The 2021 Legislative Session: Takeaways and What’s Next

By Shane Stahl • July 11, 2021 • 8:46 am

This year’s legislative session was unlike any other. Anti-LGBTQ bills were filed in 36 states, the majority of which sought to single out transgender kids for discrimination as part of a coordinated and calculated effort. In total, 139 anti-LGBTQ bills were filed, with 121 of those specifically being anti-transgender. Although many of these bills did not make it through the process, unfortunately 17 bills in 8 states were signed by governors. Here, we’ll provide an overview of the session, break down the numbers, and explain how we continue to fight for all LGBTQ people to be protected from discrimination.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Currently, the state of Texas is holding a special legislative session to consider bills that did not move in time to be debated or considered before the regular session ended. Other states like Ohio have year-round sessions, so there is potential for more anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ bills to be filed.]

Transgender Kids Are Under Attack

An already vulnerable population, transgender kids face discrimination at a higher rate than their non-transgender peers. The last thing anyone should be trying to do is further discriminate against them, but that’s just what lawmakers did this session, focusing mainly on two areas: medical care and sports.

The former were efforts to prevent transgender kids from receiving best-practice, compassionate care—care that groups like the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Endocrine Society say is necessary and lifesaving. When transgender kids have access to such care, rates of destructive behaviors such as self-harm and suicide drop dramatically, and things such as school attendance and GPA trend upward. Medical care bans that make it outright impossible for transgender youth to access basic care run counter to our values as Americans, including the right to live freely and be treated with dignity and respect.

The latter became a cultural flashpoint this year, similar to what we saw in the mid-to-late 2010’s around so-called “bathroom bills.” An all-out assault on the ability of transgender kids to play sports and have the same opportunities as their non-transgender peers swept the country this year, with anti-transgender lawmakers stoking unfounded fears about non-existent problems. In fact, when pressed to give examples of such problems, lawmakers couldn’t name any. Half of U.S. state high school athletic associations already have policies in place that allow transgender students to play, and those policies are working.

Not every bill that made it to a governor’s desk received a signature, though. In Kansas and North Dakota, those governors (including a Republican) vetoed anti-transgender sports bills. In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed a medical care ban after citing conversations he’d had with transgender youth and their families, although the legislature there ultimately overrode the veto.

Several legal challenges have been posed to these bills—specifically, the Arkansas medical care ban and the West Virginia athlete ban.

Anti-transgender bills passed this year, by the numbers:

  • Medical Care Bans: 2 (Arkansas, Tennessee)
  • Sports Bans: 8 (Alabama, Arkansas [2x], Florida, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia)
  • NOTE: South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem issued two Executive Orders banning transgender kids from playing sports.

More Anti-LGBTQ Bills Reared Their Head

Apart from specific anti-transgender bills, legislation seeking to discriminate against the LGBTQ community as a whole also moved through statehouses. The most common type of this category of bills are known as “conscience bills,” meaning that they seek to allow discrimination against LGBTQ people by those who claim a religious or moral exemption. This means that a business could turn away a transgender person, or an EMT could refuse to treat a gay person.

These bills are dangerous and specifically target the LGBTQ community for discrimination. Religious freedom is one of our country’s most important tenets—that’s why it’s enshrined in the Constitution—but religious beliefs should never be used to allow discrimination against another person. We can prevent discrimination AND protect religious freedom at the same time.

Other bad bills passed this year included a so-called “bathroom bill” affecting transgender kids in Tennessee and a bill making it harder for transgender people to correct their birth certificates in Montana. Additionally in Tennessee, a bill was passed that would require businesses to post signage indicating whether or not they would allow transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity—but was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Anti-LGBTQ bills passed this year by the numbers

  • “Conscience” bills: 3 (Arkansas [medical care-specific], Montana, South Dakota)
  • “Bathroom” bills: 1 (Tennessee)
  • Birth certificate bills: 1 (Montana)
  • NOTE: Ohio lawmakers amended the state’s budget with language that allows medical providers to turn people away on the basis of a religious or moral exemption. Governor Mike Dewine signed the bill into law.

The Bottom Line: We Need to Pass the Equality Act

The Equality Act would update federal law to include strong and comprehensive LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. Right now, there are still 29 states where LGBTQ people aren’t fully protected from discrimination. This confusing patchwork leaves millions of LGBTQ people vulnerable to discrimination and makes it difficult for all LGBTQ people to figure out when and where we and our families are protected.

The Equality Act is common-sense legislation with strong bipartisan support—76% of all Americans agree it’s time to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. This includes majorities in every political party and religion. Groups from faith leaders to big business to veterans also show strong support for the Equality Act. The bill passed in the House earlier this year in a bipartisan victory and the Senate held a historic hearing on it in March. Senate Majority Leader Schumer has indicated his commitment to working across the aisle to getting it passed and sent to President Biden, who has expressed his eagerness to sign it into law. As this year’s legislative sessions have shown us, discrimination is real and pervasive. The need for protections is urgent. And poll after poll shows the American people are ready.

Taking action is simple and less than three minutes: Visit our #Act4Equality Action Center to call, tweet, and email your Senators and tell them that after five decades of work, it’s time to pass the Equality Act and protect all LGBTQ people from discrimination.

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