Feb 23, 2023 - News

Tennessee bills targeting LGBTQ+ approach passage

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

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Two high-profile Republican bills targeting LGBTQ+ issues in Tennessee are approaching their final hurdle Thursday morning in the General Assembly.

  • One bill would ban gender-affirming care for minors while the other would regulate some drag shows.
  • Both are expected to secure final approval in the House and head to Gov. Bill Lee's desk.

Why it matters: LGBTQ+ advocates say the bills are emblematic of a broader effort.

  • ACLU of Tennessee executive director Kathy Sinback tells Axios this year's legislative session represents "a full-scale attack on trans rights and gender expression."

What they're saying: "There has been an explosion of cruel anti-LGBTQ bills throughout the country, and Tennessee is a major hotspot for this dangerous legislation — specifically regarding trans and nonbinary youth," ACLU-TN transgender justice advocate Henry Seaton said in a statement.

  • "Politicians are coming after basically anything they can: healthcare, sports, drag shows, and even marriage are on the table," Seaton said.
  • "We will continue fighting to ensure that trans people have the same access to public life and opportunities to thrive as other Tennesseans."

The big picture: Many other states are pursuing similar legislation this year, including bills to restrict trans health care and drag shows.

The other side: Republican backers in Tennessee have framed the gender-affirming care ban as an effort to protect children.

  • Lawmakers have similarly said efforts to regulate drag shows aim to prevent children from seeing sexually explicit content.

Critics push back on both points. They say the gender-affirming care ban would in fact imperil some of the state's most vulnerable youth.

  • Major medical associations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, support gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and hormones.
  • Republicans initially launched their efforts based on discussion of transgender surgeries and other care provided for minors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. VUMC has paused the surgeries, which were rare.

Zoom in: During testimony on the bill, opponents said withholding those treatments would inflict psychological distress and could be life-threatening.

  • In a statement, the AAP said transgender youth "have high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use, self-harm and suicide."

Opponents also say that Republicans have mischaracterized drag shows, which do not typically feature nudity.

  • Drag show content varies widely based on the intended audience. Bawdy comedy might be included in an adults-only nightclub, for instance.
  • But other events, like library storytimes, are designed to be family-friendly.

Driving the news: Lawmakers are also pursuing legislation that would stop TennCare from contracting with insurers who cover gender-transitioning care for people of any age.

The ACLU and Lambda Legal are preparing to sue if the gender-affirming care ban becomes law.

  • Sinback says challenges have successfully blocked similar laws in other states.

She says her organization will also be watching enforcement of the drag bill, SB 3, which limits where some drag shows can take place.

  • That bill was amended so that it applies narrowly to performances deemed "harmful to minors" according to the state's obscenity law.

Meanwhile: "I am not trying to ban drag shows, and I'm not trying to take away anyone's First Amendment rights," state Sen. Jack Johnson, who sponsored SB 3, told The Washington Post.

  • "But you should be able to take your kids to a public park or library and not be surprised by seeing sexually explicit entertainment taking place."

Yes, but: Sinback says some jurisdictions might apply the law's standard more broadly than others. She pointed to an effort already underway to ban "male or female impersonators" in a Giles County park.

  • "We do believe that it will be enforced in an illegal and biased way, and we will be ready to respond."

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