The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Activists face an avalanche of anti-transgender bills

‘If this bill don’t pass, it’s coming back next year,’ says an ardent advocate in Alabama

Quentin Bell, co-founder of the Knights and Orchids Society, an Alabama-based transgender nonprofit group, speaks to Democratic members of the state's House of Representatives about legislation that would affect the transgender community in Montgomery on March 9. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

SELMA, Ala. — Quentin Bell had traveled from Selma to Montgomery thousands of times, but still, he loaded the map before he pulled his Dodge pickup onto the dirt road in early March. He glanced at the arcing route, then over to his wife, Jennine, who was riding shotgun.

“54 miles,” he said.

It was 8:59 a.m. Bell had plenty of time to drive what took the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of voting rights activists five days to walk. The presentation didn’t start until noon, but Bell knew he couldn’t risk being even a minute late. He and a group of other transgender activists had just 30 minutes to talk to the House Democrats, 30 minutes to show they were human, 30 minutes to teach Alabama’s liberal legislators how to fight — for the third year in a row — a series of bills aimed at keeping transgender children out of bathrooms and away from puberty blockers.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Bell said as he drummed his palms against the steering wheel. “I just want to be able to make a connection so we can continue to work with them after this, because if this bill don’t pass, it’s coming back next year.”

Lately, fighting bills had begun to feel like a full-time job for advocates like Bell. His side had prevailed in Alabama two years in a row, but legislators kept reintroducing measures to erode protections for transgender people. This year, Bell thought, the other side seemed to be gaining momentum. South Dakota had barred transgender girls from playing girls sports, and in Idaho, legislators were working to make gender-affirming care ​​punishable by up to life in prison. After Texas failed to pass a similar bill last year, the governor ordered state agencies to investigate parents who allow their children to transition.

Alabama hadn’t gone that far, but Bell feared they had reached a critical turning point in the debate over trans rights. Legislators were closer than they’d ever been to passing two bills Bell hoped to stop. One barred trans kids from using bathrooms that match their identities and the other, which legislators expect to vote on this month, would send doctors to prison if they were to help anyone 19 or younger transition. Policymakers called it the “Alabama Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act.” In committee hearings, Republican legislators said they’d introduced the bills to protect children, but Bell and other advocates saw the measures as a fundamental threat to tens of thousands of families.

On the highway, Bell ran through talking points in his mind. Maybe the legislators needed to understand that they could lose federal funding if they prevented trans kids from using the bathrooms that matched their identity. Or maybe the Representatives simply needed to meet Bell. Maybe if they looked at him in his tan slacks and white button-up, they’d see that his life didn’t have to be controversial. He was well dressed and well adjusted, Alabama-raised, just like them.

Bell didn’t speed, but the couple was making good time until they reached a police blockade in Lowndesboro. Bell edged toward a long line of idling cars, and eventually, he came to a stop at what he assumed was a traffic accident. He eyed the clock. Ten minutes passed, then 20, but the traffic didn’t budge. His wife rolled down the windows. In the distance, a crowd began to chant.

“Show me what our power looks like. This is what our power looks like.”

“Oh,” Bell said. “They’re doing the march right now.”

That week was the 57th anniversary of the march to Montgomery, and hundreds of people had flown in to walk the path themselves. Bell killed the ignition so he could hear them more clearly.

“Show me what our love looks like. This is what our love looks like.”

Bell often thought about the activists who marched for voting rights. He is Black, and he runs a queer health-care nonprofit less than a block away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a daily reminder, he told people. He could have grown up anywhere in the world, but he was born in Selma, the heart of the civil rights movement. How could he not fight for the young people who needed protection now?

Bell tapped his foot nervously against the brake. He reminded himself that the first marchers tried three times before they crossed the bridge. Somehow, eventually, transgender people would prevail.

Bell rolled up the windows. In the distance, a car began to move.

“Okay,” Bell said. “I’m ready.”

30 minutes

Bell was 34, and he’d been fighting for transgender rights as long as he’d known the term.

He was in his late 20s when he transitioned, and by then, conservative legislators and school leaders had begun targeting transgender people. President Donald Trump said he’d kick them out of the military, and Mississippi legislators passed a bill that made it legal to refuse to serve trans people in restaurants, doctor’s offices and anywhere else trans people might want to go.

