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'State of crisis': Advocates warn of 'unprecedented' wave of anti-LGBTQ bills

Eight of these bills have already been enacted and 10 more are on governors’ desks, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Arkinsas State Capitol
The Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock.Ramesh Lalwani / Flickr Vision via Getty

Hundreds of bills that target LGBTQ people have been filed in state legislatures, creating a “state of crisis,” advocates say.

The bills “attempt to erase transgender people and attempt to make LGBTQ people second-class citizens,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said during a news conference Thursday.

David said the number of bills, particularly those targeting transgender young people, is “unprecedented” and that 2021 is on track to “become the worst year for state legislative attacks against LGBTQ people in history.”

Until now, 2015 held that record, with 15 anti-LGBTQ bills enacted into law, David said. So far this year, eight bills targeting LGBTQ people have been signed into law, and another 10 are sitting on governors’ desks awaiting signatures, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

“Just to underscore the severity of these bills and the dangerous threshold we are about to cross: If these bills are enacted, it would mean that states will have enacted more anti-LGBTQ bills this year alone than in the last three years combined,” David said.

The national landscape

So far in 2021, eight bills targeting LGBTQ people have become law, most of them centered on transgender minors.

Governors in four states — Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama — have signed bills banning trans athletes from competing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem in South Dakota issued two executive orders that will prohibit trans girls from playing on girls sports teams. Noem also signed a religious freedom bill that advocates say opens the door to discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, signed a similar bill that allows doctors to refuse to treat someone due to their religious or moral beliefs. Hutchinson vetoed another bill to ban transition care for trans minors — including puberty blockers, hormones and surgery — but the Arkansas Legislature overrode the veto, and the bill will become law this summer.

In North Dakota, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum signed a bill that the Human Rights Campaign says will allow student groups that receive state funding through their universities to turn away LGBTQ students “under the guise of free speech.”

In addition to those measures, another 10 are sitting on governors’ desks. Among them are a bill in Montana that would require gender-affirming surgery before a trans person can change the gender marker on their birth certificate; bills in West Virginia and Alabama that limit trans athlete participation; and bills in Arkansas and Tennessee that would require parents to sign off on any mention of gender identity or sexual orientation in school curriculums.

The Tennessee Legislature is expected to send a bill to Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s desk that requires schools to provide “reasonable accommodations,” such as single-occupancy restrooms, to public school students who don’t want to share public facilities with trans students.

“All of these bills are dangerous and harmful to LGBTQ people, and many of them have particularly singled out some of the most vulnerable in our community, which are transgender youth,” David said.

A few governors, like Hutchinson, have already vetoed some legislation. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, vetoed a bill last week that would have required parental notification of any mention of LGBTQ people in school curriculums. Burgum in North Dakota and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, both vetoed trans athlete bans.

A protester holds a rainbow flag in support of transgender lives during a demonstration on Oct. 2.SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty file

The vetoes, David said, are the result of advocates’ efforts to provide elected officials with facts instead of misinformation about the medical care trans young people receive, or the potential negative economic effects of passing such bills.

“Once they understand the facts from the medical community, from the business community, from families, they understand that these bills are not supported by the facts, they're not supported by science and there's no basis to advance these bills. Yet they are still under pressure from their ‘base,’” David said, “which is why we're seeing some of these bills signed, because they're providing red meat to their base, but at the same time they recognize that some of these bills are just simply unconscionable.”

Major medical organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association oppose medical care bans and support affirming care for trans youth, Dr. Robert Garofalo, division chief of adolescent medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said during the news conference.

“We know that gender-affirming care is best practice and to think otherwise just flies in the face of all available scientific evidence,” Garofalo said. One study published in the journal Pediatrics found that trans people who received puberty blockers had a lower risk of suicidal thoughts than adults who wanted them but couldn’t access them.

The vetoes and opposition to the bills from some Republicans are also the result of grassroots activism, said Jasmine Banks, whose daughter is trans. Banks is also founder of Reconcile Arkansas, a queer and trans advocacy group.

