Several anti-transgender bills have been filed this legislative session, and while most have failed to clear initial deadlines, advocates say the damage has already been done in the message it sends to Oklahoma’s LGBTQ youth.
At least 10 bills were filed this year to limit everything from participation in school sports to health care access for transgender or LGBTQ youth, according to an analysis by The Frontier.
“This seems like an increase to me and it seems to be following a nationwide trend of really beating up on transgender children,” said Allie Shinn, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an Oklahoma City-based organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights.
Proposed legislation this year includes limits on the teaching and discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools, bans on transgender student participation in high school athletics and restricted access to health care for transgender youth.
While most of the proposed legislation stalled this month, advocates say there are attempts to revive the language in other bills and last-minute amendments have been added before.
House Bill 1888 originally sought to ban the teaching of “gender and sexual diversity” in schools and state bodies but a day before it was slated to be heard by the House of Representatives earlier this month the bill’s author added an amendment that would require teachers to notify parents or guardians if they believe a student is gay or transgender
“I went to the author and was pretty ticked because he snuck (the amendment) in on us,” said Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore. “I told him I’m out, you just lost me.”
Townley was generally supportive of the original bill but objected to the amendment. She said other Republican lawmakers were also upset, even if they would not say so publicly.
Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, the bill’s author, quickly scrapped the amendment and the bill was not heard before the deadline, effectively ending its progress.
However, this week, Williams brought back the ban on gender and sexual diversity training in public bodies, adding it to Senate bill 627.
Williams did not respond to a request for comment but in presenting his bill Wednesday he said these topics should only be discussed by parents.
“Government does not need to be defining these areas,” Williams said in Wednesday’s General Government committee, which advanced the bill with a 6 to 2 vote, the committee’s lone Democratic members voting in opposition.
Shinn, of Freedom Oklahoma, said her organization’s legal analysis of the bill indicates a ban on any form of gender or sexual diversity training may violate Title IX provisions that ban discrimination based on sex in schools and other educational programs that receive federal money. The bill could restrict programs intended to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault, which has worried some school districts, she said.
“It is shocking to me that this is the kind of thing they are putting time into given the needs of our kids after a pandemic,” said Suzanne Schreiber, a member of the Tulsa Board of Education.
“I don’t think we want to be in a situation of limiting conversations in our classrooms.”
The increase in anti-transgender bills follows a nationwide trend as at least 82 such bills have been filed in state legislatures this past year, a record high, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy organization.
“In a year that has taken a toll on each and every one of us, it is shocking that anti-equality extremists in state legislatures across this country have dedicated an unprecedented amount of time and energy to attacking the LGBTQ community and particularly LGBTQ youth,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Several conservative policy organizations have increased their criticism of education on transgender issues and diversity training at public schools and universities, including the right-leaning Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which has published five articles since January that highlight attempts by schools to create more welcoming environments for transgender and gay students.
“The radicalization that has rotted so much of American higher education is now beginning to degrade science education in Oklahoma,” wrote David Randall in an article for OCPA titled “Woke Biology.”
OCPA declined an interview request.
Oklahoma’s Senate Bill 331, called the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” sought to prohibit transgender students from playing on a sports team that corresponds to their gender identity.
Senate Bill 583 would have prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from undergoing gender reassignment surgery, even with parental permission.
Both bills failed to advance but transgender-rights advocates say the damage has already been done.
“This type of rhetoric shapes the lived experiences of people in the community, even when they don’t pass they do damage, they are violent bills,” said Matthew Salcido, a community organizer who said his own experience as a transgender youth often felt isolating.
More than half of all transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered suicide, according to a 2020 survey by the Trevor Project.
The same survey found that having just one affirming adult dramatically reduced suicidal ideation.
“Even having just one teacher who respects a student’s pronouns can have a huge positive impact and that means we need more training in schools, not less,” said Kylee Holland, program director at Sisu Youth Services in Oklahoma City.
“Schools should be the first safe space for our youth to express themselves, to have supportive adults in their lives that they may or may not have in their homes,” she said.