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How Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation in Mountain States Will Harm Ski Communities

State legislators in 2020 considered a historic total of 80 anti-trans bills, including many in mountain states.

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International Transgender Day of Visibility is an annual event occurring on March 31 dedicated to celebrating transgender people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide, as well as a celebration of their contributions to society.

On the way home to Colorado after a trip in Wyoming’s Snowy range this January, Alex Showerman, 34, cracked a dark joke. Crossing the state line, she turned to her ski partner and said, “Yay! We didn’t get hate-crimed!”

Showerman, a transgender backcountry split boarder, always feels a sense of relief when she returns to her adopted home from trips in neighboring states. In 2020, Showerman decided to move west from Vermont to advance her career in the ski industry. Though she had friends and fond memories scattered across the Rocky Mountain states, Colorado was a clear frontrunner for her landing place.

Alex Showerman Transgender Day of Visibility
Showerman has chosen to make Colorado her hope because state laws make it a safe place for transgender people to live and recreate in the outdoors. PHOTO: JJ Sereday

“I’m tied to Colorado because I need to be in states with LGBTQ+ friendly laws,” she says. “I looked into the laws in Wyoming and Idaho, and it’s not a place I can live. I love Utah, but, once again, not a place I can live.”

When she visited Colorado to scope out future hometowns, she remembers feeling reassured just walking through Crested Butte, where she saw Pride flags flying and Black Lives Matter signs in windows. Towns like that felt safe. They felt possible—in contrast to places like Jackson Hole, where she has experienced more misgendering than anywhere else she’s been.

“It’s tough. Mountain communities are not friendly places,” Showerman says. “Looking generally at LGBTQ+ bills and laws that exist in our mountain states that trend conservative, there’s a serious psychological impact. It takes a toll, feeling like the institutions do not have your back.”

A slew of bills targeting the health, happiness, and basic rights of LGBTQ+ people—youth, in particular—have emerged recently in state legislatures across the country, including in many mountain states.

“As we have conversations about ‘why is it that skiing isn’t diverse?’ we can talk about the cost of gear and access,” Showerman says, “but when the institutions of government are discriminating, it makes it near-impossible to create a diverse and inclusive community within skiing.”

State legislators in 2020 considered a historic total of 80 anti-trans bills. Almost exactly one year ago, Idaho’s Republican Governor Brad Little approved the country’s first anti-trans sports law, which legalized invasive sex testing and mandated that transgender collegiate athletes participate based on the gender assigned at birth, effectively banning trans girls and women from sports. On the same day, Little signed a second law barring trans people from updating their gender identity on their birth certificates. The American Civil Liberties Union swiftly filed suit against the laws, and federal judges declared both of them unconstitutional by summer 2020.

There have been some victories in 2021, like in Utah, where two anti-trans bills introduced in the general legislative session failed, thanks to a veto from Governor Spencer Cox. Even so, earlier this month, 2021 officially surpassed 2020’s record for anti-transgender legislative initiatives.

A groundswell of legislation has come from the Northern Rockies. After 16 years of Democratic control in the Montana governor’s office, the election of Republican Greg Gianforte opened the gates for a flood of harmful bills, many of which had been vetoed before and were waiting in the wings for a change in gubernatorial leadership.

Six anti-trans bills made it out of committee, including one that would force people to have gender reassignment surgery before changing their gender on their birth certificates—even though updating identity documentation is essential for the safety and wellbeing of trans people, while not everybody chooses surgery.

John Fuller, a representative from Whitefish, sponsored two similar bills that would criminalize providing healthcare for trans youth, and one bill that would restrict trans girls from participating in sports for their entire academic career. Transphobic and misogynistic rhetoric from Fuller and other legislators makes it clear that these bills are not really about “saving women’s sports,” “restoring religious freedom,” or any of the other disingenuous conservative slogans tacked onto them.

“When I think about these bills, and about how it is socially acceptable to use the institutions of government to be cruel to trans kids—some of the more vulnerable kids there are—that tells me everything I need to know about the culture of that state, and how I can’t really go there,” Showerman says.

She wasn’t out when she was in high school, but Showerman loved running cross country, and her Vermont school was small enough that the boy’s team traveled with, trained with, and occasionally even raced alongside the girl’s team. Her female teammates made high school tolerable—among them, she felt supported and safe to exist.

“I knew from the earliest age that this is who I am,” Showerman says. “Growing up in today’s world, I probably would have been out, and happily on that cross-country team as a girl. To have that be legally ripped away from me would have left me feeling completely alone, completely isolated. It would have put a huge target on me for bullying. And this gets us to the real problem—what we really need to be solving for—which is the fact that 40 percent of all trans people attempt suicide. To have [sports] legally taken away from me would have put me in that 40 percent.”

Regardless of whether the bills on the table today will have a direct impact on Showerman, their cumulative effect is to make entire states hostile places to LGBTQ+ people. The proposed bills tangle together to inflict harm in profound, multi-layered ways.

For example, Showerman says, there is a “clear path” in supporting trans kids that involves encouraging them to explore their innate gender identity from an early age. By puberty, they may be happily settled into an everyday gender expression that’s different from what they were assigned at birth. If gender-affirming healthcare is accessible, hormone blockers can forestall the development of secondary sex characteristics, creating more time to asses the need for hormone therapy that would induce the correct puberty.

Bills that restrict access to this type of healthcare to youth are especially traumatic in the context of discriminatory sports bills. Together, they create a situation where politicians first force trans girls to undergo male puberty, and then, as a direct result of that, block them from participating in sports communities.

Public comment in Montana has shown that residents overwhelmingly oppose the suite of anti-trans bills in 2021’s session. And, just like in Idaho, advocates are already preparing for legal action in the likely situation that Governor Gianforte signs the bills into law this spring. As this discourse plays out in capitol buildings and courts, Showerman says that what matters to her is people and businesses in mountain towns speaking up about the negative cultural and economic impacts of anti-trans lawmaking.

It’s heartbreaking for skiers to recognize that the mountain towns we love are not welcoming to everybody. But the reality is that this kind of legislation chases LGBTQ+ folks away from certain beautiful corners of our snowy world.

“I just want to go play in the mountains with my friends,” Showerman says. “My motivations are no different than anybody else in this community… If you care about creating an inclusive community in skiing, regardless of identity, we can’t tolerate institutionalized discrimination in the places we visit or live or work.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call 1 (800) 237-8255.

Trans Lifeline’s Hotline is a peer support phone service run by trans people for trans and questioning peers. Call (877) 565-8860 in the United States and (877) 330-6366 in Canada.