Zooey Zephyr, the first transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature, was inspired to run after her state passed three laws targeting the LGBTQ community.
One of the bills passed last year allows parents pull their children out of sex education classes deal with LGBTQ issues, other bans trans students from competing on sports teams that do not match their “biological sex,” and a third requires Montanans to show proof of having had your sex “surgically changed” before updating the gender marker on your birth certificate. the third bill could have been stopped by one vote in the Montana Senate.
“My goal has always been to be in the room where my voice can do the most good,” the Democrat told NBC News after her victory this month.
Zephyr said she had been working with the city of Missoula to draft human rights legislation, but came to the conclusion that real change would have to be made at the state level.
“It became clear that this is where most of the attacks and damage was taking place, and that was the most valuable room to be in,” he said.
So far this year, at least 340 anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed in US state legislatures, with more than 140 specifically targeting transgender rights, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the advocacy group. largest LGBTQ advocacy in the country.
Gabriele Magni, assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and founding director of the university’s LGBTQ+ Political Research Initiative, said this wave of bills inspired an increasing number of queer candidates to run. “to protect LGBTQ rights.”
“If you have so many more candidates, some of them will be strong candidates,” he added.
The historic number of bills targeting LGBTQ rights coincided with a record number of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer political candidates: at least 1,065 LGBTQ people ran for public office this year, with an estimated 416 for seats in state legislatures, according to an Oct. report of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, an organization that supports queer people running for office. Of these 416 candidates, 281 made it to the general election and 185 won, an election day win rate of 66%, its post-election analysis found.
The success of these candidates means that more openly LGBTQ people, including more transgender and nonbinary people, will hold seats in state legislatures than ever before. Once all the newly elected officials are seated, there will be nine transgender state legislators (up from eight this year) and nine non-binary state legislators in the US, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, the group’s research arm. .
One of those new legislators will be James Roesener, a Democrat from New Hampshire, who became the first transgender man elected to a state legislature in the US this month, according to the group.
The 26-year-old said he decided to run for office due, in part, to the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in states across the country, including New Hampshire.
“Especially as a trans person, seeing all the new political action that is happening toward my community really inspired me to be a voice for trans people to be visible and help be a concrete part of making these decisions,” she said.
There was at least five anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in the New Hampshire Legislature this year, according to Freedom for All Americans, although none of these measures were successful. A bill sought prevent transgender girls and women from participating in girls’ school sports teamswhile another would have added gender-affirming care to state definition of child abuse.
Roesener’s platform included expanding anti-discrimination laws in health care, affordable housing, raising the state minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, and legalizing marijuana.
“I think people care about each other,” he said. “I think all people are basically worried about the same thing. It’s like, are we going to have enough food to eat? Do we have a roof over our heads? Will I have time with my family outside of work? These are very unifying themes.”
Another new state legislator will be Leigh Finke, who earlier this month became the first transgender person elected to the Minnesota state Legislature. She told the minnesota reformer in June that her decision to run was “largely in response to building the anti-trans movement and seeing bills introduced and laws beginning to pass last year” in her home state and beyond.
“Suddenly it became a top, high-level priority for Republicans at the state level to attack trans communities and not just make it a talking point, but actively disenfranchise trans people and trans youth,” said.
Finke specifically mentioned a proposed bill in Minnesota last year that, if it had happened, would have made participation in girls’ athletics or access to a women’s locker room a misdemeanor for trans girls. The bill failed, but she told the Minnesota Reformer that it “really shook me up and made me realize that someone had to be in the room.” Starting January 3, she will be that someone.
‘Real and tangible effects on trans people’
State legislatures have increasingly become battlegrounds for LGBTQ rights. Republicans began introducing gay rights legislation at an increased pace in the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, who legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
In 2017, Republicans introduced 129 bills targeting LGBTQ rights, many of which focused on religious liberty issues. Last year, the number of such bills filed rose to 191, with advocates calling 2021 the “worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks” when 17 of these bills were enacted into law.
This year, at least 340 such bills have been introduced in 23 states, with at least 25 bills signed into law in 13 states so far, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Over 40% of these proposed bills specifically target transgender people, limiting the ability of transgender people to play sports, use restrooms that correspond to their gender identity, and receive gender-affirming health care. At least 17 of these bills have become law, the Human Rights Campaign said.
“The legislation has real, tangible effects on trans people and their families that love them and the communities that care for them,” Zephyr said. “I lost friends who fled the state and I lost friends who ended their lives.”
A strategy that ‘probably failed’
Whether or not bills targeting the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender people, pass or not, they act as a “key issue” to motivate right-wing voters ahead of an election, Magni said.
He said this strategy worked in the primaries by helping conservative candidates raise money and motivating their base to show up at the polls.
“But then in the general election, when you have a larger constituency, it didn’t really work. He didn’t win over moderate voters,” Magni said. “As an electoral strategy, it probably backfired.”
In addition to inspiring people like Zephyr, Roesener and Finke to run for office, he said, this strategy may also have helped pro-LGBTQ candidates raise funds and motivated supporters to go to the polls.
Given Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in the midterms, Republicans could change course with their legislation, though Magni and Zephyr said they hope to continue to see anti-LGBTQ bills for now.
“We’re seeing legislation introduced previously in Tennessee, in Montana, in states across the country,” Zephyr said. However, she believes that bills targeting LGBTQ rights are ultimately a losing strategy.
“My feeling is that the more the right pushes this, the more it will lose. People are defending us,” she added.