In 102 anti-trans bills in seven states, the word “transgender” appears just eight times—part of an effort to deny trans kids’ existence even as the legislation affects what they can and cannot do.
This story was originally published by The 19th.
Over three special legislative sessions this year, Texas legislators introduced 47 proposed bills that aimed to restrict transgender kids’ access to sports or gender-affirming care, plus three bills that would block birth certificate updates for minors. The word “transgender” didn’t appear in any of them.
Proponents of the bills in Texas—which brought triple the number of anti-trans bills this year of any other state—also rarely reference trans people during debate, even though the legislation is about what trans kids can and cannot do. Instead, they use language that categorizes trans girls as boys by using sex assigned at birth to define gender identity.
More anti-trans bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2021 than in any previous year on record. The 19th reviewed the text of 102 bills in seven states that were primarily designed to restrict access to sports or gender-affirming care for trans youth, like hormones and puberty blockers, and only seven bills mentioned the word “transgender.” Only eight passed, primarily those focused on sports, although legal battles in several states have barred most from going into effect.
While Texas introduced the most anti-trans legislation in 2021, six other states considered at least seven bills. In Iowa (10 bills) and Montana (seven bills), the word transgender is not mentioned. In Tennessee, 12 bills were introduced, and only one—which would block state-approved textbooks that mention LGBTQ+ people—acknowledges trans people.
In West Virginia (seven bills) and Arkansas (seven bills), the only reference to transgender people is to cite a 2019 study on how gender-affirming treatment affects muscle mass in sports competitions. Missouri is a notable exception: Two failed bills, out of nine in that state, referenced trans men and women.
Lawmakers’ arguments in support of these bills stress that girls must be protected from losing opportunities in sports against “biological men.” That idea displays deep-seated assumptions about gender, as trans women are portrayed as a threat to cisgender girls’ academic and economic opportunities. As this argument has been repeated across the country, trans people and LGBTQ+ advocates tell The 19th that their existence is being called into question.
This approach isn’t new, but advocates say it has evolved in recent years.
In 2017, Texas’ failed bathroom bill did not actually reference transgender people anywhere in the text, though the legislation aimed to keep trans people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity. North Carolina’s infamous 2016 bathroom bill, which was passed and subsequently repealed after the Associated Press predicted it would cost the state more than $3.76 billion in boycotts, also never used the word transgender.
In 2018, residents in Anchorage, Alaska, weighed a similar measure to restrict bathroom access. The question needed 2,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, and the American Civil Liberties Union circulated a competing “decline to sign” in support of trans people.
The ACLU discovered that 150 voters signed both petitions, many unwittingly, they told reporters at LGBTQ+ outlet INTO. That was in part because canvassers for the ballot measure asked questions like: “Do you want men in your little girl’s bathrooms in elementary schools?”
LGBTQ+ advocates say the decision to exclude the word “transgender” in policies that directly shape trans lives has been intentional and strategic.
Scott McCoy, the interim deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, believes that the decision to avoid the word “transgender” as it was done in Alaska’s bathroom bill is partially a tactic to deceive voters.
“They’re totally mixing the issues. When a trans woman uses the women’s room, that’s not a man going into the women’s room,” he said.
“I think it’s a lot more simple than we want to admit,” said Emmett Schelling, executive director for the Transgender Education Network of Texas. “If we refuse to name, or even recognize the existence of something, then … understanding is negated.”
They’re totally mixing the issues. When a trans woman uses the women’s room, that’s not a man going into the women’s room.
By not acknowledging transgender people’s existence in legislation or rhetoric that affects them, Schelling said, proponents of these bills make it impossible for them to also acknowledge potential harms.
“Like, ‘I’m not saying that they’re not happening, I’m actually going a step further and I’m saying, ‘You don’t exist, so it can’t happen.’ There is something deeply disturbing about that,” he said.
While most of the bills in Texas didn’t advance, one that became law, House Bill 25, bans K-12 trans kids from playing in sports that match their gender identity. Republican Rep. Valoree Swanson introduced the bill, and when she was pressed by lawmakers about negative effects the bill could have, she denied that the bill had anything to do with trans youth. It was, she said, not about gender at all but about “biological sex.”
Swanson referred to transgender women as “biological men” in committee hearings and debates throughout the year’s special sessions. She said in an October 14 hearing that Texas’ regulatory body for high school athletics was unable to provide lawmakers with a current count of trans athletes in the state.
During that hearing on the athletic ban, Rep. Mary González, a Democrat, asked Swanson: “So you’re okay with creating an invisibility which we know creates mental harm of people of different gender identities?”
“We don’t want to cause harm to anyone,” Swanson answered. “We want girls to be able to compete fairly. And the only way we can do that is deciding it by biological sex.”
Similar arguments and language choices appear to have an outsized role in conversations about trans issues on social media. On Facebook, the majority of posts and attention to trans issues within the last year was generated from right-leaning news and politics pages, according to a new study by left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters for America.
Within that right-leaning content, words like “biological male,” “women’s sports,” “biological men” and “gender identity” are frequently used to describe trans people—instead of the word transgender. Advocates fear this kind of language drives violent and potentially deadly attacks against trans women of color.
