The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP lawmakers push historic wave of bills targeting rights of LGBTQ teens, children and their families

From left, Camille, Alexandra, Leon and Homero Rey at their home in Potomac, Md. Leon, 9, is transgender, and his family moved from Texas to protect his rights. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Nationwide, GOP lawmakers have filed nearly 200 state bills this year that seek to erode protections for transgender and gay youth or restrict discussion of LGBTQ topics in public schools.

The explosion of legislation is in part the culmination of efforts by a trio of conservative organizations, which are helping state legislators write and promote the bills. One of the most active — the Alliance Defending Freedom — has a decades-long history of fighting LGBTQ rights, including in battles to preserve state laws criminalizing consensual sex between gay adults, court records show.

Today, at least 166 measures to restrict LGBTQ rights are still pending in state legislatures across the nation — nearly quadruple the number of similar bills introduced just three years ago, according to data from Freedom for All Americans, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

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Members of the LGBTQ community say the unprecedented legislative efforts are aimed at dismantling the hard-earned and tenuous civil rights of a vulnerable population and are causing psychological damage to children who are already struggling.

This wave of bills has been staggering,” Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) said in an interview. “These painful state-level fights are proof positive that discrimination is still a very real threat that directly harms members of our most vulnerable communities, including and especially young people who are transgender.”

Lawmakers who are sponsoring the bills say parental authority is being undermined, sometimes in conflict with religious tenets taught at home, and they believe educators and health-care workers are attempting to convert children to becoming transgender or queer.

Christian parents don’t think the schools should be evangelizing children into sexual ideologies they don’t agree with,” said Oklahoma state Sen. Rob Standridge (R), who introduced a bill this year that would enable parents to remove LGBTQ books from school libraries. “So that’s what the bill is about, to try to get schools to stop doing that … I’m empowering the parent that is directly affected by what they see as overriding their beliefs.”

Detailed tracking of this legislative movement can be difficult. This is due in part to lawmakers’ practice of not mentioning the words “transgender” or “LGBTQ” in bill text, either intentionally to escape detection or because they do not acknowledge the legitimacy of transgender or queer identity, advocacy groups and experts say. However, several LGBTQ organizations have teams of lawyers who track the bills, including Freedom for All Americans, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign.

About 75 of the new bills call for bans or severe restrictions on classroom discussions, curriculum and library books that mention LGBTQ issues, mostly but not exclusively in primary grades, according to Freedom for All Americans, which has one of the most conservative legislative estimates among advocacy groups. Some of these bills are vaguely worded, making it unclear whether educators or students could even mention their own sexual or gender identity — or that of their parents — on school grounds. This issue has led critics to dub Florida’s bill, which passed the state legislature on March 8, the “don’t say gay” act.

Nearly 50 other bills seek to ban transgender youth from playing competitive school sports on teams that don’t align with the gender they were assigned at birth.

At least 29 seek to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, which primarily involves hormone therapy to delay the onset of puberty or to begin the process of transitioning. Some of the measures also seek to make it a crime to provide such care to children and young teens, or to make it a crime for parents to sign off on such care. (The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups endorse the treatments, saying such care saves lives.)

There are also dozens of other bills focused on restricting LGBTQ rights, including at least 15 “bathroom bills,” which in 2016 kicked off this legislative movement by pushing to ban transgender students, and sometimes faculty members, from using school bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.

Nearly two-thirds of the bills focus on transgender rights. There were 18 such bills introduced in 2019, compared with more than 100 last year. The number introduced so far this year has again surpassed 100.

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The bills have found especially fertile ground as the GOP seeks to energize its base for midterm elections in a time when party leaders have shown new willingness to openly attack gay and transgender rights — a movement that runs counter to wider public sentiment on LGBTQ rights, according to several recent surveys. A Public Religion Research Institute survey released last week showed nearly 8 in 10 Americans support laws to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, housing and public accommodations. The survey also found that 68 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, a rise from 54 percent in 2014.

