In the room when politics tries to erase people

Published 12:35 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2023

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By Teri Carter

Guest Columnist

Five days before Christmas, I was in an Anderson County government meeting I had been attending regularly for a year and a half. We stood for the prayer. We pledged allegiance to the American and Kentucky flags. The meeting was called to order.

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As elected officials made motions and went through basic procedure to approve minutes and hear department head reports, I suddenly found myself looking around at the faces in the room, a heavy, sickening chill running through my gut.

“If I died tomorrow,” I thought, “not one of these people would come to my funeral. Why in the world do I keep coming here?”

I have not been back since.

Last Thursday, I arrived at the Capitol Annex more than an hour before the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on House Bill 470 was set to begin. The room was already filling with folks both for and against what has been labeled one of the worst of the many anti-transgender bills in legislatures around the country. I spotted an open chair between two women and asked if the seat was taken.

“Yes, of course, what side are you on?” one woman asked. I said I was on the side of treating all people equally and with respect, to which she said something about this being the side that was there to protect God’s children from pedophiles and the sexual mutilation of children.

I chose to sit elsewhere.

Over the next hour, the room filled to capacity. People kept arriving, trying to squeeze through the crowd. At noon sharp, the doors closed on a crowded hallway. The meeting was brought to a quiet order.

If you do not attend meetings of local or state government, one of the key things you miss is the energy in the room. As much as we think we can see what is happening on our TVs or computer screens — I say this as someone who often watches the Kentucky legislature on my laptop while doing other things — it feels very different to be physically present.

In the case of HB 470, the hearing’s cold formality of procedure, alongside lawmakers fixation on sexuality, while the people testifying begged only to be seen as human beings, made this a meeting like none I have ever seen before and hope to never see again.

The atmosphere in that room at the Kentucky Capitol Annex was not of elected officials arguing differences in policy, which is what we elect them to do.

The atmosphere in that room was a sickening display of GOP lawmakers using their power to dehumanize and deny health care to some of our most vulnerable families and children.

I have never felt so much palpable pain during a government meeting. I have never witnessed so many people, particularly young people, quietly sobbing in an effort to hold it in, to not disturb official proceedings, as our elected officials overwhelmingly passed the bill out of committee.

I have never been so ashamed to sit silently, to maintain “order,” in the face of such blatant human disregard.

In one of the last statements before the meeting gaveled to a close, Rep. Keturah Herron, D-Louisville, summed up what it felt like to be in the room. “I think that this piece of legislation is shameful. I do not believe that legislation such as this belongs in this committee or any other committee. It is very interesting to sit here and listen to testimony and read a bill that we want to insert ourselves in peoples’ lives. We want to make decisions for peoples’ health care … What makes this piece of legislation okay, to be engaged in the lives of individuals?”

And then finally, “Being a masculine-centered individual who identifies as queer, I am letting you know that this is a very dangerous and harmful piece of legislation. We are going to lose kids’ lives. They will die. I had a friend text me last night and said to me … you cannot let this piece of legislation pass. People are going to die.”

HB 470 passed easily out of committee and later passed by a vote of 75-22 on the House floor.

I am cisgendered, a person whose gender identity corresponds to the sex assigned at birth, and I am a white woman past childbearing age with unquestioned access to health care, the platform of a published opinion column, and general acceptance, even among the many who disagree with me politically in my own community. With the exception of misogyny, I move easily through this world. If I do not feel welcome, I can simply choose to be elsewhere. But I still exist.

In denying health care services, in denying that transgender people are even real people, HB 470 seems aimed to eliminate existence itself.

And so I ask the Kentucky GOP: If I can feel so bone-chillingly unwelcome in a government meeting, with my privilege, that I think “if I died tomorrow, not one of these people would come to my funeral,” what must it feel like to be a transgender child, or the parent of a transgender child, in the political crosshairs of elected officials?

When you ran for office, did you dream of spending your political capital on such horrific cruelties?

Rep. Herron is right. HB 470 is a dangerous and harmful piece of legislation. We are going to lose kids’ lives. They will die. And rare is the elected Republican in the state of Kentucky who seems to give a damn.

Teri Carter writes about rural Kentucky life and politics for publications like the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Courier-Journal, The Daily Yonder and The Washington Post. You can find her at