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OKLAHOMA CITY — As Kristy Self waited for her chance to speak at the Oklahoma State Capitol, she glanced around the room and marveled at the people gathered around her.
Students, teachers, parents and caregivers had all rallied to support the LGBTQ+ community, which has felt threatened by legislation currently making its way through the state house. Bills that most concern advocates include restrictions on gender-affirming health care as well as on drag performances.
The Oklahoma State Legislature doesn’t allow for public comment on any bill before it heads to a vote. But Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, was offering anyone the chance to speak in the group’s “People’s Forum.”
Self, a sponsor for a local high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance group, shared what she has heard from the students she works with and the frustrations they feel about conservative lawmakers preventing them from receiving gender-affirming care. She underscored how LGBTQ+ students are ingrained in schools and communities. They are marching in the band. They are starring in a musical production. They are gamers and on e-sports teams. They are debaters.
“These are wonderful people just trying to live their lives. They should be celebrated and honored and have joy in their lives,” Self said. “Instead, they are out here trying to get people to listen to why they should exist.”
Oklahoma, like several other Republican-controlled legislatures across the U.S. has seen a surge in proposed anti-LGBTQ+ laws. At least 45 such bills have been introduced this session, said Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. While some bills have withered in the process, there remain a number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills that could be passed before the session ends in late May.
“This was far and above the worst not only in volume but also in the number of different ways the community is being targeted and harmed,” McAfee said. “We are also very aware as a community that part of the harm of these bills is not even if they are passed or enforced but the harmful rhetoric is a threat to our physical and emotional safety.”
The Oklahoma state flag flies over the capitol in Oklahoma City. Photo by Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
McAfee said her organization has been tracking the 45 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that lawmakers introduced at the start of the session in February. Fifteen of those bills have targeted health care for transgender people.
Two bills remain the focus of the organization’s efforts: House Bill 2177 and Senate Bill 613, which have passed their respective chambers and moved onto the other chamber’s committees. McAfee said these two bills represent the most severe challenges to accessing care for transgender people.
House Bill 2177 prohibits health care professionals from providing certain transgender medical treatments for minors. Gender-affirming care is a broad spectrum of practices and services, from using someone’s appropriate pronouns to medical treatments, like the ones targeted by HB 2177: puberty blockers, hormones therapy and surgical treatments. These treatments and more are endorsed by every major medical association and have been available for at least a decade.
HB 2177 would also bar private insurance from covering gender-affirming care, regardless of age. Senate Bill 613 — would also impose criminal sanctions on anyone providing these services.
HB 2177 author Kevin West, a Republican from Moore, said in a statement that the bill was designed to “protect our children from those who would seek to profit from their gender confusion” after it passed the state House in late February in an 80-18 vote. All 80 votes were from Republican lawmakers. West also broadly described gender-affirming care as a set of “irreversible health practices” that permanently change the bodies of children who may be at an age where they don’t fully understand their decisions.”
Supporters of HB 2177 argue that minors are not capable of making decisions that could have a significant impact on their health. Critics are concerned about the assumption that gender dysphoria is something that can be outgrown. Gender dysphoria is a term that describes the discomfort or distress a person can experience when their gender identity doesn’t align with the sex assigned to them at birth. Not all trans people experience gender dysphoria. Some insurers require these diagnoses in order to pay for care.
Some services that fall under the gender-affirming care umbrella are reversible, like puberty blockers. Hormone therapy is less so, but still reversible under certain conditions. Surgeries, which cannot be easily reversed, involve a process that includes a lengthy medical consultation, and professional guidelines largely say the procedures should be for people aged 18 and older. Not every trans person pursues medical transition.
No one’s trajectory through transition is linear. Treatment for gender dysphoria can involve a different combination of services, depending on the person. What is known is that more and more research shows how gender-affirming care can be lifesaving, with decreases in suicidal ideation and improvements in overall well-being.
McAfee said bills like SB 2177 are further depriving trans youth in their communities of health care access. They said that doctors who specialize in care for trans youth in Oklahoma have told them they are leaving the state to avoid potential criminal prosecution as a trans health care ban moves through the legislature. This departure of specialists is, not just the youth and their parents who are also fleeing the punishment.
“It’s a level of vitriol we had not seen before from lawmakers who know the consequences of these policies,” McAfee said. “If passed, [SB 2177] will cost the lives of trans and queer young people. It’s been really difficult to see it happen in real time.”
Oklahoma House Democrat Mauree Turner, the first nonbinary state legislator in U.S. history, also stressed how HB 2177 could force Oklahomans in the process of transitioning to de-transition if they cannot afford to pay for their care.
“If they cannot afford [care] out of pocket to provide the health care they need to survive,” Turner said during floor debate. “[This bill is saying] they cannot stay in Oklahoma.”
Turner was censured in March by their Republican colleagues, saying the lawmaker impeded a law enforcement investigation by blocking questioning into an alleged assault on another House member and police officer. Authorities arrested a trans-rights activist who threw water at a state lawmaker and “open-handedly hit” an Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer during a protest over anti-trans legislation at the Capitol building. Officers wanted to question the activist, who was inside Turner’s office; officers were ultimately able to speak with the person and later arrest them. Republican leadership said Turner was “harboring a fugitive.”
Turner said they provide their office as a “space of grace” to help make anyone who comes to the Capitol feel welcome, adding that trans people, in particular, “don’t feel safe here.”