Texas judge suspends Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to treat gender-affirming care as child abuse

As Bell pulled into Montgomery, he knew that both of those policies had been overturned. Still, no win felt permanent. Every conservative loss was a preamble for bigger, harsher threats to come. In 2021, state legislatures across the country introduced more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills, many of which aimed to restrict transgender kids’ access to sports or gender-affirming health care. Already this year, legislators have introduced at least 168 measures to erode protections for transgender and gay youth. Alabama is responsible for five of those.

Bell testified against earlier versions of those bills in 2020 and 2021. Most died without reaching a full vote, but this year’s legislation felt different. A bathroom bill passed through the Alabama House of Representatives in late February. A day later, the Senate approved the health-care bill. A House committee had already backed that one. All that was left was a full House vote.

Bell had tried testifying at the committee hearings. He’d spent hours memorizing a three-minute speech only to find when he got to the State House that a Republican legislator had shortened Bell’s allowed time. Ten people signed up to protest the health-care bill, and only one person — a Roman Catholic deacon who works as a plastic surgeon — wanted to speak in favor of it. In the interest of what the legislator described as “balance,” he gave the deacon 10 minutes, then limited Bell and other activists to two. The committee sided with the deacon, and Bell started thinking of a new tactic.

Bell knew the numbers were against him. Even if every Democrat in the House voted against the bill, he’d lose. Still, Bell had noticed in the hearings that his allies didn’t understand him either. Few Alabama Democrats knew how to talk about trans people, and fewer still were speaking out against the bills. Maybe, Bell thought, if he inspired the group, they would be moved to lobby their conservative colleagues.

The House Democrats’ meeting was at the Alabama Poultry & Egg Association, a one-story brick building four blocks from the capitol. When Bell arrived, he climbed out of his truck, shook his legs to release the wrinkles from his slacks, then headed inside.

Just before noon, two dozen legislators rushed in and grabbed one of the sack lunches the Southern Poverty Law Center had purchased at Panera Bread. While they ate, Bell and his best friend, a nonbinary person named TC Caldwell, headed to the front. Bell had found that many Southerners struggle to understand trans people, so he and Caldwell started the presentation with something more familiar. Caldwell nodded at a sack.

“What makes a sandwich a sandwich?” Caldwell asked the group.

“Bread?” one lawmaker ventured. “Mustard?”

“Peanut butter!” an older lawmaker shouted. Bell clapped his hands in approval.

“That’s a sandwich, especially if you grew up poor,” he said.

The older lawmaker nodded his head, then Barbara Drummond, the vice-chair of the House Democratic Caucus, interrupted and pointed at a woman waving from the wings.

“I apologize for this interruption,” Drummond said, “but she was not here at the beginning and we’re in their building.”

Kim Adams, a lawyer whose husband is the head of the Poultry & Egg Association, scurried to the front. She wanted to remind everyone that an Alabama tourism group was holding a bash that night.

“Bring yourself, your staff, your spouse and anybody you have in town," she said. "It’s a big event, and tourism is a huge portion of our state’s economy.”

Adams finished her spiel, and Drummond told Bell he could continue. He looked around the room and tried to regain the momentum he’d been building.

Thomas “Action” Jackson, a lawmaker in his 70s, raised his hand.

“There’s a traditional sandwich and a nontraditional sandwich,” Jackson said.

He flashed Bell a big smile and a thumbs up.

“Right,” Bell said. “If I was eating a sandwich, and I said, ‘Hey, I don’t want tomatoes on my cheesesteak,’ does that mean that you can’t have tomatoes on your cheesesteak? It doesn’t. I’m not going to make the tomato plant illegal. I’m not going to penalize the farmer for growing tomatoes. I’m not going to penalize you for having tomatoes. And I’m not going to tell on my friends because they have tomatoes. I can exist in this space, and you can exist in that space, and there’s room for both of us.”

Bell stepped away from the table. His time was running out, and he hadn’t introduced himself yet.

“My name is Quentin Dorian Bell,” he said. “I am a native of Selma, Alabama. I graduated from Alabama State University, and I completed the Stanford Graduate School of Business class at Stanford University. I am also a Black trans man. I grew up here. This is my home. I graduated from Keith High School, right in Orrville, Alabama, where the average income is … ”

Drummond interrupted him again.

