Anti-Trans Bills Flood States in ‘Centrally Coordinated’ Attack on Transgender Existence

Advocates have expressed shock at a rapid escalation in the severity of anti-trans legislation, which is increasingly seeking to restrict medical care and public expression, including with threats of criminal punishment.

Anti-Trans Bills Flood States in ‘Centrally Coordinated’ Attack on Transgender Existence

Advocates have expressed shock at a rapid escalation in the severity of anti-trans legislation, which is increasingly seeking to restrict medical care and public expression, including with threats of criminal punishment.

In state legislatures across the country in recent months, Republican lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills targeting trans people, in what advocates say is a feverish attempt to erase trans and nonbinary people from public life.

This year alone, state lawmakers have introduced a staggering 483 anti-trans bills, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker, which compiles information from civil rights groups and other sources. Only four states have not had an anti-trans bill introduced this session.

The volume of anti-trans legislation breaks previous records, and the proposed prohibitions have become more wide-reaching. In years past, the bulk of anti-trans bills dealt with gender-inclusive school bathrooms and youth sports. Now they are increasingly seeking to restrict medical care and even public expression, often through vaguely worded bans on drag performances which critics fear could be used to target trans people.

According to Asaf Orr, assistant chief counsel of California’s Civil Rights Department, this is all part of a “centrally coordinated effort” by anti-trans activists to escalate a front of the culture war that has been expanding rapidly since 2016, the year before President Donald Trump unveiled plans to ban transgender people from military service.

“Conservative political organizations, conservative religious organizations have put together a package of bills for state legislatures to consider and have really worked to find legislators in states across the country to introduce those bills,” said Orr, who previously served as director of the Transgender Youth Project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The latest slate of anti-trans bills has increasingly used the criminal legal system to punish those who support and affirm trans people, said Logan Casey, a senior policy researcher and advisor for the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that compiles research on LGBTQ issues. Some recent bills threaten both doctors and parents with felony charges for providing gender-affirming care for trans youth. Other bills make it a crime for parents to allow their children to attend certain events, such as drag shows. These criminalization measures put parents in the impossible position of having to risk life-altering criminal punishments simply to support their children.

In effect, many of these bills rely “on the criminal system to prevent access to best-practice medical care,” Casey told The Appeal.

Many of these bills also traffic in misrepresentations of transgender health care and include measures that are impossible to enforce, according to advocates.

In North Dakota, for example, Republican Sen. David Clemens introduced a bill this year that would ban agencies that receive public funding from referring to any person by pronouns that don’t correspond to their “sex as determined at birth.” Critics of the bill blasted the measure as unenforceable and a blatant attempt at political gamesmanship.

Earlier this year in Montana, the legislator behind a trans health care ban was unable to provide basic facts about the effects of his proposal when asked by a colleague how it would impact intersex youth. Intersex people are born with a combination of male and female biological traits and sometimes need surgery as a result. The lawmaker, a Republican, appeared unfamiliar with these details.

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At least 16 anti-trans bills have already passed state legislatures this year, more than half of which have been signed into law, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker. Hundreds more are still under consideration.

But just the fact that these bills are being proposed and discussed can do life-altering and life-threatening harm.

In Texas, some parents of trans children have said they no longer feel safe in the state after legislators introduced a bill in March 2021 that would have classified gender-affirming care as “child abuse.” Though that bill ultimately failed, similar measures have since proliferated in other states, including Kansas and Idaho.

Parents of trans kids in South Dakota are now scrambling to adjust after the passage of a trans health care ban in February.

“At this point, we’re fielding panicked calls from parents who are wondering if they need to consider relocating to another state or try and stick it out in South Dakota and drive to another state for care,” Susan Williams, executive director of the Transformation Project, a South Dakota nonprofit that offers trans people support, resources, and education, wrote in an email.

But she added that getting care elsewhere might also be a challenge, considering similar bills have been introduced in several of the surrounding states—North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Montana.

In late December, South Dakota unilaterally canceled the Transformation Project’s contract with the state department of health, which had enabled the organization to hire a community health worker. In a statement about the termination, Williams said that the organization believes it was targeted because it serves the trans community.

The statement also laid bare the life-threatening impact of the state’s ban, noting that 53 percent of trans youth in the state have considered suicide in the past year, and 19 percent have reported attempting suicide. Additionally, 59 percent of queer youth in South Dakota said they could not access the mental health care they need.

But it’s not just trans youth and their parents fleeing punishment. In Oklahoma, where a trans health care ban is making its way through the state legislature, doctors who specialize in care for trans youth are now leaving the state to avoid potential criminal prosecution, according to Nicole McAfee, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization Freedom Oklahoma. As these specialists are forced out, trans youth in their communities are further deprived of health care access.

Amid the flurry of new anti-trans legislation, trans people have expressed shock at what appears to be a rapid escalation in the severity of the bills being introduced. At first, anti-trans lawmakers claimed they were simply worried about so-called irreversible surgeries on children. Then they took aim at gender-affirming care more broadly, and then moved on to measures forcing school officials to use trans kids’ birth names and pronouns. Now these legislators have embraced vaguely worded drag bans that weaponize obscenity laws as part of a broader attack on trans existence.

“I wonder what the end result is here, what the end goal is here, and the only thing I can think of is that there are people that want to eliminate transgender people from public life entirely,” Erin Reed, an activist and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ legislation, told The Appeal. “Just our visibility, and merely seeing us in public represents a threat to them.”

Now some lawmakers have made transgender adults their next target.

In Oklahoma, legislators are advancing legislation that would ban insurance coverage for gender-affirming care. Another Oklahoma bill sought to ban gender-affirming care altogether for anyone below the age of 26, but the age restriction was recently lowered to 18. Lawmakers in Missouri last year also considered legislation to ban trans health care up to age 25, before settling on an age limit of 18. The bill ultimately failed. Bills in Kansas and South Carolina are likewise seeking to ban care for anyone under 21.

The rise in anti-trans legislation has also sparked a handful of legislative counter-proposals in more trans-friendly states. Lawmakers in Minnesota and New York, for instance, have introduced bills that would prohibit the enforcement of other states’ efforts to criminalize gender-affirming care, and Illinois’ governor signed a similar measure into law in January. These laws would effectively create sanctuary states for parents and doctors facing criminal punishment under anti-trans health care bans in their home states. California passed a similar measure into law late last year.

Maryland’s House of Delegates also recently passed a bill to expand state Medicaid coverage to include gender-affirming procedures.

As trans advocates fight back against this wave of legislation, they often find themselves having to correct basic misinformation about transgender people and the nature of gender-affirming care. For instance, many lawmakers have used the supposed threat of irreversible surgeries to help stoke anti-trans panic, but, as many activists note, there has been far less conversation in state legislatures about the necessity of certain procedures or the exceptionally low rate of regret among those who receive them.

To truly understand the nature of the current campaign against trans people, Reed says, it’s important to place it in the much longer history of politicians weaponizing the legal system against the queer community.

“This is a return to very old policies that were used to target LGBT people, and trans people in particular,” Reed said. She pointed to so-called “three article” rules requiring people to wear three items of clothing that matched their biological sex, which police used as a pretext to raid queer bars in the 1950s and 1960s.

While that history of repression is marked by pain and suffering, it also had the unintended effect of sparking uprisings that won hard-fought victories for progress.

“A lot of the modern LGBT rights and pride movement has come as a result of a reaction to these kinds of laws,” Reed said.

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