Michael Boucai, a law professor at the University at Buffalo who specializes in family law and gender and sexuality law, argues that the new bills are aimed to please partisan interests rather than to spark real debate about how to best help LGBTQ children.

“The laws are being drafted in such an extreme way, and with such potentially opportunistic motives, that is very easy for the left to reject them. The right doesn’t really want a debate on these issues,” Boucai said in an interview. “A lot of these bills involve parents’ rights to control their children’s health care and education, which has been galvanizing for a large segment of the American population, particularly among conservatives leading up to and going through the pandemic.”

For many parents of LGBTQ children, the wave of new bills have already had a significant impact on their lives. After watching a wave of anti-trans legislation cresting in the Texas Capitol last fall, Camille Rey decided to move with her husband and three children, including 9-year-old Leon, a transgender boy, from Austin to Potomac, Md.

“None of us should have to feel persecuted by our own government. None of us should have to feel like political refugees in our own country,” Rey said in an interview. “That’s literally what I feel like. I moved my whole family because of politics.”

Starting a landslide

In early 2020, as Republican Idaho state Rep. Barbara Ehardt worked to craft a ban on transgender athletes competing on public school sports teams, she turned to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian conservative legal organization.

The Arizona-based advocacy group, founded in 1993, leverages the power of a national network of Christian lawyers for its legislative efforts and legal battles. It reported $78 million in assets in 2020 and has received funding from Christian, family and financial foundations. In recent years, it battled in court against abortion rights and in favor of religious practices in schools and drafted language for anti-transgender “bathroom bills” later used in multiple states.

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Now, the group helped Ehardt craft the nation’s first successful ban on transgender female athletes.

The Alliance Defending Freedom said, ‘We think we can strengthen this, maybe do something different,’ and then they shared with me some other language,” Ehardt said in an interview. “I thought it was definitely stronger and definitely better.”

That bill, which became law two years ago, helped set off a landslide of copycat legislation, with Ehardt traveling the country to testify in support of the bills — and with the Alliance Defending Freedom helping other legislators craft new bills to limit LGBTQ rights, according to lawmakers and advocates. Measures similar to Ehardt’s bill have since become law in at least 10 other states, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The group has played a similar role in the proliferation of dozens of other anti-LGBTQ bills filed around the nation this year — helping lawmakers craft legislation and providing legal support.

Last year, it formed a coalition with two other conservative nonprofits, the Heritage Foundation and the Family Policy Alliance, that published a list of positions on transgender and gay rights that have repeatedly surfaced in the restrictive new state bills. It was released a month after President Biden signed an executive order in January 2021 in support of LGBTQ rights.

The website for the coalition, Promise to America’s Children, also invites lawmakers to provide their email addresses so the group can send sample bill language, which has since appeared in dozens of measures.

In the past, the Alliance Defending Freedom has taken some of the most aggressive stances in the fight against LGBTQ rights. It filed a Supreme Court amicus brief in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case — and joined in another brief — which both unsuccessfully argued in 2003 in favor of the state’s right to maintain sodomy laws, court records show. High-ranking leaders of the organization have also publicly supported efforts in other countries to criminalize same-sex sexual acts. It also has defended parents’ right to have their LGBTQ children undergo conversion therapy, which uses psychological, physical, or spiritual interventions in an effort to make a person heterosexual or cisgender.

In a statement to The Washington Post, the group described its efforts regarding criminalizing LGBTQ sex as a “limited engagement” on the issue and said it is based on its “belief that marriage between on man and one woman is the best institution for human flourishing.” It also said it believes that the issue of whether to criminalize LGBTQ sex should be left to states.

As for conversion therapy, Alliance Defending Freedom said it “supports everyone’s freedom to seek the counseling they choose without interference from the government.”

