Apr 27, 2022 - News

Tennessee lawmakers target transgender issues

Illustration of the Tennessee State Capitol building with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Legislation targeting transgender issues is quickly advancing as the General Assembly moves to wrap up its session.

Why it matters: Tennessee emerged as a leading force in anti-transgender bills last year, per the Associated Press. Advocates say the action this year suggests that trend will endure.

Driving the news: Republican lawmakers this week passed a bill barring transgender athletes in female college sports. It is headed to Gov. Bill Lee's desk.

  • Lee signed a separate bill last week adding harsh penalties for K-12 schools that allow transgender athletes to compete in sports that align with their gender identity.
  • A third bill still being considered in the state Senate would protect public school teachers from punishment if they purposefully misgender a transgender student.

State of play: Conservatives say the sports-related bills were "setting a level playing field" for athletes. They frame the pronouns bill as an effort to protect school employees' freedom of speech.

  • Democrats and advocacy groups have condemned the measures as discriminatory and constitutionally problematic.
  • House Democrats slammed Republican leadership for squelching debate on the measures.

What they're saying: "It's really not in the best interest of Tennesseans," Rep. Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville) said in a news conference.

  • Dixie called the pronouns bill "bullying at its best" that was "attacking some of our most vulnerable population."

Between the lines: Henry Seaton, a transgender justice advocate with the ACLU of Tennessee, told lawmakers the pronouns bill could create conditions that make trans students anxious, depressed and even suicidal.

  • Seaton tells Axios he faced that kind of anguish when he came out as trans in high school and one teacher refused to teach him.
  • "It's deadly to behave like this," Seaton says. "This could kill children. That's not an exaggeration."

Yes, but: Seaton says several other bills targeting transgender people failed this year.

  • "I'm considering it a win for the most part because some of the most dangerous bills did not advance," he says.

What to watch: With many state lawmakers sailing toward reelection this year, Tennessee Equality Project executive director Chris Sanders tells Axios he expects similar themes to emerge in 2023.

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