From Florida to Oklahoma, transgender rights are facing a fresh wave of attacks in Republican-controlled state legislatures.
Though many of the bills being proposed will never become law, they serve a practical purpose for Republicans. Whether or not they are enacted, they allow conservative state legislatures to perform opposition to the “woke left” and ensure evangelical voters show up to vote — even after the religious right achieved its decades-long goal of overturning Roe v. Wade last year. A recent report from Mother Jones showed that leading religious-right organizations are playing a prominent role in creating and promoting the bills.
The political debate is escalating at a volatile time. Trans Americans are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than their cisgender peers, according to a 2021 study. Trans youth, who have been the primary focus of anti-trans legislation this year, are experiencing a mental health crisis: A 2022 survey by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group focused on LGBTQ youth, found that 86 percent of trans or nonbinary youth reported negative effects on their mental health stemming from the political debate around trans issues, and nearly half had seriously considered suicide in the past year.
While Democrats have sought to fight back with their own legislation affirming protections for the trans community at the state level, there’s not much they can do federally at the moment. The Equality Act, which was passed by the then-Democrat-controlled House last year and would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, doesn’t currently have the votes to become law.
That’s despite the fact that most Americans currently support protecting trans people from discrimination, according to a June 2022 Pew survey, although there are sharper divisions over gender-affirming care for youth and public school curricula about gender identity.
All of that makes for a bleak outlook for trans Americans in red states, where their rights have become a political wedge.
“These lawmakers want to homogenize the lives that people are living, and they have this very small-minded idea of who people are and how people should look, live their lives, and should think,” said Tori Cooper, the director of community engagement for the Human Rights Campaign’s Trans Justice Initiative. “There is an intentional effort to use misinformation and disinformation to deceive folks who don’t know any trans, nonbinary, or queer people personally to perpetuate harm and dissuade folks from living honest and true and accurate lives.“
State GOP lawmakers are working to aggressively limit trans rights
Republicans have made clear that they intend to run on trans issues as part of a broader “protect the children” platform heading into 2024, following the success of Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 campaign centering on parental rights.
It’s become a means of proving conservative bona fides to GOP primary voters, including right-wing evangelicals, and it’s coming from the top down: Former President Trump announced earlier this year that, if reelected, he would “stop” gender-affirming care for minors, which he said was “child abuse” and “child sexual mutilation.” He also said he would bar federal agencies from working to “promote the concept of sex and gender transition at any age.”
Here’s a look at the key ways Republican lawmakers seek to restrict life for trans people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Republicans want to severely restrict access to gender-affirming treatment
Gender-affirming treatments have been targeted by Republican lawmakers in dozens of states, even though many major medical associations — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics — deem those treatments “medically necessary care.”
Those treatments include hormonal therapies that can delay puberty or promote the development of certain characteristics such as facial hair or breasts. They also include surgical procedures to reduce Adam’s apples and procedures that alter chest tissue or genitalia, also known as top surgery and bottom surgery.
Many proposals center on limiting the availability of those treatments for trans youth under the age of 18, for whom surgical interventions are already uncommon: Fewer than 300 minors with a gender dysphoria diagnosis received top surgery in 2021. Lawmakers in Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia are now also seeking to restrict access to this care for adults, but those bills might be a tougher sell.
In addition to banning the treatments outright, state legislators are seeking to make doctors and parents liable for administering and approving them and to limit the use of public funds to pay for them.
In 2021, Arkansas became the first state to issue a ban on hormone treatment, puberty blockers, or surgery for trans youth, a measure that also barred doctors from referring patients elsewhere for those treatments. The bill was temporarily blocked in court, and an Arkansas federal judge will decide whether to strike it down permanently in what will be the first ruling on the legality of such bans. At least six other states have passed similar bans, and about 30 states are still considering them.
