This story was originally published by The 19th on September 13, 2021.
Texas has introduced the most bills targeting transgender youth in the country, triple the number of any other state. Though none of Texas’ over 40 proposed anti-trans bills have been passed, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has made restricting trans youth’s sports participation a priority for the state’s third special legislative session.
Local and national LGBTQ+ advocates worry that regardless of whether the bills pass, the language in and around them that characterizes trans girls as boys will spur violent, potentially deadly attacks and worsen mental health among an already vulnerable population.
“We just have a fraction of the data and can see that we’re in crisis,” said Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. “It’s past epidemic, and these state legislatures are making things worse.”
Across the United States, 35 trans people have been killed so far in 2021, per the Human Rights Campaign. At least four of those deaths took place in Texas, which has one of the highest known populations of trans people in the country and has reported the most trans killings of any state. This year is expected to be the deadliest on record for trans Americans amid overall rising homicides that coincided with the coronavirus pandemic.
“The longer we have conversations that dehumanize and rob the dignity of trans Texans, these numbers will continue to rise,” Emmett Schelling, executive director for the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said at a protest late last month.
As greater numbers of anti-trans bills have been introduced across more states within the last two years, more trans homicides have taken place in those states. Last year, 56 percent of trans homicides took place in states that attempted to pass anti-trans legislation, per a review of ACLU and Human Rights Campaign data by The 19th. Still, research proving any direct link between the deaths and the legislation is lacking.
Christina DeJong, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies violence against trans people, said that advocates worried about rising trans homicides due to anti-trans bills have valid concerns, but “we just don’t have enough data to know for sure.”
What does worry her about bills brought in Texas and other states is that they create “a culture that’s anti-trans, that can be used to validate violent attacks against trans people.” The “othering” of trans people encouraged by anti-trans legislation can lead to violence and further victimization, DeJong said, since “it’s easier to cause harm to someone who’s an ‘other’ than someone who’s in your group.”
Eric Stanley, an associate professor in gender and women’s studies at the University of California, Berkeley who researches anti-trans and queer violence, echoed that idea. They wrote over email that “anti-trans legislation helps generalize anti-trans violence as not only permissible, but supported by the state.”
“In other words, those that enact anti-trans violence on the individual level are acting under the authority of a murderous settler state. The two are entwined in a deadly knot,” they said.
In 2017 there was a spike in bathroom bills across state legislatures, and that year there were more trans homicides in states pushing anti-trans legislation. GLAAD found in 2017 that 58 percent of trans homicides took place in states that had attempted or successfully passed anti-trans legislation. And 29 percent of trans homicides in 2019 happened in states where similar bills were attempted.
But there are complications to these trends: In 2018, there was only one recorded killing in a state that had brought any anti-trans bills. And at this point in 2021, only 12 states’ legislators have not introduced anti-trans legislation, per Freedom for All Americans — so in almost any state where a trans homicide occurs, there is likely to be some sort of anti-trans bill in the legislature.
But while there are lingering questions of causality related to homicides, experts agree that anti-trans legislation can worsen mental health among a population that already struggles with greater risks of suicide and is more likely to struggle with anxiety or depression.
In May, crisis hotline Trans Lifeline saw a 72 percent increase in calls from Texas area codes compared to the previous year, while anti-trans bills similar to those proposed in the state’s special session were being considered, Yana Calou, public relations director of Trans Lifeline, said over email.
The Trevor Project found in its latest annual report that LGBTQ+ youth who didn’t feel their gender or sexual orientation were affirmed in school or at home attempted suicide more than those who were affirmed. Anti-trans legislation could heighten that risk, spokesperson Rob Todaro said, citing a 2020 study led by one of the organization’s senior researchers.
Many of the bills going through Texas aimed to classify gender-affirming treatments like hormones and surgeries as child abuse and ban puberty blockers provided by a physician. Others legislate the sports teams that trans girls can and cannot play on. At least 29 of the bills introduced in Texas are currently active — significantly more than any other state.
Kirby York said that proposed legislation to restrict gender-affirming care — which has so far only passed in Arkansas and was blocked in federal court — is most feared for causing self-harm among trans kids, since over half of trans and nonbinary youth surveyed by the Trevor Project considered suicide in the past year. Trans adults who can’t access hormones and other transition care also report higher rates of suicide attempts and ideation, per a 2019 Williams Institute study.
And Texas is not likely to be the last news-making state in terms of restrictions against trans people. Beyond this legislative session, advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign are preparing for anti-trans bills to keep piling on for the rest of the year.
Schelling warned on a Human Rights Campaign call last month: “There’s just no plausible deniability at this point that our state leadership does not know the harm that it’s causing.”