On stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference last July, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem walked out to the kind of light house music typically heard under B-roll in a Real Housewives franchise. She praised CPAC as a space where she could learn, for example, “the best tips for hairspray” from the TV pillow pusher and Trump hatchet man Mike Lindell. The governor leaned deep and easily into a certain kind of professionalized femininity, in a forest-green dress with three-quarter sleeves, with soft brunette waves to frame her pleas to the audience: to help her “save America” for the sake of her new granddaughter. “Listen, I hate—I hate the world that we are giving her,” Noem told the CPAC crowd. “We prayed in school when I went to school,” she claimed. “We looked at birth certificates and never had a debate over what the person’s sex was.”
So it is no surprise that earlier this month, Noem became the first governor to sign an anti-trans law in 2022, targeting trans student athletes. Several weeks before, the South Dakota governor debuted a reelection ad promoting her leadership when it comes to banning trans girls from girls’ sports, which her campaign aired nationally. The leadership claim itself is thin: South Dakota’s sports ban, Senate Bill 46, is the tenth such bill to pass since 2020, a campaign driven by national Christian right groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, which took up the issue of trans student athletes in its broader mission to roll back recent gains in LGBTQ rights. (ADF’s founder calls it a “legal army, backed by influential conservative donors like the DeVos family and with legal trainers such as Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.) Noem is following their lead, while representing herself as the vanguard of a fight that started long before she signed this bill.
“Transgender youth in South Dakota helped successfully defeat bill after bill for eight years,” reports Kate Sosin at The 19th, “by showing up at the statehouse, introducing themselves to the Republican-dominated General Assembly and stepping up to the mic to testify.” In fact, just last year, Noem had vetoed an anti-trans sports bill, for which she had to defend herself to the likes of Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson. After that pushback, she banned trans girls from girls’ sports by executive order, leaving school boards to make sense of her order and trans kids to deal with the consequences of Noem’s conservative clout chasing, and to anticipate—correctly—that the bill would just be back in 2022. “Trans kids and their well-being were being used as a prop to win back [Noem’s] nationwide base,” as Susan Williams, who heads the South Dakota trans advocacy group Transformation Project, said last year. Trans rights advocates defeated these bills each time they appeared in the state from 2014. Noem’s signature last week is a turning point for their rights, their lives—not hers.
On Tuesday, South Dakota legislators took up another anti-trans bill, SD 1005, barring trans students in public schools from using bathrooms, changing rooms, or other “multi-occupancy” facilities—a classic “bathroom bill”—if those facilities don’t correspond to their sex as assigned at birth. It’s one of a half-dozen or so anti-trans bills getting hearings in state legislatures this week. Alabama, Arizona, and Tennessee lawmakers debated health care bans—which bar trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care and sometimes include criminal penalties for medical providers—and Indiana and Georgia legislatures debated sports bans. “As many trans youth have said today, I should be in school learning,” one young person testified in Arizona on Wednesday. “Instead I’m here today to express how this bill is completely harmful to trans youth.” (That bill failed to make it out of committee, but Arizona leads all other states for anti-trans bills in 2022, with 12 introduced so far.)
As of this week, Freedom for All Americans is tracking anti-trans bills targeting kids in more than a dozen states, including sports bans, health care bans, bathroom bills, as well as other bills barring the use of trans students’ correct pronouns and mandating schools disclose students’ trans identity to their parents. And besides all this, several states are seeking to remove educational content related to LGBTQ people, for instance Florida, where a “don’t say gay” bill advanced out of committee on Tuesday, and Oklahoma, where a bill was introduced to ban books on sexual or gender identity, with penalties for school or library employees who do not remove those books.
What changed in South Dakota this year, to have its first anti-trans bill pass? “In the last two years, anti-trans bills have been filed in so many states,” Libby Skarin, campaigns director at American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, told me this week. “At this point, it’s hard to look at that as anything other than a coordinated nationwide attack on transgender folks.” The compounding series of attacks generates a momentum of sorts—from state legislatures to right-wing media and back again—driving a political moment in which it becomes easier to pass these bills in Republican-led states. “I don’t know that there has been any significant factual change related to the situation on the ground,” Skarin said. “Rather, the environment surrounding the introduction of these bills has changed.”
It’s not difficult to predict what will come next, because the right has been remarkably consistent in recent years in its incremental state-by-state approach. Each year the number of anti-trans measures multiplies, from 79 proposed bills in 2020 to 147 in 2021—of which 13 became law. In Texas, activists defeated more than 40 anti-trans bills across multiple special legislative sessions, with a sports ban passing in the last session in October. Even in states where nearly all the proposed measures failed, they have done real damage.