The coalition of conservative nonprofit groups, which say their work on recent anti-LGBTQ state bills is aimed at restoring traditional family values, declined interview requests from The Post. The Alliance Defending Freedom said it is routinely involved in helping craft legislation, noting that groups like the ACLU regularly do the same.

“It is standard practice for lawmakers to work with groups with expertise as they craft and introduce legislation. This is true across the ideological spectrum,” the statement said. “ADF is regularly invited to draw upon our constitutional expertise to provide input into forthcoming bills.”

The Family Policy Alliance said that the political movement is driven by parents.

“In the wake of COVID, with children engaged in remote learning, parents gained a new window into what their children were learning in the classroom,” the group said in a statement. “For some parents, this revealed curriculum which not only taught viewpoints about sex and gender with which they disagreed, but taught them as fact to young children.”

LGBTQ advocates, though, say the groups — and smaller organizations with similar goals — have played a central role in elevating the legislation. Some groups have boasted of their fundraising and influence on these measures. Officials from the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank, described on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” show a $750,000 “grassroots advocacy” campaign it organized to urge Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to order the state to investigate parents of trans children who have received gender-affirming medical care.

Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, noted that many of the same groups had previously pushed bills to stop same-sex marriage and enact nationwide transgender bathroom and religious exemption laws.

“We had a flurry of those bills, 2017, 2018, 2019, but they weren’t really causing the kind of dramatic impact that opponents of equality wanted them to have, in terms of instilling fear about what LGBTQ+ equality could mean,” Oakley said in an interview. “So, they switched to targeting trans kids.”

Like Ehardt, other lawmakers behind more recent bills have publicly credited the groups with helping to achieve success. South Dakota state Rep. Fred Deutsch (R) introduced in 2020 a bill to ban gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth, after he attended an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation.

Deutsch said that, in crafting the bill, he sought out transgender youth and spoke to them as part of his research. The initial draft, he said in an email message, “was developed organically in the living room of my country home in South Dakota, surrounded by miles of corn fields.”

He then got input from the Alliance Defending Freedom and asked the Heritage Foundation if he could share the bill draft at an upcoming conference.

“Apparently people at the conference shared the draft with legislators from other states, since in the months following the conference, legislators from other states contacted me,” he wrote in an email.

Like Ehardt’s legislation, Deutsch’s medical-care bill was the first of its kind in 2020. Although it did not pass, it has been replicated and introduced in dozens of states. So far, at least two states have enacted such laws — Arkansas and Tennessee.

Morissa Ladinsky, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said those laws will force physicians like her who care for transgender youth to chose between violating the Hippocratic oath or breaking state law.

“To cease a course of successful medical therapy … is in grave violation of a huge tenet of medical ethics. It’s called medical abandonment,” said Ladinsky, who works in a state with a pending transgender medical care bill. “So, do I violate a major, major ethical tenet of health-care delivery, or do we risk a felony conviction? It’s a place no physician ever saw themselves being in.”

There’s no one reason these bills have found particular traction this year, advocates and experts said. Oakley said that pandemic burnout has led many Americans to tune out legislative sessions.

“I do think that to some degree, these attacks have flown under the radar because of the pandemic and because of the insurrection,” she said. “I don’t think that this has permeated their consciousness in the same way that previous attacks have permeated their consciousness.”

Hannah Willard, vice president of government affairs for Freedom for All Americans, said the bills are also a reaction to recent civil rights gains made by the LGBTQ community.

“You don’t get progress without backlash,” Willard said in an interview. “So it’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing these anti-trans bills in the states at the same time as we’re seeing growing support. They can feel like contradictory trends, but really they are two sides of the exact same coin.”

A wave of legislation

From coast to coast, bills that would drastically impact gay and trans children have advanced this year with startling speed.

In Alabama, the Senate passed a bill in February that calls for penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine for anyone who provides gender-affirming care to a child or teenager. This includes hormone treatments that delay puberty, which are reversible.

