This week, South Dakota became the first state to pass one of many bills proposed nationwide this year that viciously target trans youth. The South Dakota bill, S.B. 46, bans trans girls and women from participating on girls’ and women’s sports teams; it now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, who has long pushed for the exclusion and punishment of trans children to be further inscribed into state law.
“We are ensuring that what we’re seeing all over the country does not happen in South Dakota,” the governor’s chief of staff, Mark Miller, said of S.B. 46. “It’s sort of like terrorism: You want to keep it over there, not let it get to here.” The comparison of transness to terrorism drew rightful censure; it also perfectly encapsulated the fervor with which Republicans are committing to the decimation of trans life, as part of a top-down, highly organized, and profoundly cynical national campaign.
Last year saw a frightening uptick in anti-trans legislation. Legislators in a record 34 states introduced 147 anti-trans bills. This year is already set to see an even more extreme escalation. Anti-trans bills are moving with remarkable speed through statehouses from Arizona to Kentucky to Mississippi to Alaska and beyond. The most troubling would ban all necessary gender-affirming health care for young people, in some cases threatening to remove trans children from gender-affirming homes or, as in a proposed Tennessee bill, charge supportive parents of trans kids and their health care providers with child abuse.
As the swift passing of S.B. 46 makes clear, 2022 brings with it an all-out assault on trans existence in this country; it is the mark of fascist power consolidation to stoke violent moral panic against an already marginalized and highly vulnerable community. (These bills take aim at children!)
“Every year now, there are more bills than the previous year,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Chase Strangio, who has been on the front line of the legal fight against anti-trans laws, told me. “This year there are more bills, a gratuitous amount; they’re moving faster, and they’re being prioritized.”
Republicans in South Dakota have been trying to pass an anti-trans sports ban for seven years, after the state athletic association adopted a policy allowing trans athletes to compete.
“South Dakota has spent SEVEN YEARS working to pass this anti-trans bill. Trans people have had to organize against it for seven years—and now it passes,” Jules Gill-Peterson, author of “Histories of the Transgender Child” and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote on Twitter. “Everyone needs to champion trans kids in progressive coalition. Kids can’t outrun seven relentless years alone.” Gill-Peterson noted that South Dakota is understood as “the laboratory for anti-trans state bills. We are way past the canary in the coal mine moment, but here it is.”
On the same day the South Dakota House passed S.B. 46, it also voted through a bill that would stop trans students from using bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. It speaks to the power of the anti-trans lobby at this moment that we’re seeing bathroom bills returned to the agenda and moving through committees and voting floors at pace. Such bills were the chosen route for model anti-trans legislation conjured by think tanks around 2016 but largely failed to gain purchase.
“The tides keep turning in favor of anti-trans laws and lawmakers.”
The bulwarks of decency that previously held waves of model anti-trans bills at bay have been weakened — targeted by the reactionary right and insufficiently supported by tepid liberals. “The tides keep turning in favor of anti-trans laws and lawmakers,” Strangio said.
In Alabama, lawmakers have refiled a previously unsuccessful felony ban on health care for trans minors. Republicans in Arizona and Kentucky have also proposed health care bans for trans youth, similar to a law passed last year in Arkansas that bans gender-affirming care for trans minors. The ACLU is currently fighting that Arkansas legislation in court, representing four families with trans children, along with two doctors. Further sports bans and bathroom bills abound.
As I’ve previously noted, the rise in this legislation in no way reflects some organic, democratic consensus on the lives of trans people. Recent polls found that the majority of voters, even registered Republicans, think that trans people should be able to live openly and with health care access. The vast majority of medical experts support access to gender-affirming health care for children, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Medicine.
What we’re witnessing, rather, is a contemptuous hate campaign of model legislation written by right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation; Eagle Forum, which was founded by religious right icon Phyllis Schlafly; and the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is a designated hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This fascistic, well-resourced anti-trans campaign continues to force children and their families to prostrate themselves in front of pitiless legislatures and courts in order to be permitted to survive and have access to public life. It should go without saying that even without the legislative assault, trans people — particularly trans people of color — face economic exclusion, disproportionate poverty, police brutality and incarceration, and escalating levels of deadly violence.
When the left does not take up the struggle for trans lives, it plays into right-wing efforts to expand the state’s authoritarian control over life while withdrawing provisions for living — from adequate health care to decent housing. It is unconscionable to know the suffering that trans children and their loved ones will be put through by this wave of legislation and leave them to fight alone.