Oklahoma is on the brink of enforcing a law that would require transgender students at public schools and public charter schools to use restrooms and locker rooms that do not match their gender identity. If Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signs the legislation — passed by lawmakers last week — it would be the third law the state has passed this year curbing the rights of trans residents.
Stitt is expected to sign the bill, which would apply to students from pre-K through the 12th grade. Trans students who do not comply will be required to use a “single-occupancy restroom or changing room” at their school.
Under the law, parents or students can report minors suspected of violating the rule to school officials, who are required to investigate and potentially discipline the students. School districts that do not enforce the law could lose up to 5 percent of their state funding, and the law would be effective as soon as Stitt signs it.
Bathroom bans started making national headlines when North Carolina passed the country’s first in 2016. The law drew a massive backlash, hurting the state economically, and was partially repealed in 2017.
According to KTUL Tulsa, Oklahoma’s bill was proposed last year after Stillwater Public Schools refused to change a policy allowing students to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity unless a law declared otherwise. Conservative lawmakers, commanding the largest supermajority in the history of the state’s legislature, did just that.
Republican state Rep. Danny Williams, the House author of the bill, S.B. 615, said the goal of the legislation was to “protect our children,” according to KTUL.
“It’s about safety, it’s about protection, it’s about common sense,” Williams said.
Among the state’s Democratic representatives debating the bill was Rep. Jacob Rosencrants, whose son is trans, KTUL reported. Rosencrants argued that the bill would further isolate trans students.
“My child wants to go to the bathroom where he feels comfortable,” Rosencrants said. “My kid just wants to ‘be’ … and he doesn’t feel like he can do that in this state.”
Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said trans, Two-Spirit and gender diverse students were once more “being bullied by our lawmakers” and used as political pawns.
“Let us be clear, not only does this policy make trans students unsafe, it creates a hostile, unsafe environment for all students,” McAfee said in a statement. “There is no question this bill is unconstitutional.”
Oklahoma’s legislature passed the bathroom bill May 19 after debating the bill in both chambers for several hours: It passed the Senate 38-to-7 and 69-to-15 in the House.
The state broke new ground last month by becoming the first in the country to explicitly ban nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates for people who identify as male or female. (Last year, via an executive order, Stitt had banned trans residents from changing their gender on their birth certificates.)
Stitt also signed into law this year a ban on transgender women and girls from competing on the sports teams that align with their gender identity at public schools and charter schools, as well as public colleges. Fifteen other states have enacted similar bans, including Florida, Alabama, Arizona and Utah, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonpartisan think tank. Unlike most states, Oklahoma’s applies to collegiate student-athletes as well as K-12 students.
Cindy Nguyen, director of policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said the state’s latest anti-trans bill has little legal standing.
“S.B. 615 plainly violates Title IX and the Constitution,” Nguyen said. “We know that nearly every court to even consider this issue has held that it’s illegal to bar trans youth from restrooms that align with their gender identity.”
If districts comply with the state law, Nguyen said, they could be found in violation of Title IX, which would mean losing out on federal money. (The Biden administration has made clear it views laws targeting trans youth to be in violation of federal statutes and the Constitution.)
Over the last two years, state legislatures across the country have brought forward an unprecedented amount of anti-LGBTQ bills, most of them affecting trans youth. More than 240 of these bills have been introduced so far in 2022. And they’re getting increasingly restrictive.
This spring, Alabama and Texas put forward the most aggressive restrictions on trans youth and their families in U.S. history. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered child welfare officials to investigate gender-affirming care as “child abuse,” though the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled the governor had no authority to give that order. More recently, Alabama passed a total ban on gender-affirming care, which made providing these treatments to trans youth a felony, punishable with up to 10 years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine. That law has been blocked from being enforced as it makes its way through the courts.
As with abortion restrictions, conservative lawmakers have built upon legislation introduced in other states. Washington Post reporting has found that many of these bills are crafted with the help of right-wing organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom.
Legal and gender policy experts have noted significant overlap in states that have introduced abortion bans and restrictions on gender-affirming care. Even laws that seem unlikely to weather legal challenges have been introduced in an effort to score political points, Nguyen said.
Last year, Arkansas became the first state in the country to ban gender-affirming care, although the law was blocked by courts before it could be implemented. And Florida’s education restrictions, which would bar any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade, seemed to inspire a similar law passed in Alabama, as well as an Oklahoma bill.
Even when these laws are not passed, they can have a detrimental effect on trans youth, LGBTQ advocates say. The Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organization that serves LGBTQ youth, told Kaiser Health Network it had received more than 200,000 calls, emails and texts to its crisis services in 2021, when the current wave of anti-LGBTQ bills began to crest.
Trans and nonbinary youth in particular have an elevated risk of suicidality and depression, stemming mainly from a lack of social support and increased stigma and discrimination, experts say. Recent studies have found that gender-affirming health care can substantially lower this risk.
Such bills can also sow confusion, said Nguyen. This is the case in Oklahoma, where name and birth certificate changes are being granted on a “case-by-case basis” with judges, according to Nguyen: “It really depends on the judge you go in front of.”
Meanwhile, amid a rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation, some states have pushed to make their policies more inclusive. Lawmakers across the country have been committing to introduce bills that would offer sanctuary to those seeking gender-affirming care; many of the same states have pledged to become “refuge” states for those seeking abortions.
Last month, Connecticut became the first state to pass such a law. While many focused on the bill’s implications for abortion seekers and providers, lawmakers have also expanded the definition of “reproductive health care services” to include treatments for gender dysphoria — meaning the same protections would apply to anyone seeking this care from a state that has banned it.