The Republican Culture War on LGBTQ+ Youth

Photo taken by Sharon Kilgannon (@alonglines) on April 9, 2022 at the Trans Rights protest in London

Image Description: Photograph taken at a Trans Rights protest outside Downing Street, London. A protester is wearing a black mask and holding a protest sign that says “TRANS RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS.”

2022 has seen a wave of homophobic and transphobic legislation filed on the state level, with a record-breaking 238 anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed by state lawmakers across the country as of March 9, 2022. To further place this number into context, 2021 saw a total of 191 proposed anti-LGBTQ+ bills and was deemed the “worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks.” A majority of these bills center queer and transgender youth, as well as the discussion of LGBTQ topics in school, using children and public education as the battleground for the Republican party’s culture war talking points. The tracking of these bills can be difficult given their sheer volume and frequently vague language, but there are a few categories and specific pieces of legislation that have been significant in this discourse so far.

The “Parental Rights in Education,” bill, or better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, was signed into law by Florida governor Ron DeSantis on March 28, 2022 and is one of the most explicitly anti-LGBTQ bills proposed as of yet. This law bans the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade classrooms and grants parents the right to sue school districts that do so. Moreover, the passing of “Don’t Say Gay” has sparked a wave of similar bills in at least 15 other states, all of which prohibit the discussion of LGBTQ topics in public schools in varying ways. Already, a lawsuit has been put forth against the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” law, pinpointing its violation of students’ rights to free speech, equal protections, and due process. Further, the bill’s vagueness leaves educators vulnerable to the possibility of retaliation for even mentioning of LGBTQ sexual orientation and gender identity.

Another significant topic of legislation in the wave of anti-LGBTQ bills is the matter of transgender youth in sports, with efforts to prevent trans students from playing on teams that align with their gender identity. Bills like Oklahoma’s “Save Women’s Sport Act”, across at least 15 states, implement a transgender-athlete ban, specifically with language prohibiting transgender girls from playing on women’s sports teams in high school and college. Under the guise of “fairness” in competitive sports, conservatives seek to further ostracize already marginalized transgender students.

Moreover, bills have been proposed which ban gender-affirming care for trans youth. Such bills include Arkansas’ “Save Adolescents From Experimentation” (SAFE) Act, which prohibit transition-related medical care for minors, as well as laws in more than 14 other states that seek to similarly ban gender-affirming care and even enact criminal penalties on medical providers and parents. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive action in February 2022 which empowered the state’s child welfare agency to classify gender-affirming care as felony child abuse. 

Chase Strangio, the Deputy Director for Transgender Justice at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, describes how “It’s important for people to pause and think about what is happening – especially in the health care context – because what we’re seeing is that the state should have the authority to declare a population of people so undesirable that their medical care that they need to survive becomes a crime.”

As encapsulated by trans advocate and press secretary for the National Women’s Law Center Gillian Branstetter, “The authors of these bills and the dark money groups pushing for them do not want it to be possible to be a trans kid in this country.” The blatant bigotry displayed in the proposed bills clearly demonstrates the way in which conservatives will target a marginalized group for talking points and political gain.

The Republican party’s use of culture war talking points is not a new phenomenon in the American political landscape. An example of previous implementation of anti-LGBTQ+ values includes censorship of educational media in schools. Although books are a great source of exposure and awareness for children to understand gender identity and sexuality, over half of the American Library Association’s “Top 10 Most Challenged Books” for the past several years have been so controversial for merely discussing LGBTQ+ content, including a staggering eight of the books on 2019’s list. Censorship of books not only restricts information and violates the freedom of thought and expression, but also perpetuates harmful homophobic rhetoric. By removing these books, Republicans strive to erase meaningful representation and visibility for LGBTQ+ community, as well as further ostracize the community’s youth by marking LGBTQ+ topics as inappropriate discussions for schools to have. 

In addition to LGBTQ+ media censorship, Republicans have made transphobic bathroom bills a significant political talking point in recent years. In 2016, around 36 bills were proposed to prevent transgender students from using school facilities such as their preferred bathroom and locker-room. Although the current status of most of these bills is inactive, North Carolina’s House Bill 2 was passed, successfully barring transgender individuals from using gender identity-aligned facilities. After its implementation in early 2016, it was repealed less than a year later and reintroduced as House Bill 142 as a “compromise,” which ultimately keeps key elements of HB2 by placing facility access in the hands of the legislature. Sections of HB 142 expired on December 1 of 2020, reallocating power to local governments to protect LGBTQ+ accessibility and nondiscrimination rights. Despite these bills not being successfully passed, this continues to be a subject of controversy for Republican politicians, as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton planned to sue the Biden-Harris administration just last year for extending protection of transgender individuals’ gender-aligning facility use. 

With youth and education as their battleground, Republican politicians center their anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric around inadequate “pro-family” and “religious freedom” values. Earlier this year, Virginia Republican Senator Mark Peake confirmed that Senate Bill 177 was created to allow people “the ability to discriminate against people that conflict with their religious beliefs”: in other words, using upholding traditional Christian marriage and family values as an excuse to persecute the LGBTQ+ community. Despite many Republican officials masking their homophobia and transphobia behind the guise of religious freedom, the party’s track record has made it clear that their argument is inconsistent and skewed in the favor of protecting only Christian values. American politicians have a long history of promoting Islamophobia, for example, with Trump’s 2017 Travel Ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In 2021, Representative Ilhan Omar sponsored a house bill to combat Muslim discrimination and was met with the bigoted Islamaphobic remarks of right-wing officials, suggesting Omar’s involvement with terrorist organizations. While conservative politicians attempt to use religious freedom as a reason to challenge LGBTQ+ community values, many of them continue to contribute to selective religion-based discrimination. 

The continued gender and sexuality culture war has a detrimental impact on the next generation of queer youth. The wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is likely to negatively affect the already at-risk community. The 2021 Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health showed that in a sample of about 35,000 individuals, in which almost half were persons of color, 42% of respondents contemplated attempting suicide within the past year and about 94% reported that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health. Republican politicians choose to weaponize queer youth as a means of stirring up culture war, central issue talking points prior to the midterm elections, creating intentional partisanship on LGBTQ+ issues for opportunistic reason to drive their campaigns. 

Even with the Democratic executive control of legislation, state and local governments have a more significant influence over LGBTQ+ legislation. No current federal laws combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals and there are 27 states with no LGBTQ+ Nondiscrimination Protections. The Equality Act is a proposed congressional bill that would federally prohibit sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity based discrimination with regards to education, employment, housing, credit, facility use, federal funding, etc. The H.R.5 bill was proposed in 2021 and as of now has passed the House. In the meantime, it is up to local and state governments to enact policy changes that protect and provide resources for members of the LGBTQ+ community in the midst of this resurfacing culture war.

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