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Transgender bills spark new corporate backlash against states

Transgender bills spark new corporate backlash against states
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The fight between major U.S. companies and Republican-led states is expanding beyond voting laws to include legislation targeting transgender people.

Legislatures in states such as Texas, Missouri and Tennessee are considering measures that would place restrictions on transgender people, sparking opposition from Amazon, IBM, Marriott and other corporations.

The companies are getting out in front of such bills after public criticism that they didn’t condemn Georgia’s controversial voting law until it was enacted. But their involvement is likely to elicit more blowback from Republicans, who say corporate America should not play an active role in politics.

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More than 70 major companies have opposed state legislation targeting transgender people, including AT&T, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Uber and Verizon. Those same companies have signed a statement from the Human Rights Campaign against anti-LGBTQ bills.

“The view behind the curtain for executives right now is some of them are LGBTQ themselves, some of them are parents or brothers and sisters of an LGBTQ person, and they have a deep personal investment in LGBTQ equality,” said Deena Fidas, managing director of Out & Equal, an organization focused on LGBTQ workplace equality.

“But they also are looking strategically and with the business mindset that if we want to expand operations in Texas, this is now a barrier,” she added, referring to bills making their way through the state legislature in Austin.

One of those bills would consider transition care as child abuse, and one would prohibit transgender student athletes from participating on sports teams outside of what the legislation calls their biological sex.

“It’s an attack not only on fundamental fairness and basic rights, it’s also an attack on strategic business initiatives,” Fidas said.

The Human Rights Campaign says there are more than 120 bills it considers anti-transgender making their way through state legislatures. The group says 66 of those would “ban transgender girls and women from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.”

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Montana in January became the first state to pass a bill barring transgender athletes from playing on certain sports teams. 

More than 40 corporations and chambers of commerce have signed on to a letter opposing efforts to exclude transgender youth “from full participation in their communities.”

“Such legislation would send a message that is at odds with the Texas we know, and with our own efforts to attract and retain the best talent and to compete for business. We will continue to oppose any unnecessary, divisive measures that would damage Texas’ reputation and make customers, our visitors, and our employees and their families feel unwelcome or unsafe,” the companies wrote.

American Airlines, which is based in Texas, signed on, along with companies like Apple and Amazon that are headquartered on the West Coast.

“Equity and inclusion are core values critical to the success of our company, and laws that create unequal treatment are not only bad policy, but are also bad for business,” said Molly Wilkinson, vice president of regulatory affairs, at American Airlines.

Some company executives have voiced their opposition directly to state lawmakers.

Erik Day, senior vice president of small business at Dell, testified last month before the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee to oppose Senate bill 29, which would prohibit transgender student athletes from participating in grade school and high school teams opposite of their biological sex.

“One thing we’ve learned over the past several years, especially in a very tight market for talent, is that we have to think of the 360-degree, full life of our team members and their families. If they feel safe and included at work, but their spouse or their kids don’t feel safe and included in their daily lives, it takes an enormous toll on our team members,” Day said in his testimony.

He added that the legislation would single out some children of company employees.

“These are just kids. They pose no threat to anyone. It pains me to have to even say that. They’re just kids, and I’d ask you to let them be kids,” he told legislators.

Technology companies have been some of the most vocal in their opposition.

TechNet, an industry group composed of Silicon Valley CEOs, sent letters opposing bills in Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia and gave testimony in opposition to a Texas bill.

“In addition to hurting business, discriminatory legislation also negatively impacts our members’ ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest employees,” said David Edmonson, TechNet’s vice president of state policy and government affairs.

“Talented workers can pick and choose where they want to live and who they want to work for. They make their choice based on a number of factors including increasingly choosing communities and companies that value inclusion, opportunity, and the safety of workers and their families,” Edmonson said.

Still, many GOP-led states are moving forward with legislation. The Oklahoma state House on Tuesday passed a bill that would ban transgender girls and women from participating in sports, from elementary school to post-secondary level.

“Without a doubt, this discriminatory bill will harm transgender kids. It singles out children who are just trying to learn important skills of teamwork, sportsmanship, and competition in a healthy environment,” Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said in a statement.

Fidas said states risk creating an unfriendly business environment, and one where some employees are fearful for the safety and well-being of their kids.

“These bills, even the threat of the bills, represent a great level of emotional and energy tax on parents of LGBTQ kids,” Fidas said. “You have parents who are petrified right now about the future of their children. You can then imagine as a family, they may have to make a decision to get another job or leave the state.”

“It’s an attack not only on fundamental fairness and basic rights, it’s also an attack on strategic business initiatives,” she added.