“And your representative is Prince Chestnut, and you need to tell everybody there to vote for him,” she said.

“I do,” Bell said. He looked at his watch. “I’m coming to you today to let you understand that I am an example of what it looks like when trans people have access to affirming care, when we have access to affirming spaces, when we’re allowed to exist in spaces free from harm. I am just one example of what that looks like.”

He motioned toward three young people he’d invited to attend the presentation. They were all clients of The Knights & Orchids Society, the nonprofit Quentin and Jennine Bell created in 2012. They called the organization TKO for short, and over time they’d built up a program that offered free medical services to trans and other queer people. Clients go to virtual doctor’s appointments, and they receive prescriptions for pre-exposure prophylaxis, a medication that lowers the risk of HIV infection, as well as free hormone treatments.

Bell suspected the bill wouldn’t stop young people from getting hormones. Four of his clients used black-market hormones before Bell connected them to doctors who could prescribe accurate doses. The black-market options were expensive, and worse, they were dangerous. To save money, some people who took them reused or shared needles to inject the hormones. In Alabama, needle-sharing was one of the leading causes of HIV infection.

The clients he’d brought with him to the meeting didn’t have to risk their lives that way.

“They have had opportunities to thrive because we as an organization have been able to create a space for them to foster their uniqueness and help empower them to reach their full potential,” Bell told the legislators. “We need your support today because this bill is going to create a system of downfall that we are not ready for.”

A lobbyist from the Human Rights Campaign nodded, and Bell knew he had to cede the floor to the other speakers. A youth outreach coordinator from an LGBTQ space in Birmingham went over common transgender terminology, and Morissa Ladinsky, a pediatric endocrinologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham explained that the medical bill could send her to prison for 10 years for providing what has been standard-of-care medicine since 2006.

She nodded toward a White teenager, then urged the girl to introduce herself. Her name was Harleigh Walker. She was 14. Her brown hair was long, and she was wearing a leather jacket over a yellow plaid dress.

“I’ve been transitioning since 2016, when I was in the fifth grade,” she told the legislators. “If I lose access to this care, I will start to go through male puberty again, and I will develop the masculine traits again, and that will set me back into a more dark place like I was before I finally found who I was. ”

A lawmaker wearing a fuchsia pleather outfit raised her hand, then pointed at Bell.

“I would like to know, what is the length of process you go through when you’re transgender?” she asked.

Bell stepped away from the table and took a short but deep breath.

“I’ve been waiting on this question all day,” he said. “I think the misconception is that it is an easy process to begin a transition. It is not an easy process.”

When Bell first suspected he was trans, he and Jennine were so poor they lived in a portable shed on a lot deep in the country. Internet companies didn’t service the area, and cellphones barely worked, so the Bells drove to Selma to use the library computer.

The library only allowed patrons to surf the Web an hour each day, so Bell learned about himself in installments. He took three online quizzes to see if he was trans. At first, he didn’t know he could medically transition, so he fashioned a beard using a glue stick and tracks from his mother’s weave. It felt amazing, like a door opened, and all he had to do to become himself was step through it.

When he decided he was ready for the beard to become permanent, Bell used the computer to search for therapists and doctors. Eventually, after he realized he wouldn’t find one in Alabama, he drove three hours to Atlanta in a breakdown-prone, 20-year-old Mustang to get the medication that made him feel whole.

“It is not an easy process,” he told the legislators again.

He had to hire an attorney to change his name, then he had to hire another one to update his driver’s license. Three years passed, and Bell had a full beard before he ever succeeded in getting the “F” changed to an “M.”

All of that painstaking work has been worth it. He’s a father now, and he runs a nonprofit that took in $1 million in grants and contracts last year. He has 14 employees. He’s happier, more settled than he’d ever been. Anyone looking in from the outside might even consider his day-to-day life boring. He wakes up early to take his kids to school. He works. He watches “Swamp People” in bed at night. If the legislators defeat those bills, other kids will have the same opportunity to grow the way Bell did.

Napoleon Bracy Jr., a legislator from Mobile, motioned toward Harleigh.

“When you go to school,” he said, “what bathroom do you use?”

