'They're ringing the alarms for us by saying the quiet part out loud,' said Cathryn Oakley of the Human Rights Campaign.
In recent years, national right-wing anti-LGBTQ groups have helped shape and support state legislative bills that regulate how LGBTQ people can be discussed in schools, bar trans people from playing on the sports team of their gender, and restrict gender-affirming medical care for trans minors. Such political attacks are ramping up, those who study the anti-LGBTQ right say.
Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill into law in 2021 that requires parental notification prior to the mention of sex education content in the classroom and for school events about sexuality, including topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity. It lets parents know that they can withdraw their child from any such events. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, also a Republican, approved a similar bill last year.
Several bills that target LGBTQ people have already been signed into law by Republican governors this year.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in March that bars discussion of any subject related to gender identity or sexual orientation in the classroom from kindergarten through the third grade. In a lawsuit brought against DeSantis in April the LGBTQ rights groups Equality Florida and Family Equality called the law a "grave abuse of power."
In March, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed both a trans sports ban and a ban on the provision of gender-affirming surgery to minors, despite the fact that such procedures are rarely provided to kids under age 18.
Republican governors in South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Iowa also approved trans sports bans this year, while a bill prohibiting trans kids from using the appropriate bathrooms and locker rooms in schools advanced in the Alabama Senate on April 5 after having passed in the House.
In 2018, state lawmakers introduced 41 anti-LGBTQ bills across the country; in 2022, they've filed at least 238 in 2022 so far, according to NBC News, which used data from Freedom for All Americans and the American Civil Liberties Union. The percentage of those bills that target transgender people specifically went up from 22% of 2019's anti-LGBTQ bills to 80% in 2021. Although the percentage of anti-trans bills dipped in 2022, they still make up 65%.
The anti-LGBTQ groups that have shaped policy
State legislative efforts against LGBTQ rights are supported by major national groups, including the Family Policy Alliance, the Heritage Foundation, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, which formed a coalition called Promise to America's Children last year. The group supports many of the so-called parental rights efforts aimed at curtailing the mention of LGBTQ people and issues in the classroom.
The coalition focuses on three areas: regulating school curriculums, which it calls "Protecting children's minds"; banning sports participation and bathroom use by trans students as well as gender-affirming medical care, which it calls "Protecting children's bodies"; and ensuring that adoption and foster agencies are able to discriminate against parents on religious grounds, and that a child's parents are informed of any information regarding that child's sexual identity or activity, which it calls "Protecting children's relationships with their parents." Within the third category, the coalition's website says, "Children should not be removed from their parents over disagreements between their parents and the state about sexual orientation/gender identity counseling, therapy, or medical procedures," presumably including "conversion therapy," a harmful and discredited range of "treatments" that are intended to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity; the Family Policy Alliance and other coalition partners have supported it and opposed state bans on it.
This year, the Alliance Defending Freedom's senior counsel, Matt Sharp, testified several times in legislatures across the country in favor of anti-trans bills. Sharp advocated for a gender-affirming medical care ban bill in Florida and trans sports bans in Indiana and South Dakota in January.
In February, Sharp testified before the Kentucky House Education Committee in support of a sports ban bill and before the South Carolina House Judiciary Special Laws Subcommittee in favor of a bill "to authorize medical practitioners, health care institutions, and health care payers not to participate in health care services that violate the practitioner's or entity's conscience and to protect these individuals and entities from civil, criminal, or administrative liability and from discrimination for exercising their person right of conscience."
Republicans lawmakers have credited the Alliance Defending Freedom with influencing and assisting with the creation of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
The American College of Pediatricians, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center designates a "fringe anti-LGBTQ hate group," and the American Principles Project are among the 20 organizations listed among the coalition's national partners.
The American Principles Project in particular has had a prominent role in furthering anti-trans narratives for the past few years. In 2020, Terry Schilling, the executive director of the conservative think tank, told Tucker Carlson about the importance of using transgender people as a way for the right to win political campaigns: "We need to push the Republican Party to run hard on these issues because there's no losing this whatsoever." In 2019, Schilling said of the right-wing focus on subjects such as transgender rights, "What we're doing is trying to show Republicans how to win on these key issues.
