The right-wing attack on transgender people has ramped up in 2021, with a record number of 82 anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures this year in some 28 states, surpassing last year’s count of 79 bills. About half the bills are bans that bar trans students from competing in school sports as the gender with which they identify. Others attempt to criminalize gender-affirming care for trans youth and, in some cases, adults.
A gender-affirmative care model, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), offers “developmentally appropriate care that is oriented toward understanding and appreciating the youth’s gender experience.” According to AAP, this model of care offers a strong, nonjudgmental partnership with youth and their families to facilitate exploration of complicated emotions and gender-diverse expressions while also allowing room for questions and concerns in a supportive environment.
“Typical gender-affirming care consists of listening carefully to children and families to create safe spaces to talk about gender identity and explore this and other aspects of adolescent development,” Dr. Michelle Forcier, director of Gender, Sexual Health, and Reproductive Justice at Open Door Health in Providence, Rhode Island, told Hatewatch via email. “[It] offers mental health supports to families to have guidance and resources to learn more about how to help children and adolescents stay safe, healthy and move forward in successful ways at home, school and in the community.”
According to Forcier, typical gender-affirming care “is based on many completely reversible options for support, including using an asserted name and pronoun and affirming clothing, make-up or hairstyles.” Adolescents who continue to suffer gender dysphoria, along with parents who want their child to be healthy, may be informed or offered an option for fully reversible puberty blockers, which, according to Forcier, are “very safe, very effective, and even life-saving for our most dysphoric youth.”
Anti-trans sports bans have also passed this year in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee while the Arkansas Senate passed a bill banning gender-affirming care for trans youth. Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told media outlets that this bill, H.B. 1570, is the “single most extreme anti-trans law to ever pass through a state legislature.”
Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed the state’s anti-trans sports ban into law in March, actually vetoed H.B. 1570 on April 5, expressing concerns in a news conference that the bill would create “new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters involving young people.”
Hutchinson also said that he believed an override of his veto was likely. The Arkansas legislature requires a simple majority in the state house and Senate to do so, and in fact the legislature overwhelmingly overrode his veto the next day. In so doing, Arkansas became the first state to criminalize gender-affirming care for trans youth.
The Arkansas bill requires trans youth to stop treatment they have already begun and prevents new patients from seeking treatment. The bill also penalizes medical professionals for providing such care, denies federal funding for it, and encourages private insurers to deny coverage.
“This legislation would deny [trans kids] life-saving, appropriate and affirming health care or the ability to participate in school sports,” Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), told Hatewatch. “Every leading medical institution says that transition-related care is necessary medical care, and many local schools have been successfully supporting both trans and non-trans student-athletes for years. At best, these bans are a solution in search of a problem. At worst, they are an abuse of power by politicians who want to motivate their base through fear.”
The bill’s text is full of right-wing misinformation and disinformation regarding gender dysphoria, repeating a myth that the majority of gender dysphoric youth will “grow out of their dysphoria” and linking gender dysphoria to “psychopathology.”
Alabama and Tennessee are also considering bills that criminalize gender-affirming care. Alabama’s HB 1 would make violations felonies. It also requires teachers to inform parents if a child tells them they’re transgender. That bill has passed the Alabama Senate. Tennessee’s bill (HB 0578) also blocks transgender minors from accessing gender-affirming care.
Professional medical organizations have released statements condemning the latest wave of anti-trans bills, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, which stated that the bills have the “sole purpose of threatening the health and well-being of transgender youth.” The American Medical Association noted that every major medical association in the U.S. “recognizes the necessity of transition-related care for improving the physical and mental health of transgender people” and noted that enacting anti-trans healthcare bans “could have tragic consequences.” The organizations have also spoken out against the anti-trans sports bans.
Origins of the latest anti-trans legislation
The bills represent a coordinated effort by anti-LGBTQ legislators and outside groups working in tandem to deny and erase the existence of trans people – this time by targeting trans youth. Earlier anti-trans legislation focused on so-called bathroom bills, which attempted to ban trans people from using public restrooms and other public facilities as the gender with which they identify.
The current attacks on trans youth are the latest tactic the anti-LGBTQ movement is using to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people – specifically targeting trans youth now and using a trope it has always used to sow fear about LGBTQ people: Protect children, because LGBTQ people are dangerous to them.
