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The odds are getting worse for trans Americans

Hundreds of anti-trans bills have been introduced. The few that have become law are laying the groundwork for further discrimination.

Three months into 2023, nearly 300 bills designed to discriminate against transgender people have been introduced in statehouses around the country, according to a tracker from Equality Federation, an LGBTQ rights nonprofit. That is an increase compared to this time in 2022, at which point nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills had been filed, most of them targeting trans people.

A review from the Human Rights Campaign found that fewer than 1 in 10 of last year’s 315 “anti-equality” bills became law. But this essay is not about those bills that die quiet, ignoble deaths. This is about the ones that don’t. This is about the bills that through fearmongering, bullying and shameless lies have made their way into law. This is about the bills that through escalating rhetoric and growing confidence from their sponsors in their political salience are making headway, shifting the debate from what is right for America’s children to what is “wrong” with this country. This is about the bills that will follow suit in the months and years to come. This is about how even as the percentage of these oppressive bills signed into law remains low, the odds for trans people’s future place in our society continue to get worse.

To great applause, Michael Knowles, a Daily Wire commentator, told a CPAC audience last weekend that there “can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing.” He said that for “the good of society, and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology.”

Michael Knowles in Nashville in  2022.
Michael Knowles in Nashville in 2022.Brett Carlsen / Getty Images

As so many have pointed out, there is no “ideology” that is under debate here, beyond whether all people are worthy of respect and equal protection under the law. It is to our country’s shame that so many agree that the answer must be “no.” No, trans Americans don’t deserve the simple courtesy of being seen for who they are, don’t deserve access to the medical care that allows them to see themselves clearly in the mirror.

Conservatives didn’t hide it when they began to zero in on trans people as the greatest moral threat after marriage equality became the law of the land. In trans people, they saw a new pathway to recycle the same lies about grooming and pedophilia, alongside a newfound faux concern for the safety and athletic achievements of cis women and girls.

Their framing has found fertile ground among parents worried for their children, even as they suffocate their happiness, and politicians who would seek to exploit those fears. According to the rules of this new moral panic: Teenagers must be protected from books, websites and any other place or resource that might let them know they aren’t alone in feeling out of sync with their assigned gender; doctors must be blocked from speaking with minors about what they can do about those feelings, even when a parent is sitting next to them throughout the process;  and parents who do the right thing and try to get help for their children must be investigated for abuse.

There is no “ideology” that is under debate here, beyond whether all people are worthy of respect and equal protection under the law.

This is the environment in which governors in Utah, South Dakota, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas and Tennessee have banned gender-affirming care for minors. It is the environment that has led to 18 state passing laws that ban trans students from playing school sports on the teams that align with their gender identities.

The environment is so toxic that the simple act of wearing fabulous makeup and reading a book to a child has been mischaracterized as a nefarious recruitment drive. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee last week signed into law a bill that categorizes “male or female impersonators” as “adult cabaret entertainment” and bars their appearance on public property or anywhere they can be seen by minors.

Now that miasma of sanctimonious discrimination has wafted its way into the U.S. House. Later this week, the Committee on Education and the Workforce will mark-up H.R. 734, the supposed “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act of 2023.” It is a short bill, one that would sanction any recipient of federal education funding that “operates, sponsors, or facilitates athletic programs or activities to permit a person whose sex is male to participate in an athletic program or activity that is designated for women or girls.”

H.R. 734 may win over a majority of the Republican-controlled committee. It may even be voted on and approved by the full House. It will not become law, not with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House. But it is a marker placed down that this issue will not go away.

Proponents of these bills sometimes insist that they are narrow in scope and wide-reaching in their positive impact. Tell that to a drag queen walking to a gig in Nashville who may be stopped and fined under Tennessee’s new law. Tell that to the teacher fearful for their job should they call a teen by the correct pronouns. Tell that to the student being shunned for wanting to play baseball instead of softball. Tell that to the teenager forced to live with gender dysphoria even as the wrongness they feel inside eats away at them.

And tell that to the legislators who are already moving to the next phase of the anti-trans project. Lawmakers in at least five states have introduced bills that would limit, restrict or outright ban transition-related care for adults. Tennessee is debating a bill that would block any public funding from going toward insurance companies that cover such care. The Oklahoma House approved a bill last month that would prohibit insurance companies from covering any aspect of gender-affirming care, no matter how old the person.

Knowles’ CPAC speech made it crystal clear that the fight against trans rights has never been about protecting children or protecting women who play sports. It’s about no longer being “forced” to see transgender people living full and happy lives. The goal is legislating transgender people out of the public sphere, and there’s a fierce competition among Republicans to see who can best deliver on that goal.

The gap between the vanguard at CPAC and Republican lawmakers pushing anti-trans bills is shrinking. What were fringe issues are now front and center in the Republican Party. The number of bills that target trans people’s very existence is bound to increase as long as the Republicans who write them keep winning applause. It doesn’t matter few will likely become law. The ones that do will become a new baseline for those that come after to weave the hatred of trans people deeper and deeper into the fabric of American society.