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The New Anti-Trans Culture War Hiding in Plain Sight

The right's fixation on trans youth has found its new target: criminalizing doctors who provide puberty blockers and hormones.

Yana Paskova/Getty Images

In October, a little-known state lawmaker from South Dakota attended a one-day event, hosted by the Heritage Foundation, aimed at advancing “conservative solutions to protect children from sexualization in culture, education, and healthcare.” In a newsletter published the following month by South Dakota’s Legislative Research Council, that lawmaker, Republican state Representative Fred Deutsch, said he had brought home an idea from the summit: to “establish legislation to criminalize doctors that provide sex change operations in children.”

At the start of the 2020 legislative session just a few months later, Deutsch introduced a bill that would criminalize doctors for providing medically accepted health care, like puberty blockers and hormones, to transgender patients under the age of 16. After introducing the bill, H.B. 1057, Deutsch said in a release from his office that it was designed to protect children from “dangerous drugs and treatments,” despite medical consensus in support of this kind of care.

The bill was approved by the state House in January but failed to pass out of committee in the state Senate this week. Deutsch told The New Republic that the Senate committee vote “was fully expected” and that he could not say if he would consider introducing similar legislation for next year’s session. “The House passed the bill with an overwhelming majority, 46-23,” he said. “I expect more states will introduce similar legislation, not because of our bill to protect vulnerable children, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

So far, eight other states—Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—have filed versions of the same legislation, each seeking to criminalize doctors for providing trans-affirming health care. They’ve also come to describe these proposals in similar ways: Republican state Representative Shane Sandridge named the bill he introduced in Colorado the “Protect Minors From Mutilation and Sterilization Act,” while Stewart Jones, a state representative in South Carolina, told local media that his bill was designed to “protect children” from being pressured into changing their gender.

Model legislation and recycled talking points aren’t a new trend in the United States (they also aren’t limited to conservatives), but a series of connections among bills like H.B. 1057 reveals the network of organizations and individuals at the heart of the anti-trans policy landscape and culture wars playing out nationally right now. While many pieces of anti-transgender legislation will never become law, the ones that do could have serious implications beyond the LGBTQ community, especially if a court rules that states have the right to legally create anti-discrimination exemptions through legislation.

It is, by and large, a mirror of attempts by right-wing groups to limit access to abortion and gut access to reproductive health care under the guise of “patient safety” and religious freedom. It’s the same basic playbook, a culture war narrative paired with a try-anything-once legislative approach that, if and when it works, will have devastating consequences for all Americans’ basic rights.

The text from these anti-trans bills varies slightly from state to state, but it’s easy enough to spot the borrowed language when they are viewed together. Many of the bills define sex in familiar anti-trans terms as “the biological state of being female or male based on sex organs, chromosomes, and endogenous hormone profiles.” They criminalize prescribing “puberty-blocking medication to stop normal puberty; supraphysiologic doses of testosterone to females; or supraphysiologic doses of estrogen to males.” There are “no mysteries” to how these bills move from well-funded conservative groups into the hands of lawmakers around the country, Heron Greenesmith, a researcher for Political Research Associates, told me. “That’s a direct route for introduction of legislation.”

Still, despite the bills’ similarities, according to Nick Morrow, interim communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, “we’re seeing that some of these bills have marginally different pieces—be it in the language of the law or the enforcement mechanisms.” That would suggest, Morrow said, “a ‘spaghetti at the wall’ approach, to see what type of anti-LGBTQ legislation sticks in certain states.”

The organizations behind the bills aren’t exactly trying to hide that, either: Stephanie Curry, policy manager at Family Policy Alliance, told me that the group “works with legislators all over the country” and confirmed the practice of model legislation, which she said was not a ‘unique practice in any sense’ across the political spectrum. (The Heritage Foundation did not return requests for comment.) The Family Policy Alliance crafts legislation, she added, but “ultimately, it is up to individual legislatures” to decide what approach to take, “whether it is banning such procedures or penalizing doctors.”

Whatever specific shape these anti-trans bills take, there is a coalition of organizations that will show up to support them. In the case of the South Dakota bill, that network included the Transsexual Global Alliance, a small, relatively incoherent organization, as well as the trans-exclusionary radical feminist group the Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF.

Also listed on the H.B. 1057 website was the Kelsey Coalition, another small group that has gained influence in conservative spheres, using op-eds in major newspapers to boost its profile.

Groups like WoLF and state “allies” of the Family Policy Alliance have also submitted amicus briefs in support of Harris Funeral Homes in Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which, as The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant reported earlier this year, is the “first trans civil rights case the Supreme Court [has] ever heard.”

The culture war being spun by these anti-trans organizations also gets a boost from the conservative media ecosystem, which then feeds into the legislative process. Around the same time as the Heritage Foundation’s October event, a case regarding the guardianship of a trans child was making headlines. Luna Younger was caught in the middle of a custody dispute between her parents: Her mother, who affirmed her child’s gender identity, sued for conservatorship from the child’s father, who forced Luna to present as a young boy. After Younger’s mother won the suit, the case was lambasted in conservative circles.

The case caught the eye of Kentucky state Representative Savannah Maddox, who wrote about it on Facebook, saying “this [case] has been in my mind and on my heart for quite a while.” Maddox drafted one of the bills that would criminalize doctors for providing trans patients affirming care.

Anthony Sabatini, a state representative from Florida, told me Younger’s case also played a role in his decision to introduce a similar bill, the language of which he borrowed from his colleagues in the state Senate. That bill is almost identical to South Dakota’s H.B. 1057. “The whole country is talking about it,” Sabatini said. “It went from an issue very few people talked about to being highly covered by the media.” This, of course, wasn’t an accident.

Chase Strangio, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has closely monitored these bills, said that this legislative session is seeing one of the most “aggressive and serious set of attacks” from legislatures on trans people in the five years he’s worked on state-level advocacy. There are bills aiming to criminalize doctors providing care alongside other proposals to prevent trans high schoolers from participating in sports or using the bathrooms that match their gender identity. In combination, these laws represent a direct attack on transgender people’s existence, Strangio said.

“That is so alarming to me—that we could have a set of medical practices that young people need, that medicine supports, that data shows reduces suicidality, and have lawmakers prioritizing bills that would make that very care a crime,” Strangio continued. “That, to me, is an escalation of the rhetoric that we have been seeing.”

Any bill passed will certainly face a legal challenge, but in some ways, that’s also the point. “Legislation is the consolation prize,” Greenesmith of Political Research Associates said. “The true prize is litigation that would enshrine into state or federal law the right to discriminate.”

It’s unclear if the Florida bill will make it out of a House committee or even be put to a vote by a Senate committee, which LGBTQ and civil rights organizations hailed as a victory. Four states—Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—have all levels of state government controlled by Republicans, giving bills there the best chance to be signed into law. If that happens, the laws will almost certainly face legal challenges. And given that the Trump administration has spent the last four years installing conservative judges across the country, that fight will certainly be welcomed.