Just the process of showing up to defend their existence, over and over, as in South Dakota, wore out trans kids and their supportive parents across Texas. Some reported increased harassment at school and in their communities and experiencing heightened stress and thoughts of suicide. Amid this harassment, a gender-affirming care program in Dallas also became a target; it stopped taking on new patients seeking hormone therapy and puberty blockers. In states such as Tennessee—where laws passed requiring signs “warning” the public if trans people were permitted to use mixed-use bathrooms, banning trans kids from sports, and banning their access to trans-affirming health care—advocates reported a surge in calls for help from trans kids. One trans student faced verbal and physical abuse when trying to use school bathrooms in accordance with school policies. (The bathroom signage law has been challenged and temporarily blocked; the sports ban was also challenged.) “This year there are more bills, a gratuitous amount; they’re moving faster, and they’re being prioritized,” ACLU attorney Chase Strangio told The Intercept last week.
These attacks on trans kids should be understood as interconnected with the other fronts in what’s often regarded as a resurgence of right-wing culture war—attempts to ban books, dictate school curricula, and generally align education with the Lost Cause revivalism of today’s Republican Party. A group called Save Texas Kids has railed against both “critical race theory” and “predatory gender fluidity”—and protested the Dallas gender-affirming clinic, pushing a conspiracy theory that puberty blockers were child abuse. It’s not just Maus and the 1619 Project that have been targets of bans, but also books by and about trans and nonbinary people and curricula concerning the existence of trans people, too. Groups like No Left Turn have listed anti-racist books alongside books meant to destigmatize gender nonconformity, and members of Moms for Liberty have harassed school boards in the name of banning books on race, gender, and sexuality from schools.
The crisis facing trans young people in the United States is escalating alongside a deepening assault by the right on freedom in education, voting rights, and democracy in general. With so many ongoing fights, it can leave trans kids feeling as though they are left largely dealing with this one alone, with few allies. The right, meanwhile, has the stamina to see all its multiple and interconnected political causes through. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has taken it all on: passing anti-CRT laws, anti-trans laws, and in January, launching a partnership with an out-of-state Christian college, led by the head of Trump’s 1776 Commission, to open 50 charter schools in Tennessee, part of his effort to ensure Tennessee students are “informed patriots.” Fox News treats trans issues as part of that same slate: Media Matters reports that, with dozens of copycat anti-trans bills pending in multiple states right now, Fox has given more airtime to these bills than all other national TV news outlets combined: One MSNBC show ran three segments totaling nine minutes on the sports bans; Fox aired six segments, including having Noem on for a victory lap after signing the new law.
“I really dislike when people talk about anti-transgender bills as ‘wedge issues’ or a part of the culture wars,” Skarin told me, “and I say that because these bills cause very real and very substantial harm to trans youth, who are actual people and not theoretical conversation topics.” To call this a culture war is significantly to understate its scope and its damage, though the framing is persistent—as with Governor Noem, who, as a political science professor described her in a recent profile, is “setting herself up to be a leading spokesperson on the culture wars,” promoting bills like the anti-trans sports ban in order to increase her profile and reelection odds. But this calculus goes the other way around, too. One reason the right is prevailing in state legislatures is because it has succeeded in defining the fight over trans rights as a culture war. That in turn shapes the prevailing response to these bills from liberals.
“Liberals have tended to see these bills as promoting a straightforward form of irrational discrimination toward trans youth that flouts the expert opinion of major medical organizations,” historian Jules Gill-Peterson, author of Histories of the Transgender Child, has argued. If not that, they have interpreted the bills as “a cruel though also somewhat arbitrary effort to raise funds and appeal to the evangelical base of the Republican Party in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections.” In truth, she wrote, behind these bills “is an attempt to use trans people as a pretext for a broader reformation of civil life and citizenship to advance an authoritarian, Christian state policy on sex and gender.” These bills aren’t meant to win a debate about trans people; they are meant to exclude trans people from public life.
The solutions, then, will not be found on the other side of a culture war. They will take reinvestment from ostensible allies, whether that’s in the Biden administration or in progressive philanthropy—for every $100 spent by foundations in the U.S., “only 4 cents focuses on transgender communities,” according to one recent survey. It will certainly require looking to the leadership of state and local LGBTQ groups who are doing the heavy lifting to hold back these bills, with far fewer resources than national groups. As Gillian Branstetter, a spokesperson for the National Women’s Law Center, told me last summer, trans people “need to be as big a priority amongst our friends as we are amongst our enemies.”