State Watch

States advance bills targeting transgender youth

Associated Press/Human Rights Campaign/Toby Brusseau
Protestors march near the state capitol against a bill restricting transgender girls from sports teams in Pierre, S.D. on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

GOP legislators in at least eight states this month are moving to advance bills aimed at restricting the rights of transgender young people, including measures to ban trans girls from youth sports and block access to medical care required for transitioning.

The bills up for hearings and votes this week are part of a quickly growing trend of such legislation introduced by conservatives who say they are protecting children and safeguarding women’s sports.

“We will ensure that we have fairness and a level playing field for female athletes here in the state of South Dakota, at the K-12 level and at the university level,” Gov. Kristi Noem (R) said earlier this month, when she signed a bill barring transgender girls and college women from playing in sporting events that match their gender identity.

But trans rights supporters say the measures unduly single out a tiny population that is already at risk of serious mental health problems and more prone to suicidal ideation than others.

The South Dakota bill was the tenth of its kind enacted in recent years, and the first bill targeting trans rights signed so far this year. Similar measures passed state legislative committees in Iowa and Utah on Monday, and in Arizona earlier this month. Indiana legislators will hold a hearing on a sports ban on Wednesday.

Alabama legislators last week advanced a bill that would impose criminal penalties on those who provide gender-affirming medical care for trans youth. This week, a state House committee is set to take up a bill barring trans youth from the bathrooms that conform to their gender identity, similar to an Arizona measure that has been introduced.

“You have an escalation of attacks on trans youth, both in volume and in substance that has been increasing rapidly,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Everything’s escalating all at once.”

At least 123 bills that would restrict transgender rights have been introduced in legislatures in 29 states, according to Freedom for All Americans, a pro-transgender rights group that tracks such legislation.

Many of those bills will die a quiet death in blue states like Washington, Hawaii, Illinois and Maryland — but also in some red states. An Arizona measure to block gender-affirming care for transgender youth died in committee last week when a Republican state senator voted with Democrats to block it. State Sen. Tyler Pace (R) said he had been moved by the stories of transgender youth who wanted to maintain access to the care.

Republican legislators backing the measures say they are also hearing from constituents, those who see sports bans, especially, as top priorities.

“I’m stunned how often this issue is brought up to me. It’s probably one of the most highly talked-about issues whether you’re at an event or just back in our home districts,” Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley (R) told reporters last week.

Attention to trans athletes participating in sporting events has risen among conservatives since right-wing cable news outlets repeatedly brought up Lia Thomas, a transgender athlete on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swim team.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R), who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, featured Thomas in a campaign advertisement unveiled on Monday.

“I ran and coached girl’s track, and I won’t look away while woke liberals destroy women’s sports. Women’s sports are for women, not men pretending to be women,” Hartzler says in the ad, which features images of Thomas both before and after she transitioned.

The initial push to target transgender youth, a North Carolina measure meant to bar them from the bathroom that conformed to their gender identity passed in March 2016, was met with a ferocious response from sports leagues like the NCAA and the NBA as well as corporations that opposed its implementation.

But now, amid a tide of similar bills and other legislation targeting trans youth more broadly, trans rights activists say they are having trouble maintaining the sort of pressure on corporations and sports leagues, simply because there are so many states considering new measures. Legislatures considered at least 122 measures that would have limited the rights of transgender people in 2021, according to a tally maintained by the American Civil Liberties Union. Thirteen of those bills were signed by Republican governors in Montana, West Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama.

“You have a very different climate for organizing, both organizing individuals and organizing interests,” Strangio said. “We’re killing a lot of the bills, it’s just that there’s hundreds of them.”

Tags Kristi Noem Vicky Hartzler

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