ON APRIL 26, the Montana House of Representatives voted by an overwhelming margin to bar Representative Zooey Zephyr from the chamber floor. Eight days earlier, Zephyr, the state’s first trans woman lawmaker, had dared to speak out during debate on a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors. Her colleagues, she said, would “see blood on [their] hands”: denying care to trans youth was “tantamount to torture.” The bill nevertheless cleared the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Greg Gianforte, despite a last-minute appeal by Gianforte’s nonbinary son.
The measure is part of a tsunami of anti-LGBTQ legislation that has swept conservative states since 2020. Over four hundred such bills were introduced between January and April of this year alone, including laws to ban drag performances, scrub public school curricula of LGBTQ content, censor books from public libraries, ban gender-affirming care for minors as well as adults, and forcibly de-transition adults. Old staples like bills to exclude trans people from sports and to deny trans people access to bathrooms aligned with their gender identity have also advanced.
The national Democratic Party—self-styled protector of LGBTQ rights since the Obama years—has preferred to keep quiet. Biden’s Department of Education even issued a mendacious “compromise” rule on trans athletes that will effectively allow school districts to bar trans students from certain sports. But at the state level, the glut of legislation has spurred a furious though generally impotent response from Democratic lawmakers. Take Nebraska, where state senator Machaela Cavanaugh filibustered an anti-trans bill for over ten weeks, promising to “burn the session down to the ground.” Her colleague Senator Megan Hunt told GOP legislators, “the bridge is burned. We’re not cool.” Republicans nevertheless muscled the bill—which also bans abortion after twelve weeks—through in mid-May, and the governor signed it shortly thereafter, calling it the “most significant win for social conservatives in a generation.” Hunt, incidentally, is now the subject of an ethics complaint alleging a conflict of interest because her son is trans.
When Zephyr spoke of “blood” on her colleagues’ hands, she was not speaking metaphorically. Studies show that gender-affirming care is associated with dramatically lower rates of depression and suicide among trans people. When the Kentucky legislature voted on a bill to ban all gender-affirming care for minors, including puberty blockers and hormone therapy, state senator Karen Berg rose to speak about her trans son Henry, who had killed himself the year before. The extremist rhetoric coming from the GOP and their far-right allies has spawned a dramatic increase in anti-LGBTQ violence, from the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs last year to armed far-right militias showing up armed at drag events.
It is something of a mystery, though, why the Republican Party continues to double down on transphobia, advancing a platform of book bans and laws that empower officials to inspect children’s genitalia. These laws are unpopular: polls regularly show most Americans oppose them, and fully 91 percent of heterosexual Americans believe queer people should be able to live without facing discrimination, according to a recent poll from GLAAD.
The likeliest explanation, of course, is that it is all just a cynical ploy, culture-war cover for the Republicans’ lack of coherent economic policies. The president of the American Principles Project admitted as much when he recently told the New York Times, “we threw everything at the wall” looking for “an issue that the candidates were comfortable talking about.” Whether or not these laws will prove a successful gambit in the immediate term—and there is already considerable evidence that they won’t (see: the 2022 red wave that wasn’t)—there is reason to hope that they will backfire in the long term. The history of sexuality and gender is littered with violent attempts to regulate human identity and to exterminate those who do not conform. But more often than not, whatever suppression those attempts achieved in the short term, they provided tinder for the flame of reform and revolution. In this view, the rampant transphobia of 2023 may augur not a permanent turn away from LGBTQ rights, but the dawn of a new queer age.