Oklahoma was also considering anti-drag legislation, which would make it illegal for performers to wear clothing traditionally associated with the opposite sex in public spaces.
The proposed Senate legislation, which failed to be heard by the March 24 deadline, would have prohibited anyone from appearing in public wearing clothing that “intentionally creates a false impression” of their sex. Violators would have been subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail. Other states have introduced similar measures this year, including Tennessee whose ban on restricting drag performances was temporarily blocked by a federal judge hours before it was set to take effect April 1.
The PBS NewsHour spoke to drag performers in Tennessee about how the state’s ban on public performances would affect their community.
This week, the House Judiciary Criminal Committee changed the language of the bill so that it focused on banning public adult performances that contain obscene material in the presence of a minor. Since the bill was amended, it has another chance to go through. It will now need to pass both chambers before the April 27 deadline.
McAfee said the bill’s amended language would still put drag performers at risk despite claims from its Republican author that the bill is not an anti-drag bill.
“It doesn’t use the word ‘drag’ at all, but it’s written in a way that chills speech and expression,” she said.
Drag performers in Oklahoma have said such anti-LGBTQ+ legislation could lead to harassment and discrimination against individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms.
Casey Longacre, 28, has been performing as Tape for the past six years. Longacre, who makes his drag costumes from duct tape, said he felt a sense of belonging and community within his drag family that he had never felt before.
“Being able to see queer people in daylight expressing themselves in this art form was just so beautiful,” Longacre said. “I’ve found a home and community and friends.”
Longacre said the proposed laws have created fear and uncertainty for the community. It’s not only threats from state legislators that frighten some, he said. But the anti-drag rhetoric has made him and others question whether they can remain safe while performing.
In Tulsa last May, a local donut shop was attacked after it had hosted an art installation that featured drag queens as servers. A masked person threw a molotov cocktail through the shop’s front window.
Longacre said he stopped performing for a time after the November mass shooting at a drag queen’s birthday party inside a LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs.
“I just needed to pause for a bit and evaluate what was going on,” Longacre said. “I felt safe to return here, but that threat of violence is always in the back of your mind.”
Supporters of LGBTQA+ rights participate in the March for Queer & Trans Autonomy in Washington, D.C. on March 3. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll showed that while a majority of Americans oppose restrictions on LGBTQ+ people, support for such laws is growing.
While about half of those polled — 54 percent — say they oppose such laws, 43 percent of Americans now say they support laws that criminalize the act of providing gender-transition-related medical care to minors, a 15 percent increase since April 2021.
Meanwhile, 86 percent of trans or nonbinary youth reported a negative impact on their mental health stemming from the continued debates and laws over restricting the rights of trans people, according to a 2022 survey from The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention nonprofit focused on LGBTQ+ youth.
During the current legislative session, state lawmakers across the country have put forth more than 450 bills that aim to impose restrictions on fundamental aspects of life, such as health care, education, and freedom of expression, specifically targeting the LGBTQ+ community. These bills are primarily concentrated in Southern states, according to an analysis conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union. At least 340 of these bills have advanced or progressed to committee, and nearly 30 have already been enacted into law. This represents an increase from the previous year, when 315 bills of this nature were introduced, as reported by the Human Rights Campaign.
Oklahoma is no stranger to these laws.
In 2020, the state passed a law allowing schools to ban transgender athletes from participating in women’s and girls’ sports. On April 6, President Joe Biden’s administration released a proposal that would forbid any outright bans of transgender athletes at high schools and colleges across the U.S., although the rule still allowed some room for limitations on trans athletes’ eligibility in certain cases.
“Every student should be able to have the full experience of attending school in America, including participating in athletics, free from discrimination,” said Miguel Cardona, Biden’s education secretary, in a statement.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt was quick to condemn the proposal, calling the news “outrageous.”
“The Biden administration continues to deny reality, but that doesn’t change the fact that men are biologically different than women,” Stitt said in a tweet. “In Oklahoma, we stand with female athletes and we will protect women’s sports.”
Advocates say the legislation is part of a broader GOP effort to target and marginalize the LGBTQ+ community in Oklahoma. They argue that these anti-LGBTQ+ bills are a solution in search of a problem, and when it comes to anti-drag bills in particular, there have been no reported incidents of public indecency or harm caused by drag performers in the state.
In response to the proposed legislation, drag performers and their allies have organized protests and rallies across the state. They argue that the bill would not only infringe on their rights but also harm the state’s economy and cultural vibrancy.
McAfee said Freedom Oklahoma has continued with events and encouragement campaigns for members of LGBTQ+ community to share their experiences and “take up space” in the world.
The organization also hosted a letter writing campaign called “Love Letters to Trans Oklahomans,” and shared poems and paintings from LGBTQ+ students and hosted events across the city.
“There are people who are wondering if they can survive here,” McAfee said. “Their existence being threatened and possibly criminalized creates this underlying sense of fear but also a real sense of solidarity.”
“To be queer has always meant fighting against systems that never meant to welcome or support us. It may not be easy or soon, but we will work together to get through this,” they said.
The PBS NewsHour’s Bella Isaacs-Thomas and Megan McGrew contributed to this report.
Adam Kemp is a Communities Reporter for the PBS NewsHour based in Oklahoma.
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