Attacks against queer and trans people in state legislatures continue unabated, with lawmakers demonstrating their intentions over the past few weeks to maintain the momentum from last year's record number of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills. Some of the tactics are familiar, but new attacks targeting youth with certain medical conditions show the true cruelty of these efforts.
Readers may have seen news stories earlier this month about the 19 anti-queer-and-trans bills that Missouri lawmakers “prefiled” for the coming legislative session.
These “prefiled” bills signal what Missouri lawmakers plan to introduce during their spring legislative session and continue the onslaught against primarily trans youth: they seek to ban trans participation in sports and critical race theory in schools, defund libraries that host drag queen story hours, force teachers to misgender trans students unless they have parental permission to assert their identity, remove care for trans youth who were able to continue some level of care after Missouri’s ban last year on gender-affirming treatment for minors, target trans restroom and locker room access, and more.
Missouri’s bills are a fraction of what lawmakers have already filed. Advocates estimate that lawmakers in state and federal governments have prefiled about 50 anti-queer-and-trans bills for this session, including those in Missouri, with roughly another 100 “rolling over” from last year’s legislative sessions, and almost surely more to come.
No one is quite sure whether this legislative session will be as detrimental as last year, when lawmakers in 49 states introduced about 600 bills, largely directed at trans youth and trans identity, that displaced families and stripped people of healthcare and equal treatment. It is also unclear what impact the recent Congressional hearings on whether Title IX sex discrimination should include gender identity will have. (Title IX is the law that addresses sex discrimination – including sexual assault and sports access – in schools that receive federal funding. Trans opponents often raise concerns that a more inclusive Title IX will allow trans students to compete on the team of their choice and weaken women’s sports.)
Regardless, the following trends in these prefiled bills suggest this session will be just as extremist as the last:
- Censoring trans, queer, and racial identity
Lawmakers are attempting to censor trans, queer, and racial identities with bills that target pronouns in schools and the workplace, queer education and critical race theory, and online material that might feature trans people. A common tactic in these bills is to limit the amount of queer and trans content available to young people, in particular by calling it “obscene” or “pornographic.” Missouri HB 1674, for example, would refuse to fund any public, academy, or school library unless they adopt a written policy that explains how library selections are made, and also emphasizes that money “shall not be used to purchase or acquire material that is “child pornography,” is “pornographic for minors,” or is “obscene.” This bill would also give “any person” the right to contest whether a particular book is age appropriate. Advocates say this language is often a smoke screen to target queer and trans media and information.
Another common tactic is to defund entities that attempt to teach or instill basic respect for trans people. Lawmakers in the United States House of Representatives, for instance, are aiming in HR 6432 to defund any “federal agency or department” that implements any “rule, policy, guidance, recommendation or memorandum” that requires an employee or contractor to use a trans person’s pronouns or chosen name. Similarly, in Florida, HB 599 would make it an “unlawful employment practice” for nonprofits that receive state grants or funding to require any “training, instruction, or other activity on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
A final tactic is to create causes of action for parents and for people who are aggrieved by trans identity. Florida HB 599, mentioned above, would also prohibit a trans person in the workplace from using pronouns that differ from the pronouns associated with their sex assigned at birth. It also gives a trans person’s colleague a cause of action with the Equal Opportunity and Employment Commission if the colleague is punished for refusing to use a trans person’s pronouns. This kind of action may well have a chilling effect on trans and queer people who may prefer to keep their identities private rather than risk trouble at work. (And it is quite common in Florida, where the Board of Governors passed a regulation that would defund student groups who engage in political activism on behalf of marginalized communities).
- Criminalizing trans identity and drag
Lawmakers in Ohio, South Carolina, and Missouri have also introduced bills that either criminalize trans identity or attempt to recast it as obscenity. Ohio HB 245, for instance, makes it a misdemeanor or a felony to perform drag in front of someone under the age of 18 years of age outside of an adult queer club because it could be “harmful” or “obscene.” But HB 245’s definition of drag includes “performers or entertainers who exhibit a gender identity that is different from … [their] gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup … or other physical markers.” This definition not only criminalizes drag parades and pride events; it would also allow police or passersby to accuse a trans person – who, by definition, is a person with a gender identity that differs from their gender assigned at birth – of performing drag in violation of Ohio HB 245. This targeting will have a disproportionate impact on trans people of color who already face higher rates of state violence, poverty, and housing discrimination.
This criminalization also extends to restrooms. South Carolina HB 4535 orders public state buildings, adult and juvenile correctional facilities, and educational institutions to exclude trans people, gender nonconforming people, and certain intersex people (“TGNCI people”) from using facilities that accord with their gender identity and subjects them to discipline if they do use these facilities and refuse to leave when asked to do so. The language in this bill is nearly identical to the Florida Bathroom Ban, which remains in effect, and is further evidence of the coordinated effort behind this wave of anti-queer and anti-trans legislation.
- Limiting doctors from treating youth for gender dysphoria if they are neurodivergent
States are continuing to move forward with gender-affirming-care bans for youth, or strengthening bans already in place by proposing the removal of “sunset” clauses that allowed some trans teens to continue their medication. Although 22 states have already banned gender-affirming care, states like Ohio, and potentially Wisconsin, have added another feature to their proposed bans: screening for neurodivergence and “trauma.” While this is not new – Missouri’s attorney general issued a now-withdrawn emergency rule that would have required trans adults to be screened for autism before they could receive care – it is alarming to see more laws weaponizing neurodivergence against gender divergent people.
Specifically, Ohio HB 68 would prohibit healthcare professionals from treating gender dysphoria unless they screen the youth for “physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse and other traumas” and “other comorbidities that may be influencing the minor individual’s gender-related condition, including depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and other mental health conditions.” Meanwhile, in Ohio, SB 479 would require two healthcare providers to certify in writing that a youth seeking gender dysphoria treatment does not suffer from other “mental health concerns … including depression, an eating disorder, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disability, or a psychotic disorder.”
Nobody disputes the link between autism/neurodivergence and trans identity/gender divergence: Numerous studies show trans people are three to six times as likely as cisgender people to be autistic. However, lawmakers are misusing this data to wrongly suggest that autistic and neurodivergent people cannot make decisions about their own healthcare and that transness is a result of trauma. This is as wrong as it is infantilizing and ableist.
In sum, while legislators continue to use tired old tactics to target and repress LGBTQIA+ communities that have also been used against people of color, women and pregnant people, people with disabilities, and activists, the continued attack on people with mental health conditions represents a new low. We condemn these efforts and reiterate our belief that unified action from targeted and marginalized communities is our best hope to stave off this antidemocratic legislation and achieve liberation for all.