Metro Weekly

These 7 States are a Threat to LGBT Rights this Year

From Alabama to Virginia, many states around the country are pushing anti-LGBT laws for 2017

As the national press fixates on every action, statement, and tweet from the nation’s incoming 45th president, much of their coverage is unsurprisingly Washington-centric. Donald Trump’s administration — and his propensity to pick fights with anyone who opposes him — is going to continue to generate headlines, not least because of his vows to swiftly attempt to undo much of what was achieved under the Obama administration, LGBT rights included.

But as Trump continues to consume news broadcasts and column inches, activists would do well to cut through the noise and start focusing lower down the political ladder. Specifically, the states, as it’s there that LGBT rights are most under attack — especially in states where Republicans control all three branches of government, or where anti-LGBT lawmakers have the numbers to override a governor’s veto.

Already, lawmakers in a number of states have introduced bills that would undermine same-sex marriages, limit transgender people’s access to restrooms, or protect those who wish to discriminate against LGBT people. We won’t know the full damage until spring (when all state filing deadlines will have been reached), but in the meantime we’ve collated every state where LGBT rights are at risk — and what activists need to be focusing on.

ALABAMA

Alabama will consider two anti-LGBT bills this year. The first allows child adoption or foster placement agencies to discriminate against same-sex parents. If a placement agency did discriminate, the government would be prevented from taking retaliatory action, such as denying it certain tax breaks, revoking its license, or ending any contracts between itself and the agency.

The second is a bathroom bill that has received attention for a provision some critics say calls for “bathroom police.” It mandates that establishments providing multi-user, sex-segregated bathrooms must ensure that only people of a specific gender are using them. The bill allows establishments to hire “an attendant stationed at the door of each rest room to monitor the appropriate use of the rest room and answer any questions or concerns posed by users.”

Businesses or entities that do not enforce the law can be fined up to $2,000, followed by $3,500 fines for each subsequent instance of noncompliance. Additionally, the bill allows those users who feel aggrieved by the lack of enforcement to sue that business or entity for damages, essentially incentivizing complaints against pro-transgender businesses.

IOWA

Following the 2010 elections, Iowa had a Democratic-controlled Senate that served as a bulwark against unfettered Republican control of state government. When the Senate finally flipped in 2016, due in part to Donald Trump’s strong performance in the state, Iowa became a place where LGBT rights could soon be under threat.

Thus far, Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of LGBT rights group One Iowa, says no anti-LGBT pieces of legislation have been introduced. However, some lawmakers have raised the prospect of a “religious freedom” law. It remains hypothetical for now, but with no Democratic majority to keep Republicans in check, there’s little to stop Iowa from becoming hostile to LGBT people.

KENTUCKY

Similar to Iowa, Kentucky’s House of Representatives flipped from Democratic to Republican this year. As such, many observers figured that Republican House leaders would push for anti-LGBT bills identical to ones that passed the Republican-controlled Senate last year.

To everyone’s surprise, it was Democratic State Rep. Rick Nelson, the Democrats’ losing candidate for state treasurer, who took aim at the LGBT community. In total, Nelson has introduced three bills targeting LGBT rights. One is a “bathroom bill” in the mold of North Carolina’s controversial HB 2 law, and a second “bathroom bill” dealing with schoolchildren, requiring them to use only those facilities that match their assigned sex at birth.

Nelson’s third bill would override protections in local town, city, or county ordinances by allowing people with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to deny services to LGBT people — such as baking a cake for a same-sex wedding.

Chris Hartman, the director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, says Nelson’s proposals would inflict harm on Kentucky’s economy, threatening the loss of major conventions or even the chance to host NCAA college basketball championship games. “If Kentucky lawmakers want to remain focused on improving our commonwealth’s economy, this is exactly the legislation they should avoid,” Hartman says.

MISSOURI

Elections certainly do have consequences in Missouri, where Republicans took back control of the governor’s office after eight years.

“Last year, during session, we saw a constitutional amendment to allow businesses to deny services to same-sex couples for weddings,” says Steph Perkins, executive director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization. “This year, we’re seeing pieces of that bigger bill in a number of different bills. For example, we’re seeing bills that would expand the definition of what a religious exemption is, so that it’s not just churches or religious organizations that are exempt, but private businesses that are owned by religious organizations, such as Christian bookstores or Catholic hospitals.”

PROMO will be fighting against two bathroom bills, one dealing with public buildings and the other with public schools, which restrict transgender people to using facilities that match their biological sex at birth.

“When a student is restricted to the bathroom of their birth certificate or their chromosomes or their anatomy at birth, as this bill suggests, it not only means that the student will be singled out and potentially targeted, but it means that a student may not be able to go to school anymore,” says Perkins. “If they’re not allowed to go to the bathroom, they simply cannot be at a place for eight hours. And they certainly cannot be at a place for longer, and participate in extracurricular activities like debate club or sports, things we know that make a really well-rounded human being.”