"This is one of those moments in history where we're putting these folks on notice and we're saying, 'We are the people who put you in those positions of power, and if you continue to leverage your attacks on our communities, you will no longer be in those positions. We will move you out of those leadership positions,'" Banks said during Thursday’s news conference.

David said a number of bills are also poised to soon pass their second legislative chambers, such as abill in Tennessee that would require businesses to post signs outside of restrooms if they allow trans people to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

Texas and Tennessee are the two states considering the most anti-LGBTQ bills this year. Texas legislators have introduced more than two dozen bills targeting LGBTQ people, Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, said.

All told, Oakley said, state legislatures have considered 35 bills to ban or limit transition care for trans minors, 66 trans sports bans, 43 religious refusal bills and 16 bills that relate to trans people’s access to bathrooms and locker rooms.

“Our opposition, they are truly getting desperate,” Oakley said, citing the conservative fights against marriage equality and bathroom bills in North Carolina and Texas that ultimately failed or were repealed.

The bills’ ‘human cost’

The bills are already having an impact, advocates say. Dr. Michele Hutchinson, who runs a clinic for trans youth at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, told the Associated Press the families she serves “are in a state of panic” now that the state has approved a law that will ban gender-affirming care for trans minors.

“They want to know what they should do next and we don’t have a clear answer for them,” she told the AP.

She also said that since the bill passed, four young people in her program attempted suicide. Other patients have asked her if they’ll be able to get their medications on the black market, which she said would “be dangerous because they won’t be monitored for side effects.”

Texas is also considering a bill that would make it a felony for parents or doctors to provide transition care for trans youth. The proposal would classify the act as child abuse, and parents who violate it could have their children removed from their home and placed in foster care.

Libby Gonzales, an 11-year-old trans girl who lives in Texas, said lawmakers there have been “attacking” her since she was 6, when they tried to bar her from using the girls’ bathroom.

Libby Gonzales.Courtesy of the family of Libby Gonzales

“Now they're trying to stop me from getting the health care I need,” Gonzales said Thursday. “Who am I supposed to be if these bills pass? I told my mom and dad that if this law passes I want to disappear. I don't know how I'm going to go to school and pretend that everything's OK.”

"If they don't want to understand us, they should at least not keep our families from supporting us and our doctors from helping us," she added.

The bills are not only impacting trans young people but the safety of all trans people, David said.

“It is important to say here that people are already dying,” David said. “These bills are further fueling a wave of anti-trans violence that is devastating our community so far in 2021.”

At least 15 trans and gender-nonconforming people have been killed so far this year. This puts 2021 on track “to more than double the number” of those killed in 2020, which was already the deadliest year on record with at least 44 trans people killed.

‘It merits united action’

Oakley said the “tide may be turning” for anti-LGBTQ legislation, noting the two recent vetoes by Republican governors in Arizona and North Dakota. A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that two-thirds of Americans are opposed to laws that would limit trans rights.

“Public opinion is absolutely on our side,” Oakley said. But she still doesn’t think it will be enough to prevent 2021 from breaking the record for the most anti-LGBTQ bills to become laws.

David described the wave of legislation and anti-trans violence as “a national crisis by any objective standard,” and he said it “merits national attention, and it merits united action.”

He wrote an open letter to corporate leaders, published as a full-page ad in The New York Times on Monday, calling on business leaders to “take action now by publicly denouncing state legislation that discriminates against people, refusing to advance new business in states that are hostile to corporate values and refusing to support sporting events where transgender athletes are banned or athletes taking a knee are penalized.”

David said the Human Rights Campaign is also calling on the NCAA, which regulates college athletics in the U.S., to follow through on its April 12 statement saying it wouldn’t hold championship games in locations that aren’t “free of discrimination.”

“It is not just the NCAA. We also need our entire nation,” David said. “We need every single person to make their voices heard and make sure that their voices are clear that these bills are inhumane and unacceptable.”

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