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These LGBTQ lawmakers want to make their states a refuge for trans kids

On Tuesday, lawmakers introduced a plan to create what some are calling a “rainbow wall”

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For the past few months, Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone (D) has kept a close eye on the bills neighboring states have been proposing — bills that aim to curb the rights of transgender children from participating in youth sports, accessing bathrooms and getting gender-affirming health care.

There’s Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah, which all passed laws barring trans kids — with a focus on girls, in particular — from playing on teams that align with their gender identity. In Kansas, a similar bill passed the state Senate, but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. And in Idaho, lawmakers sought to criminalize the act of seeking gender-affirming care out of state.

An Idaho bill would criminalize medical treatments for trans youths. It echoes abortion bans.

Then there’s Texas, where earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) directed child welfare services to investigate gender-affirming care for children as “child abuse.”

“I’ve been getting referrals from people in different states, especially Texas, because they feel like they can’t live there anymore,” Titone said.

Colorado, unlike many of the states encircling it, has moved to advance LGBTQ rights in recent years: a “blue state in a sea of red,” Titone said. But that’s not enough, she said: “We need to work to support people outside of Colorado.”

On Tuesday, Titone joined a group of LGBTQ legislators across the country who announced plans to offer refuge to transgender youth and their families amid an unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, much of it directed toward trans kids.

Legislators say the effort was inspired by “sanctuary” laws that have similarly shielded undocumented immigrants, and, more recently, those seeking abortions from states where that care has been restricted and/or criminalized.

“The trigger was the state of Texas pledging to strip trans kids from their parents,” said Annise Parker, who leads the Victory Institute, an LGBTQ advocacy group. The organization helped convene state legislators so they could network and discuss strategy, Parker said.

“We were working on defense, state by state,” she said. “And it was time to begin to coordinate and come together on offense as a group.”

So far, 20 states have pledged to or have already introduced bills that offer a legal shield to families displaced by anti-LGBTQ policies, as well as physicians who provide gender-affirming care. Some are calling it a “rainbow wall.”

The Victory Institute said lawmakers have been in conversation about the trans refuge legislation since mid-April. But Politico’s publication of a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion, which showed that five justices were ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, highlights the urgency of passing these protections, LGBTQ lawmakers say.

Roe provides the legal underpinning for the right to privacy and autonomy, which has also shielded LGBTQ individuals from discrimination, Massachusetts state Sen. Julian Cyr (D) said. Many of the states that have proposed or passed anti-trans policies have also set their sights on banning abortion, should the Supreme Court end Roe.

“With [Roe’s] potential erosion, anti-LGBTQ bills will be more of a problem,” said Cyr, who was among the lawmakers to join the refuge effort this week. “Hopefully queer and trans kids can look to us to provide a life raft.”

Many conservative lawmakers who have proposed bills curbing LGBTQ rights say their goal is to protect children.

Alabama state Rep. Wes Allen (R), who championed the state’s ban on gender-affirming health care, compared the law to others that ban minors from drinking alcohol or vaping.

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“This legislation is about protecting children from making decisions as children that their brains are not yet developed enough to understand,” he said. “Just as we do not allow children, even with parental permission, to drink alcohol or vape, we passed this legislation to protect children.”

In California, a proposed sanctuary bill could serve as a template for other states.

The bill, S.B. 107, would reject out-of-state judgments that remove trans kids from their parents based on their parents allowing their child to receive gender-affirming care. It would also bar providers from complying with out-of-state subpoenas seeking health or related information about people who get gender-affirming care in the state.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D), who authored the bill, said he spoke with his colleagues in the state’s women’s caucus, building on their efforts to shield abortion-seekers and care providers from criminal penalty in their home states. The Supreme Court leak “fortified my resolve, because this is all linked together,” he said.

But there are limits to these kind of bills, lawmakers and trans rights advocates say.

Many trans youth lack supportive family, a fact that underlies higher rates of homelessness and depression. And families who do support their trans children may not have the means to relocate to more liberal states, especially ones that have higher costs of living.

Lawmakers also said that getting the language of these sanctuary bills right will be challenging, and must be tailored to each state.

Trying to block how a state’s laws can operate in another is a “tricky legal dance,” said Titone, of Colorado, who has been talking to the state’s attorney general’s office for guidance. She anticipates a lengthy and potentially contentious process in getting such a bill passed, she said.

It’s also important to ensure that providers can accommodate an influx of new patients. One Denver hospital, among the state’s largest, already has “a huge waiting list” for gender-affirming care, she said.

Wiener, too, acknowledged the limitations of refuge laws.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat this and say that we’re going to pass these laws and everything is going to perfect,” he said. “The most important thing is to not have these hateful laws happen in the first place.”

Thomas J. Billard, an assistant professor at Northwestern University and founder of the Center for Applied Transgender Studies, said that refuge laws also rely on a certain “political reciprocity,” which may not happen in today’s climate.

“This is a time politically when we can’t count on norms and civility to prevail,” said Billard, who cited the potential overturning of Roe, for decades considered established constitutional law, as one such example.

But, Billard added, “It is a powerful and important symbolic act at a time when trans people rightly feel surrounded by enemies.”

This is also why LGBTQ lawmakers in Georgia and Florida, states that are unlikely to pass such refuge legislation in their conservative-majority statehouses, signed on to the pledge this week, said Parker, of the Victory Institute.

Gay and trans people across the country say anti-LGBTQ legislation has increased hostility toward them in their communities, regardless of whether their states have passed their own laws.

Trans kids also experience disproportionately high rates of suicidality, which is often rooted in discrimination and isolation. The mere fact of these debates can reinforce the idea that they are not wanted, further hurting their mental health, Billard said.

Titone called the sanctuary effort “bittersweet”: She’s proud of how much her state has accomplished in recent years, and is optimistic it will do even more to protect and enshrine LGBTQ protections.

But with no end in sight to the rash of anti-LGBTQ bills, she said, “We always want to do more than we can, because there’s a lot of people suffering.”