Anchor Staff Writer
Rhode Islanders gathered on Sept. 20 in solidarity to protest an anti-transgender panel at the William Hall Branch of the Cranston Public Library. The rally, attended by hundreds of Rhode Islanders standing against transgender discrimination, featured speeches by community activists such as Rush Frazier, Executive Director of Youth Pride Inc., Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson of the Pilgrim United Church Of Christ and Sen. Tiara Mack.
Chris Elston, the headlining speaker for the panel, commented on Twitter before the panel. “I’m told it’s like a military operation outside this library right now,” Elston wrote.
On the front steps of the Cranston Public Library, however, reality painted a far different portrait. Choosing to host their own panel with local experts from Rhode Island’s LGBTQ+ community, the atmosphere remained peacefully defiant and unmoved by the anti-transgender prejudices emanating from inside the library.
Health care provider and Rhode Island College adjunct lecturer Jaye Watts spoke to the crowd, saying, “I had known for years, through adolescence in particular, that I was struggling with a deep feeling that something was different, though I did not have access to the language or knowledge that trans people existed.”
Giona Picheco, a transgender activist and former candidate for state representative in House District 14, followed and told the audience to, “Imagine a young trans child going into the library and finding that a discussion is taking place questioning their right to exist.”
The panel, “What Your Kids Learn About Gender In Schools”, was moderated by Nicole Solas of the Independent Women’s Network, an offshoot of the consevative non-profit Independent Women’s Foundation. The forum, though seemingly inoffensive from its title, stirred controversy from its choice of keynote speakers, primarily Elston. Elston, an anti-transgender activist, has generated attention from his provacatory style of advocacy. Beyond issues of gender affirming care for transgender children and teenagers, he’s posted online accusing the transgender community of being a “child abuse cult”, and has claimed that gender identities do not exist – a false and historically revisionist claim that disregards centuries of history, especially of indigineous cultures. Off of the internet, Elston’s frequent in-person protests and sabre-rattling towards the Boston Children’s Hospital, falsely accusing the hospital of providing gender affirming surgeries towards minors, has been followed by the hospital receiving harassment, death threats, and bomb scares.
As anti-transgender activists like Elston and Solas interlink receiving gender affirming care and mental health detriments, surveyed LGBTQ+ youth rebuke this claim. Instead, an analysis conducted by Morning Consult and The Trevor Project found increased stress and anxieties associated with the introduction of anti-transgender legislation. Another study, published in the scientific journal Pediatrics, finds that transgender children affirmed by their gender only marginally display signs of increased anxiety, compared to the significant rise in reported anxiety in non-affirmed transgender youth.
In the lead-up to the panel, the Cranston Public Library defended the Independent Women’s Network’s use of their meeting rooms, stating, “Such spaces are considered designated public forums, and legal precedent holds that libraries may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or the ideas for which the group advocates.”
The American Civil Liberties Union followed up defending the library in a letter, writing, “The message of this group deserves condemnation, but silencing their speech is, ultimately, a dangerous and counter-productive way to respond.”
Indeed, the panel continued as planned and faced no disruptions, and the counter-protesters peacefully dissented from the speaker’s agendas. What would have been a catalyst for prejudice against a marginalized class instead became a model of unity and solidarity, and reflected the quintessence of the spirit of Rhode Island; that Rhode Island represents, in its purest form, hope. As Kathleen Layton, a North Kingstown resident and mother of three attending the rally with her son reflected, “While hundreds of cool people were outside listening to moving speeches, it was clear that in Rhode Island, love and acceptance always wins.”