TENNESSEE

Tennessee’s major anti-LGBT legislation this year is Senate Bill 1, an expansion of a law allowing counselors and therapists to refuse treatment to LGBT clients and others who do not conform to their religious or moral principles.

But it appears some lawmakers weren’t satisfied with last year’s victory. Now, they’re trying to strengthen the law by forcing mental health practitioners to go against the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics. If passed, the bill would require the board to essentially rewrite a new code of ethics from scratch — with the proviso that counselors must still be able to refuse to treat clients whose sexual orientation or gender identity they find objectionable.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, says the bill is an example of how the far-right is “continuing to look for ways to keep our community at arm’s length.”

In addition to the expanded counseling bill, Sanders says lawmakers have proposed bills to use the “natural” and “ordinary” definitions of “husband,” “wife,” “father,” and “mother” in the state code, which would have the effect of refusing to recognize the marriages, adoptions, or parental rights of same-sex couples raising children. Sanders also expects a bathroom bill restricting transgender people’s access to public restrooms and changing facilities before the end of the filing deadline.

Sanders believes the bills are “tests” to see what gains traction, in the hope of eventually obtaining a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court — with justices appointed by President Trump — that would carve out special religious exemptions for social conservatives.

“I think ultimately what they’re looking to do is find cases that can get some of these issues back before the court,” says Sanders. “I think they know it’s a long shot, but I think they also know in order to do that, they have to start experimenting now with issues that may be able to get back before the court once they have a more favorable slate of justices.”

TEXAS

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants to impose restrictions on the transgender community in terms of what bathroom they can use. In fact, he wants it so much he’s supporting a bill that will achieve just that. It prohibits local governments in Texas from passing nondiscrimination ordinances that provide public accommodations or restroom protections to transgender individuals. Private businesses are allowed to set their own policies, and those that choose to force transgender people to use the restroom of their biological sex at birth cannot be denied government contracts, special tax breaks, or subject to any fines or penalties.

Two other bills in Texas seek to further restrict the types of protections that cities like Dallas, Fort Worth or Austin can extend to certain classes of people. The intent is to gut any local LGBT protections. Such protections are a necessity, as Texas state law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBT people.

Chuck Smith, the CEO of Equality Texas, says there is talk that Texas lawmakers may introduce yet another bill that would revise the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to allow for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Our existing RFRA was passed when it was actually about protecting religious freedoms. So in that sense, it’s about not allowing government to interfere with an individual’s practice of their faith,” says Smith. “What these news laws are trying to do is allow one person to use their religious beliefs against another individual. So it’s this misuse and retooling of what RFRAs were intended for in the first place.”

Another bill getting a lot of press in Texas is a measure that would require teachers and school administrators to notify parents if their children request special accommodations or ask to be treated as a gender different from their biological sex. Whereas before parents had to ask for such information, this bill would penalize school employees who do not proactively report that information to parents. Smith and other advocates say the bill would essentially force teachers to “out” LGBT students to their parents against their will.

VIRGINIA

In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has warned that he will veto any measure that seeks to restrict LGBT rights. Yet some Old Dominion lawmakers seem intent on testing the governor’s willingness to follow through on his threat.

Between them, Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas) and Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) have introduced four anti-LGBT bills, including an HB 2-style bathroom bill dubbed the “Physical Privacy Act” by right-wing propagandists, one that would allow government contractors to discriminate against LGBT people in hiring, a third that would relegate transgender people to facilities matching their biological sex at birth and leave them unable to sue for discrimination, and a fourth that would provide overly broad protections to any “person” — including churches, religious organizations or businesses — who wished to exempt themselves from participating in the solemnization of same-sex marriages.

“I think that these bills are cowardly in a lot of ways. I think they are misguided in the least, and bigoted at the most,” says Blaise Davi, a transgender resident of Richmond. “The existence of queer and trans people and the ability for us to access the same rights as anyone else does isn’t affecting anyone’s freedom. The economic and the subsequent emotional stability of queer and trans people is not an infringement on someone’s religious liberties.”

The bathroom bill, should it pass under a future governor once McAuliffe leaves office, would be “profoundly dehumanizing” for the transgender community. Davi objects to the argument that such measures are essential to protect women and children from predators skulking about public restrooms.

“Transgender people, we’re just trying to go to the bathroom. We’re just trying to get our business done and leave,” Davi says. “Logistically, a bill like this makes planning events, going out into the world as a transgender person, that much harder, an extra hurdle. And it’s dehumanizing, stripping someone of a certain level of dignity. So I think it’s a twofold effect here.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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