How the anti-LGBTQ war on marriage turned into obsessing about girls in sports

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When they failed to stop marriage equality, anti-LGBTQ groups turned to attacking transgender people.

Anti-LGBTQ groups, including Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Policy Alliance, and Heritage Foundation, have recently increased their focus on assailing transgender young people's access to sports and trans-affirming health care through legislation they're backing across the nation.

The groups' messaging frequently focuses on sports, women's equality, and the protection of children. 

At the forefront of this movement is a coalition backed by the groups, called Promise to America's Children. Its website misgenders transgender girls and says they shouldn't be allowed to compete in sports with cisgender girls. It also provides a form that lawmakers can use to request the coalition's aid in drafting their own legislation.

The coalition builds support for legislation through lies spread by lawmakers and anti-LGBTQ groups about transgender youth, inventing a nonexistent threat to women's and girls' sports.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 71 bills currently making their way through state legislatures are directly aimed against transgender people.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, said he would sign the first of such bills passed in 2021, one that would stop transgender girls from playing on the sports team of their gender.

Although Republican lawmakers introduced many of the bills last year, the pandemic slowed down efforts to enact them. But policy experts say this year there is increased momentum to move them forward.

Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said that there will be a record a number of bills filed that target transgender people this year.

"We are very quickly hurtling towards that goal. It's only March," Oakley said.

Conservatives are now focusing on attacking transgender people, and on issues affecting transgender youth and sports, because their campaigns to block marriage equality failed in recent years, Oakley explained. In early 2015, as Republicans anticipated the likely possibility that the entire United States would have marriage equality, they pushed religious refusal bills, such as Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but faced significant blowback for it, including from states' business communities that worried that such discriminatory laws would drive companies and money away.

Then they looked for the next legislative project and settled on bills policing transgender people's use of bathrooms.

North Carolina's passage of a bathroom bill resulted in financial losses for the state and negative national attention.

After Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature failed to pass a bathroom bill, anti-LGBTQ groups had to turn to something new, Oakley said.

"Once people understood what was happening around these bills and how truly discriminatory they were, they didn't want any part of them anymore," Oakley said. "So then these bills just didn't work. [Anti-LGBTQ groups] tried a bunch of different things in 2018 and 2019, such as mostly smaller religious refusal bills. And then they latched on to this idea of sports and medical care."

In their opposition to transgender rights and advocacy for these bills, Republican lawmakers have claimed that they are simply trying to protect Title IX and prevent cisgender girls from suffering the sexual violence and abuse that they claim the girls face from transgender girls.

The lawmakers' records on women's rights suggest that's not their aim.

In February, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) tweeted that nondiscrimination protections for transgender people "universalizes the notion that biological men who identify as women can compete against women and enter their locker rooms and bathrooms."

But in 2020, Crenshaw was called on to resign for his reported efforts to discredit a fellow military veteran who had said she was sexually assaulted in 2019 at a Veterans Affairs medical center.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler (M-O), who opposed the Equality Act, a federal bill that would clarify and expand nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, said the legislation would "erase decades of progress for women."

In 2013, Hartzler voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which mandates guidelines for the handling of cases of sexual violence and abuse. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) also voted against its renewal; she opposed the Equality Act because, she said, it "threatens spaces where women enjoy privacy."

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ), who is a co-sponsor of a federal bill to ban transgender people from playing on the sports team of their gender, has been a proponent of private school vouchers, which, according to a report released in 2019 by the Center for American Progress, could be used to allow students to "attend private schools that legally discriminate on the basis of sex." 

The anti-LGBTQ movement has long used ideas about the protection of women, family, and children to advance its agenda. In the 1970s and 1980s, conservative evangelical women frequently referred to their status as mothers and religious people as their motivation for public advocacy in favor of what were political goals.

Among the most prominent of these was Anita Bryant, a celebrity whose "Save Our Children" campaign worked against nondiscrimination protections for gay people in Miami. One of Bryant's messages was that gay male teachers were a threat to children; researchers say that framing has continued to be used and has shaped much of the anti-LGBTQ movement's messaging today.

A 2017 analysis of 16 campaigns by the religious right against transgender rights found that transgender children are purposely conflated with transgender adults, sexualized, and presented as potential sexual predators. Recent anti-LGBTQ groups' events, such as one sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, similarly focus on threats to children in the form of "gender ideology."

"I love kids. I am a mom, and it's up to us as adults right now to protect them from these attacks on them," Hartzler said at the Heritage Foundation event.

The framing of transgender children and transgender equality broadly as a threat to women, children, and families can't be untethered from issues of racism, advocates for LGBTQ and women's equality say.

"It's important to note here that more often than not, when they're talking about womanhood, they're talking about white womanhood," said Gillian Branstetter, media manager at the National Women's Law Center. "The role white femininity plays in bolstering white supremacy itself should not go unsaid here. White womanhood is often portrayed as a gated community in constant need of heavy policing."

In a 2020 article on how race and sexuality affect bathroom bills, Tynslei Spence-Mitchell writes, "Anti‐trans bathroom legislation is the bastard child of Jim Crow's bathroom policies, as many of the same ideologies used currently against trans women were used to prevent African American women from using the same bathrooms as white women."

Human Rights Campaign's Oakley said that it is not a coincidence in her mind that the two transgender girl athletes that the anti-LGBTQ movement has focused on, Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, are Black.

"There is definitely an element of racism in addition to sexism and transphobia," she said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.