Now Schilling and his organization are focused on the midterms. According to the Hill, the American Principles Project has raised $6 million to run election campaign ads centered on LGBTQ issues. He has also claimed credit for the Texas Department of Family Protective Services' investigations of Texas families after Attorney General Ken Paxton said that gender-affirming care was child abuse and Gov. Greg Abbott directed the department to investigate parents helping their kids access it. Schilling told Steve Bannon in February that with the support of Bannon's podcast audience, the think tank had raised $750,000 to "put pressure on [Abbott] right before the election. It wasn't a coincidence that he did this."
Michelle Cretella, the president of the American College of Pediatricians, which HRC named "a hate group masquerading as a pediatric organization," has opposed state "conversion therapy bans" and called the affirmation of trans kids' gender "institutionalized child abuse" in 2018 at the Values Voter Summit.
When Arizona lawmakers held a hearing in February on a medical care ban, the sponsor of the bill, and state Rep. Gary Click (R) said that the American College of Pediatricians agreed with his stance, Rep. Beth Liston (D) gave the lawmakers a clarification: "The American College of Pediatricians is a socially conservative advocacy group of one to two hundred pediatricians, as opposed to the American Association of Pediatrics, the AAP, which is the professional organization of tens of thousands of pediatricians for whom gender-affirming care is the standard of care."
The role of right-wing media in spreading anti-LGBTQ narratives
Observers note the influence of right-wing media outlets on the attitudes of their audiences toward LGBTQ people. A Human Rights Campaign analysis of interviews with more than 4,000 adults in May 2021 gauged their attitudes toward transgender people in correlation with their consumption of right-wing media sources, specified as One America News, Fox News, Breitbart/LifeSite/The Daily Wire, and Newsmax. It concluded, "Right-leaning sources in particular contribute to negative public perceptions about trans and non-binary people. News and media that are not right-leaning can help many in the public to see that although trans and non-binary people may have different life experiences, they still deserve equal rights."
Media Matters reported in February that Fox News had brought on nine editors who had worked for Republican lawmakers or GOP campaign offices or had had roles in the Trump administration. According to the Daily Beast's reporting in December 2020, the Fox News website "has leaned more into aggregation of conservative culture-war stories and straight write-ups of commentary delivered on opinion shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight and Hannity." Fox News editor Tyler O'Neil, who wrote positively of a form of "conversion therapy" and said he thinks "transgender identity is dangerous" is writing many of the stories covering LGBTQ subjects, according to Media Matters' reporting in April.
"I don't think that's a coincidence now that there's been a groundswell and a reactionary push following that centering of anti-trans discourse on the right," said Raven Hodges, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
What we can expect in the future
Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, said the anti-LGBTQ right is becoming more and more openly transphobic and homophobic and is pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in both legislation and rhetoric.
"These people do not have anything in mind except animus against the LGBTQ community, and their goal is to advocate for anything that will pull back on equality, anything that will hurt approval of LGBTQ people, and that will take away rights for LGBTQ people," Oakley said. "That is their goal, and each of these steps is just them testing the water and going further and further to see how far they'll be allowed to go before people understand what's happening and fight back."
She added, "They're ringing the alarms for us by saying the quiet part out loud and making it abundantly clear that this was never about sports, that it was not and never was about the safety of trans kids. It is 100% about making it harder for kids to receive medically necessary lifesaving care that they need. It is about ostracizing kids. It's about taking away the support that trans kids have."
Oakley said lawmakers appear to be looking harder at medical care bans this year because they've had so much success with trans sports bans have had such success. She said that it's clear to them that the appetite for more severe anti-trans bills is there.
It's unclear what areas of LGBTQ rights these organizations and GOP lawmakers will attack next. Hodges said he's concerned that the so-called parental rights movement won't end at targeting the rights of trans minors. And in the past, the Alliance Defending Freedom has advocated for anti-sodomy laws in the U.S. and abroad, as the Washington Post reported. When the Post asked the organization further about efforts to criminalize sex for gay and bisexual people, it said the issue should be left to the states to decide.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.