In the meantime, the Arkansas legislature has sought to make it easier to bring malpractice suits against doctors who administer treatments to trans youth, which would effectively discourage them from offering such treatment altogether. Similar legislation has been proposed at the federal level. At least 11 states are going further in trying to impose criminal penalties on doctors and parents. For example, an Alabama law that was temporarily blocked in federal court last year, but could be reinstated by an appeals court, would hit doctors, parents, and anyone else who aids trans youth in getting care with up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
Other states want to curtail public funding for trans care. Among the most stringent proposals introduced this year is one that has advanced through the Oklahoma Senate, which would prevent health care facilities or individual providers that receive public funds, including those located on public land, from administering gendering-affirming care. It would also bar insurance companies from covering that care.
Republicans are continuing to push “bathroom bills”
For several years, the GOP has been pushing so-called bathroom bills, which are designed to exclude trans people from multi-user restrooms, locker rooms, and other gender-segregated spaces. Though proponents argue that gender-segregated facilities protect women and children from assault, researchers at UCLA have found that allowing trans people to use public facilities that align with their gender identity doesn’t have any effect on crimes committed in those facilities, which are rare.
One of the earliest bathroom bills was a North Carolina law that was implemented in 2016 and later repealed following protests and boycotts. The momentum behind these bills hasn’t waned in the years since, with at least six bills being advanced or introduced in state legislatures across the country this year.
The Arkansas Senate has already approved a bill that would require public school students to only use facilities that correspond to their sex assigned at birth and a bill under which people could be charged with misdemeanor sexual indecency for entering a public restroom or changing room where a “minor of the opposite sex” is present. Iowa and Kansas lawmakers have advanced similar bills concerning public school students.
There’s a question as to whether the bills relating to public schools will survive legal scrutiny. There are now multiple, conflicting appellate court rulings on the subject, and it’s not clear whether trans advocates will decide to take the issue to the US Supreme Court for fear of an adverse ruling.
Religious liberty bills are threatening trans civil rights
At least 19 states do not have laws that shield people from discrimination based on gender identity, and some are trying to strengthen religious liberty protections in a way that trans advocates say would allow employers, businesses, and medical providers to discriminate against trans people.
A number of bills concern what religious liberty advocates call “conscience rights” for medical providers. The Idaho House, for instance, has passed legislation to ensure that counselors and therapists will not be required to take on clients when it would conflict with their “sincerely held principles.” Iowa and Missouri lawmakers have similarly advanced legislation to prevent health care providers generally from performing care to which they have religious objections.
So far, legal precedent seems to favor religious liberty advocates. A federal appellate court ruled in 2021 that a professor could not be forced to use a trans student’s pronouns on the basis that doing so would have conflicted with his religious beliefs. But that’s likely not the last time the issue will be litigated in court.
Republicans want to make it impossible to update ID cards and documents
In recent years, dozens of states have introduced bills that make it harder for people to change their gender information on state identification cards, driver’s licenses, and documents like birth certificates. These laws are currently in effect in Tennessee, Kansas, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Such bills have been introduced in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Texas, and Virginia but failed.
ID restrictions stand to harm trans and nonbinary people by putting them at risk of increased harassment, among other threats. Identification that accurately reflects a person’s gender is necessary for employment, travel, and moving freely through public without consequences.
In 2022, Oklahoma became the first state to sign a bill against nonbinary gender markers. The law forbids the symbols on birth certificates for people who don’t identify as female or male. Now lawmakers in the state want to define “women” as those identified as female at birth in all state laws.
In Tennessee, the state’s Vital Records Act says that the gender listed on one’s birth certificate cannot be changed as a result of surgery, though the state allows transgender residents to change the listed gender on their driver’s licenses and state ID cards. Transgender plaintiffs who have sued the state over its policy said not being able to change their gender on their birth certificate outed them as transgender and exposed them to bullying at work.
The anti-trans laws are part of a larger wave of Republican anti-LGBTQ legislation
Republicans have introduced and passed a number of bills that prevent trans students from participating in activities like sports and censure talk about LGBTQ people and issues. Some of the bills even force teachers to out their students.
Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which took effect in 2022, makes it illegal for teachers to discuss gender and sexuality with students in grades K-3 and criminalizes instruction that isn’t “age-appropriate” for students in grades K-12. Under the law, teachers must notify parents if they believe their child is transgender, and parents have the ability to sue schools or school districts that violate the restrictions.
Advocates told Vox that the state’s rollback of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at the higher education level also harms queer students and faculty. Leslie Hall, the director of the Human Rights Campaign’s HBCU partnership, said, “The challenge we face now is that individual schools and systems are very afraid and there’s a lot of anxiety around combating these laws or bills. For example, it’s hard for me to go to Florida A&M University or Bethune Cookman University and ask how they plan to continue with initiatives that piss off the governor and defy his fascism.”
Other laws allow teachers to refuse to use a student’s correct pronouns. In a Texas school district, teachers don’t have to address students by the pronouns that match their gender identity, even if the student’s parents ask them to. The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that a school had to reinstate a gym teacher who wouldn’t refer to students by their pronouns.
Several states have also introduced bills that, if signed into law, could limit the LGBTQ community’s right to freedom of expression as guaranteed under the First Amendment. In Tennessee and Arkansas, lawmakers have already passed restrictions limiting drag performances. The ACLU has argued that overly broad wording in the Tennessee law means it’s actually not illegal to perform in drag in the state. Nearly a dozen similar bills are making their way through red states, with Republicans claiming that drag performances expose children to inappropriate sexual themes.
Nearly two dozen states have adopted trans youth sports bans, which bar transgender girls from competing in girls’ sports. According to lawmakers, the bans are an attempt to protect girls, and opportunities for girls, in sports, but advocates for trans rights say the laws want to push trans youth into hiding. As Katelyn Burns wrote for Vox, the laws “exclude and punish trans kids” and the “messaging that classifies young trans girls as ‘biological boys’ is scare-mongering and unfair, and only seeks to reinforce ugly stereotypes about trans girls and women to an uninformed public.”
“I’m 53 years old and trans kids have always played sports and we’ve always used the bathrooms. It only became an issue in the last administration,” Cooper said. These lawmakers “are saying that we’re doing things to people that we’re not, that we’re out to do certain things that we are not. And, unfortunately, they’re able to pass these policies based on creating fear over outright lies.”
The wave of bills is fostering fear and uncertainty
There’s increasing fear the wave of legislation will prevent trans people from simply going about their lives, trans rights activists told Vox.
“If your access to public spaces, your own name, how you’re dressed in public, where you can go, what kind of medicine you can take, what goes on between you and your doctor — if all of that is restricted and taken away from you, then how can you be yourself?” said Mandy Giles, the founder of the support resource Parents of Trans Youth.
And advocates worry that the deluge of disinformation about trans people — the false and harmful idea that they want to prey on women in bathrooms, for example — will curtail the progress being made in some states, making life difficult not just in states with harsh anti-trans laws, but across the US.
“A lot of the bills are aimed at creating not only fear in the community, but also making anti-trans sentiment part of the general conversation,” said Simon Willis, a co-president of PFLAG Houston, an organization that hosts support groups for LGBTQ+ communities.
So far, the GOP has gotten a handful of bills signed into law, and the party isn’t slowing down as dozens of bills work their way through state legislatures this spring. One speaker at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference exclaimed in a speech that “transgenderism” must be eradicated, a statement that directly calls for the elimination of transgender people. The statement stoked greater alarm as Republicans launch their campaigns for the presidency, with platforms that will surely blast more anti-trans rhetoric.
“It’s really important that people who aren’t in danger speak up,” Willis said. “We end up hearing a lot more about the anti-trans bills, but we don’t hear very much about anything going the other direction. There doesn’t seem to be enough people in positions of power pushing back against that [anti-trans] narrative.”