Anti-LGBTQ legislation is flooding state legislatures as Republicans return to their familiar strategy of demonizing marginalized populations to mobilize their base following recent election losses.
There are more than 200 such bills currently under consideration by state legislatures, according to the Human Rights Campaign. More than ever before, one specific group is the focus of much of the unwanted attention: transgender children. More than half of the anti-LGBTQ bills under consideration directly target the transgender community.
“It’s the most anti-trans legislation ever, and this time around, it is all uniformly directed at children,” Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), told HuffPost.
Sam Brinton, vice president of advocacy and government at The Trevor Project (a crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, which runs a crisis hotline), said it’s clear from the calls they’re receiving that many LGBTQ youth are struggling.
“Compared to pre-COVID crisis contacts, we are, at times, receiving in this last year double that volume of crisis contacts,” they said.
Brinton clarified that the spikes in calls aren’t solely related to politics, but said that the bills are adding more anxiety to an already fraught situation.
Much of the legislation focuses on two areas: barring transgender girls from participating in sports true to their gender identity, and blocking gender-affirming medical treatment and health care for transgender youth.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) made national news last week when he vetoed a bill that would bar doctors from providing medically necessary treatment to transgender children, arguing it amounted to government overreach. The state legislature overrode his veto. Hutchinson had previously signed a bill barring transgender girls from female athletic teams.
Aside from those two categories, there is a quieter effort underway in a few states to proactively protect so-called conversion therapy, which attempts to change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The move is rattling LGBTQ equality advocates, who say it is unprecedented and represents a new tactic on the right.
“This is the first time we’re actually seeing pro-conversion therapy laws be introduced, assigned to committees and get hearings, then passing out of committees,” said Mathew Shurka, a survivor of conversion therapy and a co-founder of NCLR’s Born Perfect campaign, which is dedicated to ending the practice. “That’s never happened before since the movement started with the first law [banning conversion therapy] that was introduced in 2012 in California.”
“The big scary thing is that even these past two weeks, I have had to work with two students who are at risk for being sent to ― and one was sent to ― conversion therapy camps out of state,” said Morgan Allen, center director of the OKEQ health clinic in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “So it is a reality, and where the sports bills are targeting, what I would call this bogeyman idea of an issue where there is not an issue, conversion therapy is real. This is an issue that is actively hurting our children.”
Arizona’s bill is the most serious threat after a state House committee approved SB 1269 in late March. The legislation would bar local governments from banning conversion therapy, which is also known as “change” or “reparative therapy.”
The legislation is sneaky; it never actually uses the words “conversion therapy” or its other names. Instead, it bars local governments from “enacting any measure directing the professional conduct of a health care professional.”
The effects of this bill aren’t just hypothetical. If it becomes law, it would immediately overturn an ordinance in Pima County ― the state’s second-largest county ― that prohibits conversion therapy.
Supporters of the bill, led by sponsor Sen. Vincent Leach (R) ― who did not return a request for comment for this piece ― have been careful to avoid discussion of conversion therapy. During a committee hearing, Leach claimed he knew ”nothing about conversion therapy.”
But Rep. Alma Hernandez (D) pointed out that Leach previously introduced a bill to bar state agencies from taking action against individuals who practice therapy “that is consistent with conscience or religious beliefs.” Testing his claim that the measure was not about conversion therapy, Hernandez challenged Leach to amend the bill so that it wouldn’t overturn local ordinances on the practice. He declined to do so.
For many transgender children, conversion therapy can be deadly.
Last year, The Trevor Project conducted a survey on LGBTQ youth mental health, finding that young people who underwent “conversion therapy had higher rates of suicide attempts than their peers, who are also extremely vulnerable.
Fifty-two percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said they seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Ten percent of LGBTQ youth reported undergoing conversion therapy ― 78% of whom said it happened before they were 18 ― and youth who went through this practice reported attempting suicide at more than twice the rate than those who did not.
“We are constantly hearing about conversion therapy from those we’re serving,” Brinton said.
It’s 20 steps forward, and then now how many steps back will it be before we actually realize what’s happening? Sam Brinton, The Trevor Project
Conversion therapy stems from the once accepted — but now thoroughly discredited — belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can be cured. There is absolutely no scientific evidence backing up this claim. Major medical associations like the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics all oppose the practice. Some therapists and organizations that once promoted the practice have also since disavowed it.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia ban conversion therapy for minors, and the movement to stop the practice has had momentum on its side over the past few years. But the practice has not gone away, and there are now these efforts to protect the practice in law.
“It’s 20 steps forward, and then now how many steps back will it be before we actually realize what’s happening?” Brinton said.
What’s happening at the state level is a reaction to the shift in power at the federal level, where Democrats control Congress and Joe Biden is arguably the most pro-LGBTQ president in history. (He publicly supported marriage equality in 2012 when he was vice president, before President Barack Obama did.)
As journalist Adam Serwer recently noted in The Atlantic, the GOP strategy isn’t just about revving up the base:
“By attacking [the transgender community], the GOP seeks to place Democrats in a political bind,” he wrote. “If they decline to bow to demagoguery, Democrats risk looking either too culturally avant-garde for the comfort of more conservative voters—whose support they need to remain viable—or too preoccupied with defending the rights of a beleaguered minority to pay attention to bread-and-butter issues that matter to the majority.”
In Oklahoma, HB1004 would proactively protect conversion therapy by “permitting mental health providers or religious advisors to engage in sexual orientation change efforts and certain gender dysphoria resolution efforts with children,” according to the language of the legislation.
State Rep. Jim Olsen (R), the sponsor of the bill, has said there “is a threat around the country to this freedom, and we want to stand for this freedom. Parents have the rights to train and to educate their children.”
HB1004 is currently in limbo ― alive, but it hasn’t moved since receiving a committee hearing last summer.
Allen said that even though medical associations have denounced conversion therapy and it’s started to fade from the national debate, it’s still a very real presence lurking in the lives of many LGBTQ teens. She specifically pointed to the role that religious leaders in her state play in continuing the practice.
“Parents are going in good faith to their spiritual advisers and saying, ‘My child says this and I’m scared.’ And instead of hearing that God’s creation is never wrong, there’s nothing wrong with your child, they are hearing, ‘This is a sin and you need to change, and here are the options for how to change,’” she said. “So it’s where the conversations are happening. And the other thing about conversion therapy is that because we know that it is wrong scientifically, the conversations are now more secret, more private,”
Shurka noted that other groups no longer emphasize going from gay to straight, but have rebranded to going from lost to saved ― a troubling message because it could reach teenagers who are struggling to find acceptance, without understanding the true agenda behind these organizations.
Conversion therapy is also real business. Shurka said his parents spent between $30,000 and $35,000 on his conversion therapy in 2004, when he was 16 years old. NCLR talked to another survivor who spent more than $70,000 from a licensed professional for this so-called “therapy.” The organization is tracking more than 2,200 therapists, both licensed and unlicensed, who carry out the practice.
“It’s such a myth that it only happens in certain states or certain parts of the country,” Minter added. “It’s in every single state, and it is in major urban areas as well as more conservative rural areas.”
“How brave and wonderful would it be if [spiritual leaders] just told children ... that God, the divine, loves you as you are? And they created you,” Allen said. “So obviously if it’s love and you’re loving someone else, there’s nothing more heavenly and divine than that. And there’s nothing wrong with you. If you were created that way, there’s nothing wrong.”