In Idaho, a bill passed the House this month that would allow librarians to be jailed for up to a year and fined $1,000 each time they are found guilty of disseminating material that is “harmful to minors.” A meaning for this standard is not defined in the bill. Examples provided during legislative hearings included books that had LGBTQ themes or characters.

And in Florida, the “don’t say gay” bill would ban public schools from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, and says educators at all grade levels should refrain from discussing LGBTQ issues that are not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,” which is left open to interpretation. Parents who believe an educator has violated the law may sue.

When Texas lawmakers did not pass a transgender medical care ban, Abbott in February asked the public to turn parents in to state officials if they have provided gender-affirming medical care to their trans children so they can face criminal investigations and potential charges. Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) have called such care “child abuse.”

Paxton said in a February opinion that parents and guardians should be blocked from signing off on all transgender procedures — including hormone therapies — “[b]ecause children are legally incompetent to consent,” and said that hormone therapies can sometimes affect fertility and therefore “infringe on the child’s fundamental right to procreate.”

The ACLU has sued in an attempt to stop the investigations, and advocates have decried the state’s move as perhaps the most aggressive attack on trans youth in this multiyear campaign.

“They have gone after trans kids in every conceivable dimension,” Oakley said. “They’re trying to take their parents’ support away, they’re trying to take doctors’ support away, they’re trying to take teachers’ support away, and they’re trying to take their teams and coaches away.”

So far this year, six of the bills have been approved by five state legislatures — four of which specifically curtail the rights of trans children and their families, according to Freedom for All Americans.

The advocacy group said at least a dozen pending bills would also require medical care providers and educators who learn of a child’s LGBTQ status to notify parents. Many of these provisions to “out” transgender and other LGBTQ youth are not expected to survive.

The rise in the extreme penalties the measures call for — and the polarizing debates surrounding them — have started to garner the attention of major corporations and the general public. It’s not yet clear whether this could change the course of future state legislation, experts said.

This month, more than 170 major U.S. corporations, including PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson and Macy’s, have signed a statement condemning the bills. Other large companies have felt a backlash in recent months, most notably Disney. CEO Bob Chapek formally apologized to employees this month for the company’s silence on the Florida bill restricting LGBTQ topics in elementary schools, announcing it would pause all political donations in the state after financial contributions showed the company gave to lawmakers who championed the legislation.

Court challenges to block the laws — including one in Arkansas that bans gender-affirming medical care for trans youth — have been successful in four instances but are being appealed by state officials, according to the ACLU. Several other lawsuits are still pending, the group said. Some Republican officials have also pushed back on the measures, with governors in both Indiana and Utah recently vetoing transgender sports bans.

The Biden administration is also now stepping in, vowing to take steps to block state actions that might discriminate against LGBTQ youth and their families — something the Trump administration did not do. Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra condemned Abbott’s directive to investigate parents of transgender children and said his agency “will use every tool at our disposal to keep Texans safe.”

Whether the bills have succeeded, failed or are pending, parents and children caught up in the political drama say it has taken a psychological toll.

In Florida, Todd and Jeff Delmay — a gay married couple — say they worry for their 12-year-old son, Blake, because it’s unclear if the proposed “don’t say gay” law would prevent their son from being able to openly talk about his home life at school.

I can’t imagine not being able to see your parents accepted like other parents because it makes you feel other,” said Todd Delmay, who testified against the Florida bill.

“It doesn’t matter how different your family is. It’s still called family,” said Blake, who expressed similar concerns and said he is also worried about being bullied. “You need to be able to talk about your family.”

Rey said her family’s decision to move from Texas was driven by the knowledge that even if a bill fails this year, a similar or new bill targeting transgender rights probably will be brought back next year. She said staying to continue battling the bills would have been too taxing on her family.

“There were parents who were fighting beside me who had fought two years earlier when the bathroom bill had been introduced,” she said. “This was their life. I didn’t want this to be my life. I had a different life in mind. I have a different life in mind for Leon.”

Alice Crites and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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