Four months into this year’s state legislative sessions, more bills targeting LGBTQ rights - particularly transgender rights - have been introduced and become law than at any other time in U.S. history, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Iowa banned transgender female athletes from participating in high school and college sports with a law that also enables cisgender female athletes to sue school districts if they don’t comply.
Utah banned transgender youth from changing their gender markers on identification cards and birth certificates.
And Arkansas granted transgender adults up to 15 years to file a medical malpractice lawsuit against their doctors for gender-affirming care received when they were minors.
These laws are set to take effect within the next few months, and are among at least 29 bills targeting transgender rights that have become law in 14 states so far this year - already surpassing last year’s record high of 20 such bills that became law in 12 states, according to a Post analysis of American Civil Liberties Union data. All have been signed into law by Republican governors or else enacted by GOP legislatures that overrode Democratic governors’ vetoes. This year’s successful bills are also among at least 408 similar bills introduced in 45 states compared to 156 in 35 states last year, the analysis shows.
“LGBTQ people are under fire, unlike possibly ever before and across virtually every aspect of our lives,” said Logan S. Casey, who serves as a senior researcher at Movement Advancement Project, which tracks the legislation. “This is part of a very clear and identifiable national effort in state legislatures that is and has been going on for years - and it’s really culminating this year.”
Conservative lawmakers generally have backed the movement by saying the bills protect children or correct overly broad protections, particularly for transgender people. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) echoed these sentiments last month when she signed the transgender sports bill, saying it was “in the best interest of the kids.”
Behind the remarkable success of the bills is a network of conservative religious groups who have coordinated to draft bills and lobby state lawmakers with the express goal of rolling back the rights that LGBTQ Americans have gained in the past decade.
“Our expertise is in starting these fights nationally and we have a long track record of doing that,” said Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, who added that the end goal was changing national attitudes toward gay and transgender rights. “The political arena is the best, most efficient way for conservatives to organize and actually make change. When you change the law, you change the culture, you change the society.”
For gay and, particularly, transgender Americans, the legislative push has effectively created two different countries, with starkly different living conditions in red states versus blue states.
Caedmon Marx, outreach coordinator for Dakota OutRight, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said they would move from North Dakota back to Nevada, where they briefly lived before, if they could afford it.
“I felt safe and free to live my life. If I could, I would chose to live in Nevada in a heartbeat,” Marx said. “I didn’t have to be afraid to dress how I wanted. I could wear a dress and no one cared. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to live in a state that is passing so many of these laws.”
Within GOP-controlled states, advocates say LGBTQ residents in rural areas will probably face greater challenges than those in urban areas.
“What’s really scary is these laws will ultimately be enforced and interpreted by local law enforcement and local prosecutors,” said Brian Rosman, president of Tennessee Pride Chamber, citing the state’s new law restricting drag shows, which was temporarily blocked in court last month. “If you are a drag performer in Nashville, you’re probably going to be fine, but if you are a drag performer or a trans person in a more rural and conservative community, you might not be fine.”
Dozens of additional measures that seek to restrict LGBTQ rights could still pass in statehouses across the country in upcoming weeks as pressure mounts with this year’s legislative sessions set to end on or before May 31 in most states.
Some of these pending bills represent the most extreme measures in modern history, including an expansive bill in Kansas that seeks to exclude transgender people from athletics, prisons, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, locker rooms and bathrooms that don’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Legislative hearings over the past few months on the bills targeting LGBTQ rights have looked starkly different from the past few years as bedazzled drag queens in ball gowns and colorful wings filled state capitol committee rooms across the nation. The policy debates have also grown in intensity and were often emotional, combative and dramatic. Transgender youth and their parents have pleaded with lawmakers to vote against the measures, bearing the most intimate details of their lives, including suicide attempts.
Republican lawmakers have grilled parents, calling medical care they’ve sought for their transgender sons and daughters “child abuse,” while also telling incredulous stories to cast transgender advocates as extremists. One Tennessee lawmaker falsely testified that a local school district was providing cat litter boxes to students who self-identify as cats, saying it was a “growing crisis.”
Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said fomenting fear around culture war issues - then promising to take action against these perceived threats - has become a winning formula for conservative Republicans. It also distracts voters from more intractable concerns like gun violence, school funding, inflation and unemployment, he said.
“It’s a whole lot easier to say you’re fixing some culture issue than it is to fix a real government problem, because we don’t really have easy answer for those things,” Syler said.
A national trend
So far this year, Utah has enacted six laws that restrict transgender rights - the most of any state - followed by Arkansas with four and Idaho and North Dakota with three. Kentucky, Iowa, and Tennessee enacted two such laws and Indiana, Kansas, South Dakota, Georgia, Mississippi, West Virginia and Wyoming have each enacted one bill into law.
