It’s only the second week of 2021, and legislators across 13 states have already introduced 19 bills aimed at stripping away the rights of transgender people.
This onslaught suggests that the U.S. is on track to see a huge amount of anti-trans legislation, according to a tally by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provided to VICE News. There were 52 bills that explicitly attacked trans rights in 2020, a record, the ACLU found.
The bills introduced so far in 2021, like those from 2020, are mainly focused on prohibiting health care for trans kids or keeping them from participating in sporting events that match their gender. Their texts are, at times, identical, suggesting that they could be based on model legislation provided to state legislators by a special interest group. This kind of “copy-and-paste” legislation occurs across the political spectrum but is a prominent tactic among conservative groups.
“It’s certainly the most aggressive attack I’ve seen,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice at the ACLU. “At a time when perhaps bill-drafting and government might be slowed down by the states due to practical constraints because of COVID, you have well-resourced anti-trans groups that are drafting these bills and shipping them out to states. And they’re moving incredibly quickly.”
Last year, states introduced dozens of bills that would have restricted trans people’s ability to change their IDs to match their gender, blocked trans kids from getting health care, or stopped them from participating in sports. But when coronavirus hit and the country ground to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic, just one state—Idaho—managed to pass anti-trans legislation.
This year, a bill in Kentucky and another in South Carolina would expand the ability of individual medical providers as well as corporations—including hospitals and insurance companies—to deny care to trans people based on their “religious, moral, ethical, or philosophical beliefs or principles.”
Bills in Texas and New Hampshire want to define gender-affirming health care for trans kids as child abuse. A Montana bill, which was slated to be discussed in a legislative committee on Wednesday, would impose fines on health care providers of up to $50,000 for providing trans kids with medical or surgical gender-affirming health care.
Research indicates that letting trans and nonbinary kids take puberty blockers (drugs that can delay puberty) and gender-affirming hormone therapy can improve their mental health—and, most critically, keep them alive. In a 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than half of trans male teenagers said that they’d attempted suicide; nearly 30 percent of trans female teens said the same. And more than 40 percent of nonbinary young people said they’d tried to kill themselves.
Before taking puberty blockers, 30 percent of trans and nonbinary children reported “clinically significant emotional problems,” according to a research brief by the Trevor Project, which focuses on preventing young LGBTQ people from dying of suicide. After two years of taking puberty blockers, just 11 percent said they dealt with those problems. The average risk of suicide for trans children also dropped by about 75 percent after spending a year on gender-affirming hormone therapy.
Several of the anti-trans health care bills proposed this year share a striking exception: Health care providers can still perform surgeries on infants with “ambiguous” genitalia, or in cases where a “minor does not have the normal sex chromosome structure for a male or female,” in the words of one Mississippi bill.
This would allow physicians to perform cosmetic surgeries on intersex infants, a practice activists are trying to stop.
For Strangio, the exceptions for surgery on infants is proof that these bills—which purport to protect young people from being pressured into health care they’re apparently too young to understand—are really about enforcing prevailing gender norms.
“It’s not about autonomy for young people,” he said. “It’s not about consent, because they specifically exempt from the bills any surgical interventions on infants when it’s to ‘normalize’ people’s bodies consistent with prevailing norms of binary sex.”
Unlike the Trump administration, which spent years hacking away at protections for trans people, the incoming Biden administration is far more likely to try to protect the rights of trans people. It could sue or yank funding from states that violate Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding. (The Obama administration issued guidance making it clear that Title IX protects trans people, although the Trump administration withdrew that guidance when it came into power.)
“The Justice Department may be aggressive in a host of ways in terms of enforcing federal civil rights laws and ensuring the U.S. Constitution is followed,” Strangio said. But, he added, fighting these bills will still be a tough battle. “We’re dealing with state legislatures that are incredibly driven to attack trans people.”