Last month, Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee signed into law a discriminatory bill to prevent transgender people from using restrooms aligning with their gender identity at any business or place of public accommodation. A few days earlier, Governor Lee signed an anti-transgender student bathroom bill, too. These are the first bathroom bills to be enacted since North Carolina’s notorious HB2 in 2016.
Far from state legislative outliers, these new laws are the latest in a series of unprecedented legislative assaults aimed at trans people that have swept state houses this year, officially making 2021 the worst year for anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation in recent history. With more than 20 new laws so far, the number is more than double what we saw in the past three years combined.
L.G.B.T.Q. Americans — and particularly transgender and nonbinary people — are not simply living in a state of emergency; we are living in many states of imminent danger. The usual calls to action aren’t enough against these threats; we are now firmly in the territory of needing those in positions of authority to actively defy these laws — especially those enforcement agencies and leaders tasked with carrying out the unconstitutional and un-American assaults on the civil rights of millions of L.G.B.T.Q. people.
This is a crucial political fight with big implications for the 2022 elections to control the House, Senate and key governors’ offices. Anti-equality extremists are clearly targeting transgender people again to score political points by demonizing marginalized communities and mischaracterizing movements like Black Lives Matter. They want to convince voters that Democrats are out of the mainstream in their efforts to prioritize the freedom and dignity of all people. Those false arguments have misled voters before, and some conservatives, like former Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina, will think that demonizing marginalized groups as a wedge issue can carry them to the ballot box.
But with seven in 10 voters supporting equality and one in six youth and young adults identifying as L.G.B.T.Q., they will also learn this is a losing approach. And we cannot take anything for granted. We need to take action now to prove the anti-trans arguments are wrong and unjust, and to draw maximum attention to what Republican leaders in these states are trying to do.
Defying the law is a big step, but nothing less than our civil rights are at stake. Which is why we’re taking our fight to the courtroom, challenging anti-trans laws like the one Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed last week. But we also need action from players like the law enforcement agencies tasked with enforcing bathroom bills like Tennessee’s — which requires businesses with “formal or informal” policies of allowing transgender people to use the appropriate restroom to post offensive and humiliating signage. Denying transgender people access to a bathroom consistent with their gender identity isn’t only degrading; it has significant health and safety consequences, especially for trans youth.
L.G.B.T.Q. people need more ally leaders like District Attorney General Glenn Funk of Nashville, who has taken a stand against the Tennessee legislature by refusing to enforce what he calls “hate,” asserting, “I believe every person is welcome and valued in Nashville. Enforcement of transphobic or homophobic laws is contrary to those values.”
Defiant intervention is also needed from those expected to enforce medical care bans for trans people, which simply shock the conscience. This includes laws like those in Arkansas, where legislators have banned critical, gender-affirming medical care for transgender children, and states where lawmakers are seeking to not only label a parent who supports their transgender child’s health care as a “child abuser” but also subject them and their doctors to felony jail time.
Doctors across the country have testified that children living in these states, already facing grave challenges, are being put directly in harm’s way. What’s worse, L.G.B.T.Q. people and their families are being forced to flee their homes and move across state lines to protect themselves and their children — creating a further destabilizing effect on children and families across the country.
Active resistance is needed from administrators within the education system who are tasked with enforcing discriminatory trans sports bans, which isolate and prevent trans students from playing sports on teams consistent with their gender identity. These laws — already enacted this year in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia — and executive orders signed in South Dakota effectively exclude trans youth from sports activities, which takes a devastating toll on the social, physical and emotional health of trans students and further isolates them from their peers.
These bills are searching for problems that don’t exist — there simply is not a sudden population explosion of trans people, nor any sort of demand for special or new rights. This is about fairness and equal treatment. And plainly, this is about blatant and shameful Republican attempts to erase L.G.B.T.Q. people from existence. While legislators advance these bills to score political points, the consequences for the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and particularly transgender people, are destabilizing and dangerous: These bills are helping to fuel a wave of anti-trans violence. So far in 2021, we are on track to exceed the number of trans and gender-nonconforming people murdered in 2020, which was already the deadliest year recorded by the Human Rights Campaign.
Despite a majority of voters in the United States opposing these types of laws — including a majority of Republican voters — extremist legislators continue advancing measures at a breakneck pace. That’s why L.G.B.T.Q. Americans — living under the archaic governance of leaders who have found value in devaluing us — need more than a tweet of support for our community. We need defiant intervention from employers, educators, health care professionals, community leaders and every American who believes in equality.
Let’s remember that this country has enacted and promoted unconstitutional and discriminatory laws before that, for example, legitimized slavery, banned miscegenation and criminalized same-sex relationships — all eventually struck down because of a range of defiant interventions.
Sometimes we have to make uncomfortable decisions because we are pushed to the fringes. We are now at that place. We now need our allies to stand with us — however uncomfortably — and make those hard decisions.
Alphonso David is the president of the Human Rights Campaign.