Although only 1 percent of the U.S. population identifies as transgender, the bills have occupied an inordinate amount of legislators’ time and have been a top priority this year. The bills have been among the first introduced for this year’s sessions, including Tennessee’s anti-drag bill that was pre-filed in November, months before the legislature convened. Earlier this month, the North Dakota Senate spent an entire day debating and passing 10 bills that restrict LGBTQ rights.
Analysis of state lawmakers’ social media accounts show how their focus on such issues has skyrocketed over the years. In 2015, when some of the first bills targeting transgender rights were introduced, state lawmakers discussed LGBTQ issues more than 6,700 times on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Last year, that number rose to nearly 29,000, with 9,000 such posts so far this year, according to data collected by Quorum, a legislative tracking tool.
This year’s efforts to combat this legislative movement - with bills aimed at protecting and strengthening LGBTQ rights and freedoms - have been minuscule in comparison. Only five such bills have been introduced, each becoming law, according to a Post review of data from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group. All but one were enacted in states where Democrats control the legislature and the governor’s office.
The latest came Monday in Maryland, where Gov. Wes Moore (D) signed the Trans Health Equity Act, which will require the state’s medical assistance program, or Medicaid, to provide coverage of gender affirming care to those enrolled in the program, beginning Jan. 1, 2024.
In some states, conservative lawmakers bent to lobbying pressure and tempered bills aimed at restricting LGBTQ rights.
In Utah, Republican sponsors amended an expansive gender-affirming health care ban for minors with a provision that allows those currently receiving hormone therapy to continue to get future treatments in the state. And, in a complete reversal, a proposed law that sought to legalize conversion therapy - to “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuals - was amended to ban the practice in the state.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said the negotiations were made possible from earlier work advocates did with Republicans and the Mormon Church to pass an anti-discrimination law in 2015.
“It was this historic moment when we worked to balance LGBTQ rights and religious rights. We built a scaffolding of collaboration that helped us this year,” Williams said, adding that it helped them kill a “Don’t Say Gay” bill this year and allowed passage of the transgender health-care ban that was “a little bit kinder, more gentle than the other bans across the country.”
However, in Tennessee - which has so far passed two anti-LGBTQ bills this year - Republicans backed more restrictive versions of bills, including the first successful restrictions on drag shows and a gender-affirming care ban this year that would cut off both current and future patients from hormone therapy and surgeries.
“You cannot overlook the role of churches with these bills,” said Anthony J. Nownes, a political scientist at University of Tennessee at Knoxville, adding that he was specifically referring to White Evangelical Christians, which make up a larger percentage of Tennessee’s population than in any other state. “There’s a lot of churches and religious groups in the state that are quite vociferous and active on these issues.”
In North Dakota, primary challenges from the right helped usher in more conservative legislatures this year that backed a historic wave of bills. North Dakota state Rep. Brandon Prichard (R), said conservatives lawmakers have learned that a failure to not back these measures will end their political careers in the state.
“At the end of the day if you don’t have the social values, you aren’t going to get elected or reelected,” he said. “And once you are elected on that platform, you better abide by it.”
Six bills that would restrict transgender rights await North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R)’s signature or veto. On Tuesday, Burgum signed two transgender athlete bans - a reversal from his position on such measures two years ago. On Monday, he signed a bill that created additional hurdles for transgender people seeking to change gender markers on their birth certificates.
In Kansas, Republican lawmakers are pushing through some of the most restrictive transgender bills in the country in the final weeks of their session, which closes on May 22.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is unlikely to sign the laws if they pass, but on Wednesday, the legislature voted to override Kelly’s veto of a transgender sports bill, which applies to both club and school sports from kindergarten through college.
The legislature on Tuesday also passed a bill that would require that transgender people use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with the sex they were assigned at birth. The bill would also prohibit transgender people from changing their name or gender on their driver’s licenses. The measure passed by large margins, suggesting Republicans could again override Kelly’s expected veto.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at University of Kansas, said that although Republicans have long maintained control of both chambers of the legislature, the number of more conservative lawmakers who embrace culture war policies has dramatically risen over the past three election cycles, fueling the passage of the measures.
“Moderate Republicans have been eviscerated in our legislature,” Miller said. “It has put conservative Republicans in the driver’s seat in the legislature and there is a lot of unanimity amongst conservatives that these culture war issues really need to be prioritized.”
Former Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Byers, the first transgender lawmaker in the state, said the years-long debates over the bathroom bill, sports bill and other bills that target transgender rights have been “heart wounding.” As she watched the political drama unfold this year, she saw a repeat of a winning formula - used in statehouses across the country - which cast transgender people as a threat to girls and Republican lawmakers as their protectors.
“It’s always about protecting the wee little girls” said Byers, who served from 2020-2022 and did not seek reelection. “Trans people are not going into restrooms to sexually assault people. We are not pedophiles. The accusations are false and hurtful. It’s frightening to think of what’s ahead, as they are rushing now because end of session is approaching.”
The Washington Post’s N. Kirkpatrick and Alice Crites contributed to this report.