Mar 31, 2023 - Politics & Policy

The forces behind anti-trans bills across the U.S.

Data: Trans Legislation Tracker; Note: Legislation includes introduced bills and resolutions; Texas Legislature meets every other year; Cartogram: Simran Parwani/Axios

The sudden flood of state-level efforts to restrict transgender rights is being fueled by many of the Christian and conservative groups that led the charge against Roe v. Wade.

Why it matters: Groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, the Liberty Counsel and the American Principles Project are behind a multimillion-dollar effort targeting LGBTQ rights through "parents' rights" bills.

  • The groups have provided templates and support for similarly worded bills that seek to ban minors from attending drag shows, prevent trans youths from receiving gender-affirming care, and restrict their participation in high school sports.

What they're saying: The groups say they aim to shape policy based on their theological and conservative beliefs around sex, gender and family.

  • Many Republicans have embraced that agenda, touting a "protect the children" platform for 2024 that targets school policies on gender identity and how racial issues are taught.
  • Travis Weber, the Family Research Council's vice president for policy and government affairs, said Christian activists aren't seeking to impose their beliefs on others — they're fighting against beliefs being imposed on them.
  • "These ideas are presented to their children without their consent," Weber said. "Americans are reacting to what they are seeing, and it's being reflected in some of these laws moving."

The other side: Critics and civil liberties advocates say anti-transgender proposals reflect a narrow, religious worldview on gender and other issues while endangering free speech and non-discriminatory education.

  • "They want to preserve their vision of a white, Christian America (and) they're willing to embrace all sorts of anti-democratic means to protect it," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonpartisan group that examines religion and policy.

State of play: The legislative proposals come at a time when roughly 8 in 10 Americans believe there's some discrimination against transgender people in our society, a 2022 Pew Research Center survey found.

  • The survey also found that most Americans favor laws to protect trans people from discrimination.
  • But the survey also gave a clue why conservative Christians and Republicans have focused on high school athletes in many bills: It said about six in 10 Americans favor requiring transgender athletes to compete on teams that match their sex at birth.

Zoom in: The activist groups' imprint on hundreds of anti-trans bills in legislatures is clear, according to the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center.

  • The groups have provided witnesses, model legislation, and legal support to defend any measures that become law, said R.G. Cravens, senior research analyst with SPLC's Intelligence Project.
  • Arkansas state Rep. Mary Bentley (R) told Axios NW Arkansas reporter Worth Sparkman that she worked with three of the main Christian groups to craft a measure allowing anyone who receives gender-affirming care as a minor to file a malpractice lawsuit for up to 15 years.
  • The bill passed the Arkansas legislature and became law. It's essentially a workaround effort to ban gender-affirming care while a ban the state-imposed previously is tied up in legal challenges.

The activist groups have raised tens of millions of dollars in recent years to fuel their lobbying on abortion and transgender issues as well as their work with state lawmakers.

  • The Alliance Defending Freedom, for example, reported more than $78 million in revenue in 2021, mainly from grants and donations.
  • The Family Research Council also gets most of its money through grants and donations. It changed its IRS status to an "association of churches" in 2020 and no longer is required to file a public tax return, ProPublica reports.

By the numbers: The ACLU is tracking more than 430 bills targeting LGBTQ rights concerning schools, health care and free speech.

  • Trans Legislation Tracker, a data collection website that uses information from different civil rights groups, says it has followed 492 anti-transgender bills in 47 states as of April 2. That's a 2,489% increase since 2015.
  • Roughly 5% of the anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures this year have passed, an Axios review found.

The new laws are mainly in the South and Midwest. They were approved over objections from critics who say the laws are cruel, unconstitutional and could lead to more suicides among transgender youths — whose rates already are 7.6 times higher than other youths.

  • At least 11 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, South Dakota and West Virginia — have enacted laws limiting or banning gender-affirming care for minors.
  • Civil rights activists, the Justice Department and families of transgender children have challenged bans in Arkansas and Alabama.
  • A federal judge has blocked part of an Alabama law that criminalizes gender-affirming medication, pending trial. An upcoming ruling in an Arkansas trial could support or undermine the legal ground on which gender-affirming care laws have been built in several states.

Reality check: Trans youths who choose gender-affirming care usually start with social transition, meaning the young person presents in their preferred gender. They also may begin counseling.

Between the lines: The debate over the anti-trans bills largely involves the conservative groups questioning the widely held views of those medical organizations.

  • Jennifer Bauwens of the Family Research Council told Nebraska lawmakers last month that the medical community's views are "based on consensus, not evidence."
  • The SPLC's Cravens counters that the conservative groups' arguments are based on "pseudo-science."

Go Deeper: Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where host Niala Boodhoo and Russell Contreras discuss the push for anti-trans legislation in America.

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