As the new Democratic presidential administration is making progress on LGBTQ+ equality, far-right lawmakers at the state level are trying further marginalize the community, especially transgender people.
As of this week there have been 71 specifically anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures around the country, along with 37 bills that target the LGBTQ+ population overall, according to the Human Rights Campaign's latest count.
"In states across the country, we are facing an emergency," HRC President Alphonso David said on a conference call with reporters Thursday (see video below). "Anti-equality forces are attacking our families. They're attacking our children. They're attacking our dignity, and they're attacking our existence."
Of the anti-trans proposals, 37 seek to restrict transgender athletes' participation in school sports, with an emphasis on keeping trans girls and women from competing with cisgender females. Twenty-five are aimed at preventing trans minors from receiving gender-affirming procedures, even if the young people have the support of their families. There are nine other bills that would harm trans people in various ways.
Of the broader anti-LGBTQ+ bills, there are 21 so-called religious freedom bills that would enable discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, women, members of minority faiths, and more. Others seek to protect conversion therapy, limit sex education, or otherwise infringe on LGBTQ+ rights.
Most of the bills have been introduced in the South, the Great Plains, or the Mountain West, although there are a few pending in usually progressive states such as Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. The two that are closest to becoming law are an anti-trans sports bill in Mississippi and a religious refusals bill in South Dakota.
The so-called Mississippi Fairness Act passed the state's House of Representatives Wednesday by a vote of 81-28; the Senate had passed it February 11. It requires that sports teams be designated as male, female, or coed, with female teams "not open to students of the male sex," as established by the student's "internal and external reproductive anatomy," "normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone," and "genetic makeup," as stated in the measure's text. That excludes trans girls and women.
Rep. Becky Currie, who presented the bill in the House, declined to take any questions because she believed all members had already made up their minds on how to vote. "I'm not interested in getting into an argument with you on who's boys and who's girls and who thinks they're what," she told fellow legislators.
Many backers of anti-trans sports bills around the nation have made similar comments, referring to trans girls as "biologically male" or saying they "think" they're female. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, used such language in vowing to sign his state's bill into law.
Of course, no one is trying to "push" young people to be trans. Coming to terms with one's transgender identity is often a difficult process, and it's not taken lightly or driven by external forces. Supporters of such legislation are simply trying to further marginalize trans kids, who already face much discrimination.
As for the assertion that these bills are driven by a concern about women's rights -- those of cisgender women, anyway -- the right-wing lawmakers behind them have generally shown little concern about funding for women's sports, equal treatment in the workplace, or reproductive freedom (regarding the latter issue, they have sought to take away access to contraception and abortion). Anti-trans sports legislation is widely opposed by women's and children's rights groups.
The far right's argument that trans female athletes are a threat to their cis counterpart doesn't hold up either. Anti-trans legislators claim trans girls have an unfair advantage over cis ones because of testosterone levels or other physical features, there are many other factors that can give an athlete and advantage, such as access to the best training and coaches. Trans athletes do not dominate women's sports -- for instance, there have been no out trans Olympic champions to date -- and an Associated Press investigation found most of the politicians who've introduced these bills couldn't name any instance in which trans participation in sports created a problem in their state.
Opponents of the anti-trans measures say there's a coordinated effort by anti-LGBTQ+ groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom. The organization wrote Montana's so-called Save Women's Sports Act, and some other pieces of legislation have been modeled on it, LGBTQ+ activists say.
In targeting trans youth, far-right politicians and organizations are taking aim at the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community, and they may have been emboldened by the attacks that have come from Donald Trump and his ilk; Trump called trans athletes a threat to women's sports in his Conservative Political Action Conference address last weekend. They also could be a reaction to President Joe Biden's executive order, which Reeves referred to, putting the federal government's weight behind LGBTQ+ equality.
But some LGBTQ+ activists say the right-wingers, having failed to stop marriage equality, pass anti-trans "bathroom bills," or prevent other civil rights advances, are simply getting desperate. The HRC's David has called the most recent round of anti-trans legislation "just the latest iteration of a years-long losing fight against equality." The only state where an anti-trans sports bill has become law is Idaho, last year, and there it's the subject of a lawsuit and has been blocked by a federal judge, and Mississippi LGBTQ+ activists say there will be a similar challenge in their state.
In states other than Mississippi, anti-trans bills have just cleared one legislative chamber, so they are not close to becoming law. Montana's sports bill has been passed by the House but not the Senate, and the legislature there has killed a bill that would prevent trans minors from receiving gender-affirming health care. Anti-trans sports bills have been approved by one chamber in North Dakota and Tennessee, and have been quashed in Utah and South Dakota; Republicans as well as Democrats expressed doubts about them in the latter two states. A bill that would criminalize doctors who provide gender-affirming care to minors has cleared one chamber in Alabama; there was a spate of similar bills a few years ago, all opposed by major medical groups, and none became law.
South Dakota is the only state where both chambers have passed a religious refusals bill, and it's up to Gov. Kristi Noem, a rising Republican star, whether to sign it. The bill was introduced because of restrictions on religious services during the COVID-19 pandemic and sought to assure that religious and secular institutions were treated equally, Janna Farley, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, said on Thursday's conference call.
Her organization had no problem with that intent, but the bill was written so broadly as to open the door to the use of religion for discrimination against LGBTQ+ and two-spirit people, members of minority faiths, and others, Farley said. She mentioned a landlord in Minnesota who cited his religious beliefs in refusing to rent to an unmarried couple, and a police officer in Oklahoma who wouldn't attend a law enforcement appreciation event held by a Muslim group. The ACLU and others asked lawmakers to amend the bill to address these potential harms, but their concerns were ignored, she said.
The legislation is similar to a Religious Freedom Restoration Act adopted in 2015 in Indiana, when Mike Pence was governor. It was amended after much public outrage. David and others predicted a similar outcry if the South Dakota bill becomes law.
"South Dakota potentially risks the loss of business opportunities and the revenue that comes with it, significant legal fees, and damage to the state's reputation," David said in a statement this week. "We strongly urge Governor Kristi Noem to reject this dangerous and controversial legislation that would invite a world of problems for South Dakota amidst already difficult circumstances for the state and this country."