The anti-trans emphasis in the current focus of the anti-LGBTQ movement was given a boost by the Trump administration, which enacted numerous anti-trans policies like banning trans people from the military and writing “religious freedom” exemptions into Health and Human Services that would allow medical personnel to deny treatment to trans people.
The current wave of anti-trans disinformation and interest in forcing trans youth to be cisgender launched with the 2020 legislative session, which saw 79 anti-trans bills introduced.
One of those – Idaho’s sports ban – was signed into law, but it is currently being challenged in court. The 2020 wave was in response to a 2019 custody battle in Texas in which a jury awarded the mother of a 7-year-old trans girl custody. Luna Younger’s mother supports her daughter’s transition; her father does not. The case spurred an avalanche of anti-trans sentiment and misinformation on social media. Two days after the jury decision, the judge vacated it and awarded joint custody of Luna to both parents, though Luna’s father also engaged in spreading anti-trans mis- and disinformation on social media.
Disinformation and misinformation about gender-affirming care is also rampant on social media, and includes right-wing falsehoods such as that children are being “chemically castrated” or are undergoing transition surgeries. (They are not.) Other false claims include that kids will “grow out of” gender dysphoria as long as parents don’t allow them to transition. Another right-wing claim is that gender-affirming care is “child abuse” when in fact the opposite is true. Trans and nonbinary kids who do not get gender-affirming care are at much greater risk for trauma and suicide.
“There is no massive rush to surgeries and there are no ‘experiments’ being done on children,” Forcier told Hatewatch. “The interventions that are presented as options to gender-diverse children are evidence-based and safe, despite the demonization they receive in the lay press,” Forcier continued. For example, she noted, “Puberty blockers have been safely prescribed to both transgender youth and [cisgender] youth with precocious puberty for many, many years, now.” Forcier further noted that puberty blockers are completely reversible and give patients and parents time “to learn more about gender, gender identity and development, without making any permanent or lifelong decisions or changes.”
Anti-trans tactics and strategies
In the case of anti-trans legislation, a few national anti-LGBTQ groups are involved in crafting legislation, advising lawmakers and developing and promoting anti-trans disinformation through social media and right-wing news outlets.
Representatives and supporters of national and state-level anti-LGBTQ groups and specifically anti-trans groups are also tapped to testify at hearings related to these bills. These anti-trans medical professionals and other anti-trans “experts” provide testimony that repeats false claims that puberty blockers and hormone treatments are dangerous and irreversible. In other cases, people who claim to be “de-transitioners” testify to lambast legitimate gender-affirming care as “harmful.”
Idaho’s 2020 anti-trans sports bill provides a window into how legislators coordinate with anti-LGBTQ groups on legislation like this.
Idaho state Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, sponsored the bill, which specifically bans trans girls from competing in girls’ sports. In case of a dispute over a student’s sex, the bill requires that a student provide a health examination or a statement from a medical provider.
Ehardt is a former Idaho State University basketball player who later coached at other universities. She claimed the bill is designed to protect women and girls from having to compete against “biological boys and men” – trans women.
Anti-trans messaging around these bills is important in spreading ideas about the legislation to drum up support. The messaging around sports bans denies the existence of trans women in particular, and consistently and deliberately misgenders them. Such bans imply that as “biological men,” trans women are a “threat” to cisgender women. Anti-trans movements have thus adopted rhetoric generally associated with progressive women’s movements as a way to frame the disenfranchisement of trans people.
This messaging has been effective at not only galvanizing right-wing support for the bills, but also anti-trans feminists and lesbian, gay and bisexual people who adopt right-wing talking points to denigrate and dehumanize trans people. This, too, has been a strategy of the anti-LGBTQ movement – to use animosity against trans people to drive a wedge into LGBTQ rights movements.
Heron Greenesmith, senior research analyst and expert in anti-trans networks at Political Research Associates, told Hatewatch, “Anti-trans feminist groups like the Women’s Liberation Front and associations of anti-trans medical professionals like the Society for Ethical Gender Medicine, and groups of anti-trans parents like the Kelsey Coalition give Christian Right mis- and disinformation a veneer of legitimacy that contradicts the global medical consensus.”
