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How Democratic-led states can rise up to the challenge of LGBTQ safety

Congress has always been a bleak place for pro-LGBTQ legislation.
Mourners gather at a memorial for the victims of a mass shooting at Club Q
A memorial for the victims of the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Spring, Colorado.Parker Seibold / The Gazette via AP file

This week, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on violence against LGBTQ people following the deadly mass shooting at a Colorado queer bar last month. Two survivors of the Club Q shooting, along with the owner of the bar and several LGBTQ advocates, testified that a growing hateful environment toward queer and trans people set the stage for the shooting.

There’s no policy or law that Congress could pass that would guarantee that another gay bar shooting doesn’t occur again.

The hearing itself was important because it let the survivors express the fears of the LGBTQ community in a venue that’s likely to get broad media coverage. The survivor testimonies will produce dozens of articles in as many publications. It means someone like me has a chance to write about it. But it pains me to say that garnering fleeting  attention was all the hearing was useful for as far as threats to LGBTQ lives are concerned.

The truth is that Congress is not capable of fixing the problem of homophobic and transphobic hate and violence in this country. There’s no policy or law that Congress could pass that would guarantee that another gay bar shooting doesn’t occur again. Passing the Equality Act, which would add LGBTQ people to the protected categories under federal civil rights legislation, would help. But that bill will not pass in the next congressional session with Republicans controlling the House, and a GOP filibuster will continue to block it in the Senate.

Our most hopeful prospect for protecting LGBTQ lives in America right now are so-called trans refugee laws, which would shield trans people and their families from out-of-state prosecution and other legal attacks based on their trans status.

These laws are simple, yet needed, harm reduction measures, but they’re also an indicator of the grim situation that many trans people and their families face. We’re living in a system in which it’s necessary for some trans people to leave their home states simply because a bigoted group of powerful people have made them into their primary political and ideological target. 

Congress has always been a bleak place for pro-LGBTQ legislation, even this week as President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which offered minimal federal protections for gay marriages. Meanwhile, conservative states continue to leverage ever-more extreme policies against queer and particularly trans lives. 

A Washington Post report published Wednesday, the day the Club Q survivors testified, detailed how the notoriously transphobic Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton attempted to get a list of names of people who had changed their gender on their state IDs from the state’s driver's license bureau. Texas has been the epicenter of anti-trans government sentiment in the U.S.; last year, the state's Department of Family and Protective Services began investigating parents of trans kids for child abuse. The situation is so dire that families with trans kids are actively trying to flee the state and the conservative politicians in charge of the state’s government.

Texas may be taking the most harsh direct action, but three other states — Arkansas, Arizona and Alabama — have also criminalized providing trans youth with gender affirming care and dozens of other states have already introduced similar bans for this year’s legislative sessions.

I’m quickly running out of different ways to explain that the situation for trans people in the U.S. is unbelievably frightening, and not only for those living in so-called conservative areas.

I’m quickly running out of different ways to explain that the situation for trans people in the U.S. is unbelievably frightening, and not only for those living in so-called conservative areas. Right-wing groups are organizing against drag shows and children’s hospitals who choose to help trans kids; right-wing government officials are actively persecuting trans kids and attempting to gather information on trans adults. History shows that these developments rarely end in peaceful resolutions.

I worry every day that conservatives will shortly run out of peaceful means of dealing with what they call “the trans issue.” When governments start secretly gathering lists of citizens belonging to a highly demonized minority, that should serve as a wake-up call to everyone.

In response to the Republican onslaught against trans lives, 19 blue state legislatures have resorted to introducing or passing laws that shield families with trans kids from out-of-state investigations pertaining to efforts to support those kids.

These “trans refugee laws” are the type of legislation that is most likely to help trans people over the next few years. Moving out of state is difficult and expensive. Many trans people have lived their entire lives in the same state where they were born, or their entire support network of family and friends live there. But as Republicans resort to ever more draconian measures against trans lives, moving away starts to feel more and more necessary.

Anything that will help trans people relocate to safer locales will be most immediately helpful. Normally this would be a job for the federal government, but again, with Republicans about to run the House, national legislation to accomplish any of this is just not going to materialize. This leaves the matter up to blue states like Massachusetts and California.

The laws shielding parents of trans kids from out-of-state jurisdiction is a good start, but blue state legislatures may need to move in a more humanitarian direction if the trans emergency in red states worsens — which, if recent events are any indication, is very likely.

This week we heard directly from the victims of mass violence driven by homophobic and transphobic hate. None of us feel safe in our own spaces right now. Those of us in conservative-controlled states could find ourselves the target of state power at any moment, and it’s up to the rest of us to protect them.

Let’s hope our state legislators are up to the job.