“Uh, I use the girls bathroom,” Harleigh said. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

“See,” Bracy said. “I feel like we were creating an issue that wasn’t an issue. I have four school districts in my district, and not one of them came to me and said, ‘This is a problem, and I need you to go ahead and fight this battle.’ Not one out of four school districts.”

The other legislators nodded, and Caldwell, Bell’s best friend, raised their hand.

“I’m terrified to go to the bathroom,” they explained. “When I go into establishments, I hold it. The longest I’ve held it is 14 hours. I hold it because I don’t want to be harmed. And it has happened. It has happened. Especially for Black trans folks, let’s keep it above, it is different.”

“Well,” Drummond said, “we want to thank you all for your time, but as I said when we began, a number of us have a news conference at 1, and some of us have committee meetings at 1:30. Let’s give them a round of applause.”

The legislators clapped, and the half-hour was done.

'We’ll get a van. And we’ll fill it with trans folks.'

After the meeting, Bell drove toward a State House rally for Medicaid expansion. Every block was a reminder. He passed the church where King preached, and he parked near the First White House of the Confederacy. At the rally, he and Caldwell stood in front of the portico where George Wallace once called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

As Bell listened to the speakers, he pulled a vial of dirt from his pocket. He’d taken the dirt from Jackson, Miss., after he and others planted a tree there in honor of his best friend, a trans man who was murdered in October. Now he kept it close, a talisman to remind himself why he kept fighting.

Bell and Mel Groves transitioned together. They both drove to Atlanta for their prescriptions, and they took their first shots of testosterone around the same time.

When they met, Groves was attending college in Alabama on a full scholarship, but he dropped out after his professors repeatedly misgendered him, his classmates assaulted him, and the school refused to let him live in the male dorms. Groves struggled with homelessness, but Bell helped him move to Mississippi so he could study plant and soil science at Alcorn State University. Groves hoped to use what he learned at Alcorn to build a garden for Bell’s organization. More than a quarter of transgender adults went hungry last summer, according to Census Bureau data. Groves planned to address that disparity by growing food for Bell’s clients.

A few months after Groves moved to Mississippi, someone shot him multiple times. He drove himself to a hospital in Jackson, but he died in the parking lot. He was 25. Police never arrested a suspect.

As Bell stood outside the Alabama State House, he suspected the bills and the violence were connected. Groves was one of at least 57 trans or gender-nonconforming people who were killed in 2021. Many had struggled, as Groves did, with discrimination from their families and legislators. Studies have found that bills like the ones Alabama was considering lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health troubles for transgender people. Researchers have also found that the bills may lead to higher rates of suicide and violence against transgender people.

2021 is the deadliest year on record for transgender and nonbinary people

Eventually, Bell put the vial back in his pocket, and he headed toward a bookstore to debrief with some of the young people who’d attended the presentation. There, they ordered pizza and talked for a while about their love lives and shared histories. Caldwell pulled out pictures to show what Bell used to look like — back in the days when he wore colored contacts. And a teenager said she’d felt relieved when the pandemic closed her school. She could learn at home without anyone bullying her.

The group lingered until the sun was near setting, then the Bells drove home toward Selma. Somewhere outside of Montgomery, their gas tank ran low, so they stopped to fill up. The price for a gallon had spiked north of $4, and as the meter ticked toward $80, Bell worried about the cost.

The pediatric endocrinologist had said after the presentation that she wasn’t afraid of going to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union would file a lawsuit if the bill passed, and she’d continue treating transgender children. But two hospitals in Texas had already closed their programs, and Bell worried the University of Alabama might eventually shutter the one there. People had started suggesting that trans people in states like Texas and Alabama should leave or seek care out of state, but most of the young people Bell knew couldn’t afford the gas, and others didn’t want to move away from their friends and family.

Bell’s nonprofit uses virtual appointments and a pharmacy out of New Jersey, and Bell felt like he’d still be able to offer that even if the bill passed. If he had to, though, he’d go back to Atlanta. He’d make the same trip he and Groves used to make, only this time he wouldn’t go alone.

“We’ll get a van,” he told his wife. “And we’ll fill it with trans folks.”

When his tank was full, Bell steered toward the setting sun, toward Selma, toward home. Whatever happened with the bills, he wasn’t abandoning Alabama. He’d drive to Montgomery every week if he had to, and if that didn’t work, he’d march.