Tuesday marks the beginning of Pride Month 2021 — a time of much-deserved celebration, especially after so many of last year’s festivities were relegated to virtual spaces. And it’s also a time to further the movement for LGBTQ rights. This year, that work is particularly important — because we’re in the midst of an unprecedented effort from Republican-run state legislatures to subjugate the transgender community.
Across 33 states, more than 100 anti-transgender bills have been introduced just in the first few months of 2021. Restrictions proposed within these bills include stopping transgender people from using restrooms or changing facilities that align with their gender identity, preventing transgender youths from playing on sports teams reflecting their gender, and even banning gender-affirming medical treatment such as puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for transgender minors.
The cruelty of these bills’ potential impact is outright horrific. There’s evidence that transgender youths who receive puberty-delaying treatment are dramatically less likely to contemplate suicide than those who don’t. One Arkansas doctor who treats transgender youths testified to state lawmakers considering a bill to ban medical services to these patients: “There have been multiple kids in the emergency room for attempted suicide since the bill was introduced. I guarantee if this bill passes, children will die. And I will call you every single time.”
And the threats posed by these bills aren’t limited just to transgender youths. For example, some of the bills that restrict transgender participation in sports include clauses that call for genital inspections to be conducted when a student’s gender is disputed — an invasive, potentially traumatic experience for any child.
These sorts of proposals are incredibly unpopular, with about two-thirds of Americans opposing laws that restrict transgender rights. So how have they managed to become so widespread among Republican-controlled legislatures? There are several systemic factors at play.
For one, Republicans have spent decades doggedly pursuing power in the state legislatures and entrenching that power through gerrymandering and voter suppression. This gives them more room to legislate with impunity. To make matters worse, the slow decline of local journalism has weakened the scrutiny state-level politicians once faced. Thousands of local newspapers have closed shop over the past couple of decades, and the overall number of full-time statehouse reporters has dwindled significantly. Without a robust media to hold them accountable, state legislatures can operate in relative obscurity — the ideal scenario for unpopular action.
Finally, it’s no coincidence that we often see a wide variety of state legislatures taking up extremely similar legislation all at once. USA Today and the Arizona Republic conducted an investigation with the Center for Public Integrity that found at least 10,000 bills have been introduced in the United States that were nearly identical to “model bills” created by interest groups or corporations. (This is sometimes the easiest way a woefully underfunded state legislator’s staff can get a bill written.) Often, right-wing groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation — all of which have a history of fervent anti-LGBTQ activism — don’t just get to influence state law, but to practically dictate it.
As American Civil Liberties Union attorney and transgender rights activist Chase Strangio told me in a recent conversation hosted by the Nation, “These are model bills that were drafted and deliberately shipped out to state legislatures. This is not a constituent-driven movement. This is a power and money-driven movement.”
Still, as much as the deck may be stacked in favor of these moneyed interests, the fight is far from over. While some recent anti-transgender bills have already become law, most haven’t yet. Some of the bills will be subject to a veto from a Democratic governor, and even four Republican governors have vetoed anti-transgender legislation in the past couple of months. Just last week, the Texas House failed to meet a crucial deadline to pass its anti-transgender sports legislation, thanks in part to parliamentary delay tactics by Democrats. Even with the tremendous hurdles that local activists and organizers have faced, their efforts to stall or overturn anti-transgender legislation are not in vain. A people-powered movement can overcome a money-powered movement — but it needs people.
As the Rev. William J. Barber II has been arguing for years, we should see transgender rights “as a civil rights issue, as a moral issue, as a gay issue, as a workers’ right issue” — indeed, as another battle in the perpetual struggle to stand up for those who people in power seek to marginalize. Standing against the recent targeting of the transgender community is simply a matter of standing against hate.
Robert J. Walker: I’d be a Republican if it weren’t for the Republicans. So might many other African Americans.