Over the past three years, Republican state lawmakers have put forward a barrage of bills to regulate the lives of transgender youths, restricting the sports teams they can play on, bathrooms they can use and medical care they can receive.
But even by those standards, the start of the 2023 legislative season stands out for the aggressiveness with which lawmakers are pushing into new territory.
The bills they have proposed — more than 150 in at least 25 states — include bans on transition care into young adulthood; restrictions on drag shows using definitions that could broadly encompass performances by transgender people; measures that would prevent teachers in many cases from using names or pronouns matching students’ gender identities; and requirements that schools out transgender students to their parents.
The flood of legislation is part of a long-term campaign by national groups that see transgender rights as an issue on which they can harness voter anger — as with the campaigns against remote learning and critical race theory that reshaped many school boards and lifted Republicans in Virginia’s elections in 2021 — though the midterm elections provided little evidence of it.
“This is a political winner,” said Terry Schilling, the president of the conservative American Principles Project, arguing that more voters would have been swayed had many Republicans not “shied away” from the subject.
The potential consequences for transgender people, for whom harassment and threats have become common and suicide rates are high, are profound. Many express a sense that the power of their government is being turned against them as they try to live their lives.
“We have shifted this conversation so incredibly far in the direction of restrictions on trans people’s autonomy and rights in a way that was completely unfathomable to many of us even just three or four years ago,” said Chase Strangio, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Legislation in Oklahoma and South Carolina would make it a felony to provide hormonal or surgical transition treatment to transgender people younger than 26 — an uncharted incursion into adults’ health care. Other bills in both states, and in Kansas and Mississippi, would ban such care up to age 21. And bills in more than a dozen states would ban it for minors, which Arkansas was the first to do in 2021, against the consensus of major medical organizations.
A bill in Mississippi — declaring that “separate is not inherently unequal,” an allusion to Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling in which the Supreme Court upheld segregation — would define sex as immutably set at birth, denying transgender identities under state law. A measure in West Virginia would define “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display” as obscene, potentially outlawing transgender people’s presence around children.
Not all, or perhaps even most, of the measures will become law, and those that do may face legal challenges. But as of Tuesday, more than 10 bills had made it through committee, and at least six had passed a full legislative chamber, according to Erin Reed, a legislative researcher.
On Being Transgender in America
She and other transgender advocates said they worried that the most aggressive bills, even if never enacted, could ease the passage of slightly less aggressive bills by making them seem like compromises.
“I really hope that people don’t allow that to happen,” said Ms. Reed, who is transgender. “Because these bills still target trans people who will then have to suffer the consequences.”
The people pushing these laws include Christian conservatives — among them some of the same figures who fought the legalization of gay marriage — and political operatives. They have organized and lobbied through groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Policy Alliance, the Heritage Foundation and the American Principles Project.
Many bills contain nearly identical language, suggesting a common template.
Conservative activists have emphasized parental control and child protection, calling transition care harmful, an assertion rejected by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups. Transgender people have higher rates of depression and suicide, and research shows that transition care — which can involve puberty blockers, hormones or surgery, though minors rarely receive surgery — can improve mental health.
Some activists and politicians also say exposing young people to transgender identities, whether through a book reading by a drag performer or a classroom discussion, “sexualizes” them — an echo of anti-gay campaigns dating to the 1970s, which cast gay people as preying on children.
But the bills arriving in legislatures show a movement expanding beyond what it pitched itself as.
The 25-year-olds who would be unable to receive transition care in Oklahoma and South Carolina are not, after all, children. An Arizona bill would ban drag shows on Sunday mornings whether or not minors were around. (The lawmakers who introduced those bills did not respond to requests for comment.)
Matt Sharp, senior counsel and state government relations national director for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said his group believed “gender ideology attacks the truth that every person is either male or female.”
And Mr. Schilling, of the American Principles Project, confirmed that his organization’s long-term goal was to eliminate transition care. The initial focus on children, he said, was a matter of “going where the consensus is.”
Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, said the bills disproved the notion that protecting children had ever been the motivation.
“It’s not because they don’t think folks can give adequate consent,” she said, pointing also to the bills’ exceptions: The same treatments banned for transgender children would be allowed for intersex children, whose sexual organs, hormones or chromosomes fall on the spectrum between male and female. “They don’t want people to get this care because they don’t think being trans is real.”
Even as bills reach further, many lawmakers still frame their arguments around children.
State Representative Jim Olsen, the sponsor of the Oklahoma ban on transition care up to age 21, said in an interview, “The desire is simply to protect young people from choices that later on in their life can be mentally and physically harmful and some of them will grow to regret.”
Mr. Olsen presented studies from Sweden and the Netherlands as evidence that transition care increased suicide risk, but the lead authors of both studies, Cecilia Dhejne and Henk Asscheman, said this misrepresented their findings. (“The conclusion that cross-sex hormone treatment increases suicide rate is completely wrong,” Dr. Asscheman said.) Told this, Mr. Olsen maintained that his conclusion was “reasonable.”
Even among Republicans, support for aggressive legislation is not universal. When Arkansas passed its ban on transition care for minors in 2021, it did so over the veto of its Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson. Last year, the governors of Utah and Indiana vetoed bills restricting transgender students’ participation in sports.
“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah wrote. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.”
Beyond health care, lawmakers are reaching deeper into transgender people’s lives.
The bill in Mississippi defining sex as immutably set at birth would have implications for, among other things, accommodations from bathrooms to sports teams to prisons.
And in addition to the bill in West Virginia that would define “transvestite and/or transgender exposure” around minors as obscene, bills in at least nine states would restrict drag shows, and some define them very broadly.
One in Nebraska, for instance, would apply to any show whose “main aspect” is “a performer which exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers; and the performer sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.”
State Senator Dave Murman of Nebraska said concerns that his bill’s definition encompassed any performance by a transgender person were “ridiculous” because transgender people “are not engaged in performance just by being transgender.” He did not respond to a follow-up question about transgender comedians or transgender singers.
Advocates said the new bills told transgender people that their identities were debatable, and their rights a political football.
“We want to bring this conversation back to the reality of the people that are being directly affected,” said Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for L.G.B.T.Q. youths. “The rhetoric is vicious and hard to hear, and it filters down. It filters through a constant media cycle on down to dining room tables and family holidays where youth are feeling excluded.”
In a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult for the Trevor Project, 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary youths said debates over state laws had hurt their mental health.
Ms. Oakley of the Human Rights Campaign said this was why she disliked the framing of anti-transgender legislation as a culture war.
“It’s not a war,” she said, “when there are powerful politicians on one side and there are terrified kids on the other.”