Metro Weekly

West Virginia Bills Declare Transgender Existence “Obscene”

A quartet of bills have been introduced in West Virginia to ban drag and potentially prosecute transgender people for existing in public.

Illustration: Todd Franson

A pair of bills in West Virginia would declare public displays of gender-nonconformity “obscene” and bars access to not only gender-affirming medical care, but mental health therapy that affirms a person’s transgender identity.

Introduced by West Virginia State Sen. Michael Azinger (R-Vienna), the bills seek to target both drag queens and transgender people, with particular emphasis on the latter group, based on the idea that adhering to standards of dress and behavior that don’t match one’s assigned sex at birth, or fail to conform to traditional gender stereotypes, is inherently problematic and harmful to children.

The first bill, SB 195, defines performing in drag or “performing while existing as transgender” to be “obscene matter or sexually explicit conduct.”

Additionally, performing as a drag queen or a transgender individual in a place where a minor is present is defined as a form of “indecent exposure.”

An individual who violates that provision can be jailed for up to six months and fined $1,000. Any venue that allows a minor to be present during a display of gender-nonconformity can be fined $500.

The bill also declares that “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances, or display” where it might be viewed by minors violates the law’s prohibition on “obscene matter or sexually explicit conduct.”

Under the proposed law, the penalty for “sexually explicit conduct” is a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail for the first offense; a fine of $5,000 and a minimum of six months up to 12 months in prison for a second offense; and a fine of $7,500 and from one to five years in prison for any subsequent violations.

“WV SB 195 is presented as a drag ban but it becomes clear that its true aim is to prohibit the public presence of trans folks,” Ash Orr, a transgender activist in West Virginia, wrote in a post on X. “The language used in this bill categorizes anything related to trans individuals as ‘obscene material’ and could lead to a felony charge.”

The bill also prohibits adults from showing a minor any films, pictures, graphics, magazines, or written material that include transgender people. 

Another Azinger bill, SB 194, would prohibit transgender individuals from accessing gender-affirming care until age 21, effectively expanding the state’s existing ban on transition-related health treatments for minors into adulthood.

The bill defines being transgender as a “sexual deviation,” similar to pedophilia, exhibitionism, masochism, sadomasochism or fetishism, reports transgender journalist Erin Reed on her “Erin in the Morning” substack.

Under the bill’s provisions, any medical provider who prescribes gender-affirming treatments could be subjected to a fine of $10,000 and have their license to practice revoked. 

SB 195 would also not only permit conversion therapy for LGBTQ-identifying individuals, but would essentially mandate that all mental health therapists engage in it.

Under the bill, any therapist who affirms a transgender person’s gender identity or encourages self-identification without intending to “cure” their gender dysphoria can be accused of “unprofessional conduct,” leading to them being disciplined by their certifying board and having their license to practice revoked.

Therapists who affirm transgender identity can also be fined $5,000 per violation, and will be prohibited from being employed by “any local or state board of education, private school, daycare, charter school, or other academic institution as a counselor or other form of employment.”

It would also deny them retirement benefits if they are ruled to have violated the law.

“Trans people know they are — there is nothing to ‘cure,'” Orr said to Reed about the conversion therapy mandate. “The truth is, trans people of all ages are living happy, complete, and joyful lives — this contradicts the false narrative created around our community by extremist politicians. This piece of legislation attacks our most basic values of privacy and control over our own bodies, and is based on misleading or even outright false ideas.”

Critics of the bill note that there is ample evidence suggesting that conversion therapy, which is banned in 27 states, exacerbates feelings of gender dysphoria, as well as feelings of loneliness, depression, and suicidal ideation. Transgender people who have been subjected to conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide, and four times as likely to attempt suicide if subjected to conversion therapy as minors, according to a 2019 study.

Azinger also introduced a third bill targeting drag performances specifically.

Under that bill, “adult cabaret performances” — defined as any act featuring “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to the prurient interest” — would be banned in public and in spaces where they might be viewed by minors. 

First-time violators of the law would be prosecuted for a misdemeanor, with subsequent violations prosecuted as felonies. Those convicted of a felony — which appears to include performers or owners of an establishment hosting the performance — could be fined up to $25,000 or subjected to up to five years in prison.

Still, a fourth bill introduced by Azinger, SB 197, appears to be aimed at preventing schools from hosting “Drag Queen Story Hour” events where drag queens read books aloud.

But as Truthout reports, the bill is worded more vaguely, leading some to fear that it could be weaponized to prosecute transgender individuals who live authentically according to their gender identity.

Under the bill, “obscene material,” defined in a way that would include whether transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals are present, is barred from schools.

As such, depending on how the law is interpreted and enforced, a trans person who appears within 2,500 feet of a public school could find themselves prosecuted. Additionally, any faculty or staff allowing a trans person within that 2,500-foot area, could be prosecuted and penalized with a fine of $500 and jailed for up to a year.

“The mere introduction of these bills conveys a message to trans West Virginians that our elected officials are aiming to dehumanize and erase our existence,” Orr wrote in a post on X.

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