal

Simultaneously, much of the current discourse around limiting children’s access to medical transition is rooted in misplaced ideas of “protecting” children assigned female at birth. For example, anti-trans pundit Abigail Shrier in her 2020 book Irreversible Damage paints transness in young people as a fad, and tries to convince the public that trans adults are coercing young girls into rejecting their womanhood. 

These harmful arguments paint girls—and trans youth—as naive, impressionable, and lacking self-knowledge. And the “protection” that anti-trans writers claim to be invested in is often, implicitly or explicitly, a thinly-veiled attempt at keeping “girls” fertile and normatively sexually appealing. 

The sexualization of bodies considered “female” is evident in these arguments. So, too, is the misguided assumption that trans bodies are somehow tragic, mutilated or undesirable. 

All this considered, it’s easier to see why the gender nonconformity of someone like Lil Nas X is tolerated by the American public in the same breath that trans children’s rights are being taken away. His adulthood, and his public image as a cis man, is certainly protecting him—as is, obviously, his celebrity status. 

Despite his distance from the transphobia sweeping through state capitals right now, Lil Nas X still offers, perhaps, a shred of hope. Contrary to what supporters of this legislation would have us believe, “Montero” proves that gender nonconformity is alluring, exciting and worth celebration.

All that being said, this is still an undeniably terrible time for trans kids throughout the country—and, regrettably, it’s probably the first of many to come as more conservative state legislators push these kinds of bills throughout the country. To show up for trans kids right now, check out ACLU attorney Chase Strangio’s Twitter thread on how to fight back.

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Ari Jewell is a junior at Smith College majoring in the Study of Women and Gender.