Bills targeting the LGBTQ community for discrimination continue to be introduced at record numbers across the country, with 280 proposals alone focused on taking rights away from transgender people. The others are aimed more broadly at stifling discussion of or support for LGBTQ people—particularly youth.
In Wisconsin, there are five bills currently pending before the Legislature that aim to undermine protections for LGBTQ people. They are almost exact copies of legislation popping up in multiple states: The so-called “parent bill of rights” that seeks to take away students’ rights to privacy and gender-affirming environments; the “don’t say gay” bill that would either ban outright or give parents the ability to opt their children out of any discussion of LGBTQ people, issues, or history; a ban on gender-affirming medical care for youth; and laws aimed at banning transgender and non-binary kids from participating on sports teams that affirm their gender identities.
Freedom for All Americans has a comprehensive legislative tracking tool where the onslaught can be viewed in full. It also highlights the similarities between bills, indicating the coordinated effort, backed by some of the usual sources, to roll back or undo entirely the rights of LGBTQ Americans.
“During the 2021–22 Legislative session we have seen the largest wave of anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender/non-binary legislation in recent memory,” says Megin McDonell, Executive Director of Fair Wisconsin. “These bills show a fundamental lack of understanding about the broader LGBTQ+ community and pose significant threats to the mental, social, and physical wellbeing of our community members. Further, these bills are part of a coordinated national effort by opposition groups like Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Policy Alliance to introduce dangerous bills like these in states across the country, with a goal to use our humanity as a wedge issue for political gain in the coming midterm elections.”
A repugnant roll-call
Keeping up with the status of these bills—and opportunities to testify against them—can be a daunting task. That’s almost entirely by design. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill (AB 562 & SB 598) received its first hearing with little more than 24 hours notice and was scheduled in the middle of a school day, making it difficult for those most impacted by the proposed law to testify. That bill was passed in Executive Session in February but as of print time had not yet been scheduled for a full floor vote, though it’s likely to get one before the session ends in late March.
“This bill would muzzle educators and prevent the teaching of LGBTQ+ issues, health care, and history,” noted Brian Juchems, Co-Executive Director of GSAFE, which advocates on behalf of LGBTQ students in Wisconsin. “It would require school districts to inform parents every single time anything related to LGBTQ+ topics is mentioned in the classroom or at school events.”
Parents would then be able to opt their children out of any/all lessons they chose.
A similar bill in Florida has the support of Governor Ron DeSantis and garnered fierce criticism from many, including President Joe Biden, who expressed his support for the LGBTQ community, “especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill.” He vowed to “continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.” Currently, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas have laws on the books that expressly prohibit mention of queer identities or needs in sex education classes. Last year, Tennessee and Montana passed laws that allow parents to opt their children out of discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Florida bill goes a step further, allowing parents to directly sue school districts and seek damages if they believe an educator has broken the law.
SB 915, a ban on medical care for transgender youth, was introduced in the state senate in early February and was referred to the Senate Committee on Human Services, Children and Families. The bill would prevent and prohibit essential, often life-saving care for transgender and non-binary youth. Transgender and non-binary youth below the age of 18 would not be able to receive transition-related care of any kind, including talk-therapy, puberty blockers, hormones, or surgeries.
Language from this bill appears to have been copied nearly word-for-word from an earlier bill passed in Arkansas in 2021 and subsequently slapped down by a federal judge, thanks to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.
The so-called “Parental Rights” bill (AB 963 & SB 962) was introduced late in the session and has so far had a public hearing in the Assembly. It will likely be scheduled for the Senate, as it was authored by Senator Alberta Darling, who is also the chair of the Education Committee. The legislation includes clauses that would give parents the right to determine all medical care for a child unless otherwise specified in law. It would also allow parents to choose the name and pronouns a child uses at school, negating policies like Madison’s that instruct teachers to use the name and pronouns as determined by the student (that policy is currently facing litigation by the right-wing Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which has a long history of filing anti-LGBTQ, anti-diversity lawsuits).
Parental rights bills are cropping up in multiple states:
The final pair of bills (AB 195 & SB 323, and AB 196 & SB 322) target transgender students in public and private K–12 schools and the UW System, seeking to force youth to play on teams that don’t align with their gender identity or, more likely, to bar their participation at all. After facing overwhelming opposition in public hearings, both bills received a full floor vote in the Assembly, passing on a party-line vote of 59–38. However, the bills went nowhere in the Senate and are likely dead for the time being.
Progressive bills and LGBTQ youth left in limbo
A slate of pro-LGBTQ bills introduced by a group of Democrats in June of 2021 has been left to languish, with Republicans refusing to schedule hearings or votes. The Equality Agenda includes a ban on discrimination on the basis of a person’s gender identity, gender expression, or gender nonconformity. Another bill would create a task force to study “the legal and societal barriers to equality for transgender, intersex, non-binary, and gender nonconforming individuals in Wisconsin.” The package also includes resolutions designating March 31 as the Transgender Day of Visibility and November 20 as a Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Democrats have introduced similar legislation for several years in a row, but while Republicans control the Legislature, none have moved forward.
For now, the only stop-gap for passage of the bad bills is Governor Tony Evers, who is almost certain to veto any anti-LGBTQ legislation that passes. Evers will face one of the four current Republican and two independent challengers in the gubernatorial race on November 8 of this year.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ youth in Wisconsin and across the country are left facing a seemingly relentless onslaught of bigotry and oppression by adults in leadership positions. A recent poll by the Trevor Project revealed that “more than two-thirds of LGBTQ youth said recent debates over state laws that target transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.”
“While we have seen an unprecedented level of attacks on the community, we also want to remind people of the good work that our governor has done. Governor Evers has been a strong, visible ally, and has done everything he can to defend our community and advance critical policies to provide protections for the LGBTQ+ community,” says McDonell. In June of 2021 Evers introduced three executive orders that prevent the use of state funds for conversion therapy, require the use of gender neutral language in state agencies’ public-facing docouments, and declared June as Pride Month.
“We are encouraging the community to call their state senators and representatives to hold the legislators who introduced this legislation accountable,” McDonell adds.
You can find your legislators and their contact information here: legis.wisconsin.gov.