The volume and speed of anti-LGBTQ+ bills advancing through state legislatures has already defined 2023 as a historically challenging and frightening year, advocates say.
In a new report, the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), which tracks LGBTQ+ policy, describes the current political landscape as a “war against LGBTQ people in America and their very right and ability to openly exist.” It is a culmination of efforts: gender-affirming care bans for trans youth becoming law in states where such bills were previously blocked, growing efforts to restrict how students learn about LGBTQ+ subjects in schools, an increase in dehumanizing rhetoric that could lead to harassment or violence.
“I’ve been working in the movement for 15 years,” said Naomi Goldberg, deputy director and LGBTQ program director at MAP. “To me, this is a different moment. … It is hard to see this as anything but a full-out attack and full-out war on LGBTQ+ people when you look at all of the areas of life, at all of the parts of our communities that are being attacked.”
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the country’s largest LGBTQ+ organization, sounded similar alarm bells earlier in the week. The organization has so far tracked 340 introduced anti-LGBTQ+ bills, including the most anti-transgender bills ever filed that the group has seen.
Those bills include ones that would prohibit students from playing school sports that match their gender identity and bills that would restrict gender-affirming medical care for minors. Over 90 bills targeting medical care for trans youth have been filed so far, according to the HRC’s count. South Dakota and Utah have already signed such bills into law, while states like Tennessee and Mississippi are quickly moving similar bans through their legislatures. Other proposed bills direct school employees to effectively misgender students, mandating that students are referred to with pronouns that match their sex assigned at birth unless a parent intervenes.
“This situation is terrifying. It’s scary and it’s harmful. We know last year was bad. … we anticipate this year being historically bad,” Kelley Robinson, the president of HRC, said on a Tuesday press call with reporters.
Within the past three years, “firsts” in anti-LGBTQ+ bills have piled up, MAP’s analysis finds: the first legislative ban on trans youth playing sports that match their gender identity in Idaho, the first legislative ban on gender-affirming medical care for trans youth in Arkansas, the first state ban on the use of X as a gender marker on identity documents in Oklahoma, and the first “Don’t Say Gay” law passed in 20 years in Florida.
Efforts outside statehouses are another part of what make the current moment unique, per the report — including child abuse investigations ordered by the state of Texas against families seeking gender-affirming care and Florida’s board of medicine moving to restrict such care for trans youth.
Some LGBTQ+ advocates are concerned about the potential for new anti-trans bills to restrict whether families can seek gender-affirming care in other states if their own state bans the care. In Oklahoma, one bill prohibits doctors from making a referral to “any physician or health care professional for gender transition procedures” for patients under 18. The consequences of such a referral would be meted out by the state, which would have jurisdiction over its own doctors. However, since any referrals would have to be for out-of-state care, it still has the potential to limit interstate travel for gender-affirming care, said Logan Casey, senior policy researcher and adviser for MAP, over email.
More bathroom bills, which aim to restrict how trans people are able to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, are filed this year than in previous years, per the Human Rights Campaign’s count — and fewer bills targeting how trans students can participate in sports are being introduced.
Even when the legislation doesn’t become law, it still causes harm, Olivia Hunt, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, stressed during the call. Hunt pointed to a recent poll that found 86 percent of surveyed trans and nonbinary youth said that debates around state laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights for young people negatively impacted their mental health.
“Trans youth are making their way through an already difficult world, where they’re trying to understand who they are … and on that journey, they’re vulnerable, and they deserve the love, respect and support of their communities. Instead, they’re portrayed as someone to be feared, controlled or erased,” Hunt said.
The Biden administration has vocally supported LGBTQ+ rights, directing federal agencies to roll back Trump-era policies that advocates denounced as discriminatory and prioritizing data collection on LGBTQ+ experiences. Goldberg said she wants to see enforcement of federal protections from the Biden administration. Those include the Department of Health and Human Services’ proposed rule to restore protections for gender identity and sexual orientation under the Affordable Care Act, and Title IX protections proposed by the administration that would apply to trans students. Following Biden’s State of the Union address, HRC called on the administration to finalize both of those rules.
“I think it would be great to have more leadership,” Goldberg said.