NASHVILLE, TENN. — There was a lot of screaming and shouting at the Rally to End Child Mutilation, hosted in October 2022 in Nashville, Tenn., by right-wing podcaster Matt Walsh, who has said he would “rather be dead” than have a transgender child. Compared with the noisy attendees, the Proud Boys were relatively quiet. Escorted by police amid a crowd of hundreds outside the Tennessee state house, the black-and-yellow-clad men stood arms akimbo, their tactical cargo pants bloused over their boots, their silent presence an implied threat of enforcement for what the rest of the rally’s speakers said.
Walsh’s rally was stacked with legislators, media spokespeople and policy advocates. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who had already sponsored two federal bills to curtail access to gender-affirming care for trans youth, headlined the event by urging the crowd to vote Republican, so more bans could be passed. A who’s who of anti-trans figures followed, including Tulsi Gabbard, Christian Right power couple Robby and Landon Starbuck, two anti-trans activists (one of whom is himself trans) and several Tennessee politicians vowing to pass their own state ban. This March, they did.
Standing under that bright October sky, hearing politician after politician promise to legislate transgender and nonbinary people out of the public sphere, perhaps I should have anticipated the tsunami of legislation that would come just a few months later. At the time, 2022 had been the worst year yet for anti-trans laws. But 2023 smashed previous records. Legislators across the country, buoyed by Christian Right white papers, model legislation and moral panics, introduced more than 400 anti-trans bills, dozens of which became law.
As of the end of this year’s state legislative session, 22 states have passed bans on gender-affirming medical or surgical care for transgender and nonbinary minors. Most of these bans, like Tennessee’s, face court challenges. In the meantime, many of them (including Tennessee’s) have taken effect. Five states have passed legislation making it a felony to provide gender-affirming care to trans youth. Nationwide, at least 70 clinics that provided gender-affirming care have closed since 2021.
These laws target youth from every angle. Nine states now have “bathroom bills,” prohibiting transgender and nonbinary students from accessing appropriate restrooms at school; 23 now ban trans and nonbinary students from playing sports with teams that match their gender identity; and five require teachers and school staff to out transgender and nonbinary students to their families or caregivers, even when that could be dangerous.
Disinformation has played a major role in the passage of these dozens of new laws. In 2022, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration published a report justifying its decision to end Medicaid coverage of gender-affirming care for adult transgender Floridians (although it was later ruled unlawful and unconstitutional). The report made such inaccurate claims that the Yale School of Medicine said it “blatantly violates the basic tenets of scientific inquiry.” An evolutionary biologist spoke at the Nashville rally, sowing doubt against the medical establishment, which has repeatedly affirmed the need for gender-affirming care.
Disinformation has also played a broader role in how the public perceives the issue, leading many to routinely overestimate the size of the U.S. trans population by wide margins — in one study, the popular opinion was that trans people compose 21% of the country, far greater than the roughly 0.6% of people over 13 who actually do. That sort of overestimation of a minority group has been shown to lead to targeting, but the attacks don’t stop with just the singled out group. Just by the numbers, there are far more cisgender girl athletes who don’t perfectly conform to gender stereotypes than there are transgender and nonbinary athletes. Who will be targeted by Idaho’s new law, for instance, that gives students $5,000 “for each instance” where they’ve “encountered a person of the opposite sex while accessing a public school restroom”? We’ve already seen the answer to that, in the repeated reports of cisgender women across the world being harassed in public places for not conforming to what a stranger thinks women should look like.
Anti-trans disinformation has also fueled the rise of organized and interpersonal violence against the LGBTQ community at large and against transgender people — Black transgender women most especially. The presence of the Proud Boys in Nashville was a chilling reminder of the growing attacks on children’s story hours and other LGBTQ events.
While transgender people are the clear targets of this wave of legislation, the ramifications spread far beyond, so that at least seven states now prohibit mention of all LGBTQ people in some level of school curricula. This September, in an overzealous attempt to comply with Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law — which now bans classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity from pre-K through eighth grade — one county directed all schools in its district to remove every book with LGBTQ characters from library and classroom shelves.
“These characters and themes cannot exist” in books available to students, Charlotte County Public Schools officials told district librarians in prohibiting even books students bring in themselves and which contain no explicit content.
While the 2023 legislative session was bleak, 2024 promises more, and worse, bills to come.
I’m reminded that attacks on any one of us — whatever marginalized group is targeted first — never end with us alone.
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Heron Greenesmith is a policy attorney for the LGBTQIA community.