Ehardt has claimed that Alliance Defending Freedom (an anti-LGBTQ hate group) helped her. Ehardt claims that ADF’s legal counsel looked over her bill and assisted in crafting stronger legislation.
According to IdEdNews.org, Ehardt credits ADF with helping spread the anti-trans sports bill they worked on together from state to state via model legislation. ADF attorneys are also working with Idaho state attorneys to defend the bill in court.
Idaho’s anti-trans sports bill is serving as a model for other states – some 30 others, according to IdEdNews. The legislation spread initially to Montana, where Ehardt testified in January in support of that state’s sports ban bill. The Montana bill’s language is very similar to Idaho’s bill.
More bills in other states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Kansas and Arizona) include elements common to all, such as an excerpt from a 2019 anti-trans op-ed by tennis great Martina Navratilova, NBC sports analyst Sanya Richards-Ross and Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a law professor at Duke University.
This is not the first time ADF has been involved in creating anti-trans model policy. ADF is also linked to bathroom bill legislation. In 2017, 15 states introduced bathroom bills that resembled each other and included language similar to model legislation drafted by ADF for schools to force trans students out of the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identified. The policy, known as “The Student Physical Privacy Act,” called for the segregation of trans students from facilities of students of the “opposite sex” – that is, students of the gender with which the trans student identified.
ADF has continued working against trans youth, and has shown up to testify in state legislatures. Matt Sharp, an ADF attorney, testified this year in Arkansas, where he deliberately misgendered trans people – a tactic ADF consistently employs to demean trans people. Such testimony also promotes disinformation that trans people don’t exist, by referring to trans women not as women, but as “biological males” and trans men as “biological females.”
Other groups are also engaged in anti-trans propaganda and support for anti-trans legislation.
The anti-LGBTQ Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance traffic in anti-trans rhetoric, and, like ADF, have brought anti-trans feminists and anti-trans lesbian, gay and bisexual people into the fold who parrot their anti-trans arguments. These include the false claims that trans women are a threat to cisgender women, and allowing these “biological males” to compete with cisgender women in sports will somehow end women’s sports and “erase women.”
Anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Council (FRC) is also involved in the coordinated efforts to demonize trans people and support anti-trans legislation. Anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice activist Joseph Backholm, a senior fellow at FRC, also testified in Arkansas in support of the criminalization bill. FRC released a policy brief on the Arkansas bill, and instructed people to claim that gender transition is an “experiment” that government should not force taxpayers to pay for and that young people are harmed by it.
The anti-LGBTQ right is also dominating social media. A 2020 Media Matters report found that right-wing sources on Facebook garnered 66% of engagement with content about transgender people and issues.
As further demonstration of the coordinated efforts behind anti-trans legislation, ADF partnered with the Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance recently in an effort to “save” America’s children from “harm” which includes contact with anything related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The “Promise to America’s Children” includes statements that female children should not be forced to compete in sports against “biological males” and that gender-affirming care is harmful. The coalition was launched in February and includes a page for legislators and policymakers to sign up for model legislation.
“In the past few years, we've seen the Christian right ramp up their platforming of seemingly opposing communities, like feminists, physicians and the parents of trans kids,” PRA’s Greenesmith told Hatewatch. “In reality, the groups and individuals being effectively platformed by the Christian Right represent a tiny handful of anti-trans advocates that get large platforms to give anti-trans advocacy the appearance of a broad base of support.”
Nevertheless, the effective promotion and passage of anti-trans legislation will continue, pushed by both right-wing and feminist/LGB groups that use the same messaging and push the same right-wing pseudoscience. Like the coordinated efforts behind so many anti-abortion bills, anti-trans legislation seeks to criminalize medical care, enacting penalties not only on vulnerable youth and their families, but also on medical professionals. Criminalization of care forces people to go without, to go elsewhere, or to try to access care through black market means.
The cruelty of this legislation also seeks to deny the existence of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming youth, and encourages forms of conversion therapy to force them not to be trans. Further, it puts the state in control of parents by forcing a specific worldview on them and discouraging them from working with medical professionals and with their children to determine the best options going forward.
“Every child deserves the love and support of family and community,” Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen of NCTE told Hatewatch. “Dangerous proposals around the country are putting transgender young people at risk. The harm is real and is felt very personally by trans kids just trying to live their lives as who they really are.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with information about puberty blockers from the Endocrine Society.