Brennan Suen, Media Matters’ LGBTQ program director and lead researcher for the study, said right-leaning sources dominating content about trans issues on Facebook can spread misinformation that drives people to act.
“They’re creating the ammo to come to legislators,” Suen said.
In Texas, trans and LGBTQ+ advocates say lawmakers were given opportunities to learn about how the bills would affect trans people by groups like the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT) and Equality Texas, which lobby on behalf of trans and LGBTQ+ people.
“It’s not that the lawmakers are uneducated, it’s that they’re banking on their constituents to be uneducated,” said Hillary Moore-Embry, who lives in the Houston area with their family, including their transgender son.
TENT has been reaching out to lawmakers to inform them about trans issues and what kind of policy language they’re using since the state’s bathroom bill was considered, Schelling said.
“Yeah, they don’t want to talk to us,” he said of Republican lawmakers backing the bills. “The ones who are trying to fight [anti-trans bills] are the ones who have primarily been wanting to have that conversation.”
But the lawmakers have heard testimony about the potential effects.
“The only conclusion I can come to is that they are educated. They do know. They refuse to acknowledge the existence of trans people. They refuse to acknowledge the harms they’re doing. But … there’s no way that they can’t know. Unless they were literally sitting through all of these hearings with earplugs in,” Moore-Embry said.
Rev. Remington Johnson, who testified five times this year at the Texas Capitol against anti-trans bills, said voters who aren’t paying close attention wouldn’t know that trans people are at the center of the debate.
“You simply hear, ‘Save women’s sports, save girls’ sports,’” she said. “They’re not saying, ‘We’re against trans people, we’re against trans kids.’ They’re just removing the language entirely.”
Gillian Branstetter, press secretary for the National Women’s Law Center, believes there has been a shift in the way that opponents of trans rights have framed the conversation over the last decade, especially in recent years.
“Increasingly, over the last five years, you’ve begun to see explicitly religious groups like the Family Research Council on the Alliance Defending Freedom talk about biological sex or biological males,” she said.
Branstetter believes the language truly took hold during the Trump administration, when the Health and Human Services in 2018 led an ultimately unsuccessful effort to define gender “as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” The New York Times reported at the time.
That definition, at odds with the American Medical Association, has been seen in anti-trans bills across the country.
Rachel Gonzales, who has testified against anti-trans legislation in Texas over the past five years, often alongside their 11-year-old daughter Libby, said that messaging around this year’s anti-trans bills has evolved since she testified against the state’s bathroom bill in 2017.
“I think they’ve just really effectively reframed their argument in a way that allows people to have these kinds of transphobic perspectives because they’ve removed the word transgender from all of this, so they’re like, oh, no, but it’s really about boys playing girls.”
In 2014, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) released an internal style guide advising against the use of the word “transgender,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which republished the document in 2018 and labels ADF an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group. ADF spokesperson Ellie Wittman said the group no longer uses that style, but did not comment further.
Still, current actions by the organization suggests it has not changed policy with regards to use of “transgender.” A website sponsored by ADF and other groups to generate anti-trans legislation offers “model” policy that avoids the word.
This isn’t a new tactic. During the freedom to marry fight, opponents of marriage for same-sex couples would avoid referring to lesbian, gay and bisexual people as just that, instead describing them as ‘people with same-sex attraction.’
The ADF in part helped kick off the trend of anti-trans legislation. In Idaho, which in 2020 became the first state to enact a ban on trans kids’ sports participation, the lawmaker who spearheaded the bill said the group played a pivotal role in reframing and advancing the legislation.
Idaho Rep. Barbara Ehardt told Imara Jones of Translash Media that when she felt she hit a dead-end when trying to draft the bill, she reached out to ADF.
“Then they decided that they were going to get more serious about this legislation. And then we completely changed it. And this is where you see what, of course, many are using now in these other states,” Ehardt said.
The law was blocked by a federal judge and never went into effect, but Ehardt, a Republican, has said that it provided a model.
“I’ve been pleased to see how many other states this year have followed and many of them using the exact legislation or maybe slight deviations of what we did here in Idaho,” Ehardt told NPR in May.
Although advocates say the rhetoric surrounding these bills has ramped up this year, they also stress that trans people have always been up against erasure.
Kasey Suffredini, CEO for the LGBTQ+ coalition Freedom for All Americans, said anti-LGBTQ+ activists have used the same tactic against lesbian and gay people.
“This isn’t a new tactic,” Suffredini said in a statement. “During the freedom to marry fight, opponents of marriage for same-sex couples would avoid referring to lesbian, gay and bisexual people as just that, instead describing them as ‘people with same-sex attraction.’”
Johnson reflected that beyond legislation, trans people have long faced erasure within their relationships — a nearly universal experience that many trans people face even as that same erasure is being codified by the state.
“None of this is new,” Johnson said. “How many of us are erased, attempted to be erased by our family and our friends and our co-workers and the societies in which we live in? This is a thing that we all face day to day.”