Transgender people are one of the primary threats to the binary, as with their very presence they demonstrate the instability of the connection between sex and gender. As bills limiting the equal rights of transgender people have proliferated across the States in recent years, state legislators have framed bills around a conservative and paternal vision of protecting girls and the concept of traditional girlhood. Through this discourse, conservative legislators re-assert the sex-gender binary as natural.
Thus far in 2023 alone, 494 bills have been introduced in 47 states. Of these bills, 39 have been adopted as of April 2023. A significant portion of this recent wave of legislation focuses on transgender youth, particularly through the banning of gender affirming care — from therapy to hormone treatment — and preventing transgender youth from being involved in youth sports. We argue that central to these laws is an effort to reaffirm a conservative projection of girlhood.
Our research includes case studies of the state legislatures of Arkansas and Arizona in which we analyse the relationship between transgender advocates and legislators as well as investigate both groups’ efforts at issue framing as part of the process of defining transgender issues. We have coded 22 bill hearings on anti-transgender legislation from 2020 to 2022. One of our findings is the consistency of a “protect girls” framing by legislators across cases and bill types. In this framing, girls are always defined solely by biology and are presented as vulnerable and in need of protection. The construction of girls as requiring protection enables the discourse to maintain a faux logical consistency despite inherent contradictions in the arguments. For example, legislators argue transgender girls should not play sports due to the need to prevent a biological advantage from higher levels of testosterone, while the same legislators argue that the treatment that would prevent this advantage, hormone blockers, should be banned. This is important, as in some cases, the same committees may be hearing bills working to prevent transgender youth from accessing gender affirming care and from playing in youth sports in the same session.
Legislation that was previously adopted to prevent discrimination in public life is being weaponised in state legislatures against transgender individuals. Legislators advancing bills that would ban transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports cite the need for Title IX protections for cisgender girls. Adopted as part of the US Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX explicitly forbids exclusion from participation in educational programs on the basis of sex. Even though the spirit of Title IX is for students to have equal access to education, legislators have argued that allowing transgender athletes to compete is a violation of Title IX and a threat to the advancement of girls in sports. In the Arkansas State Legislature in 2021, legislators and an interest group representative argued biology gave assigned male at birth athletes an unfair advantage. One such interest group representative, Matt Sharp of the ‘Alliance Defending Freedom’ stated that, “in sports, biology is what matters.” In the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing for “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” bill Sponsor Sen. Missy Irvin argued that allowing transgender athletes to participate was a setback to organizing on behalf of Title IX and girls in sports. This approach is consistent with hearings in Arizona. The Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing in 2022 on “Save Women’s Sports Act,” Warren Petersen, the Chairman for the Senate Judiciary Committee responded to critiques from his fellow committee members for his clear support for the bill by stating “there is a difference between a male and a female biologically, that is a fact.” In both states, advocates for anti-transgender legislation and their ally legislators are consistent in using both a frame that gender is biological and that transgender girls need to be excluded from girls’ sports to protect Title IX and cisgender girls.
In Arkansas, a bill that would require individuals to use the bathroom or locker room that matches their sex assigned at birth titled “Arkansas Privacy Accommodations Act” was sponsored by Rep. Cindy Crawford, who urged her fellow legislators in committee to pray for “little girls.” In the committee, Crawford and other lawmakers, along with a conservative lobbyist, argue bathroom-policing legislation is necessary to keep specifically girls safe while using public facilities and to reduce the possibility of sexual violence in public places.
Where legislation on sports and bathrooms frames the problem of one of protecting cisgender girls from sharing space with transgender girls, legislation on gender affirming care frames “girls” (any child assigned female at birth) as in need of protection from themselves. Hearings on preventing transgender children’s access to gender affirming care present transgender youth, particularly youth assigned female at birth, as confused and indecisive. When presenting Arizona’s “Children Deserve Help Not Harm Act” to the House Judiciary committee, sponsor Warren Petersen stated that the bill “helps children struggling to embrace their biological sex” by preventing access to “risky surgeries.” Later in the testimony when presented with evidence by a medical professional that transgender youth are consistent in their gender identity, the chairman of the committee Rep. Walter Blackman interrupted the speaker to interject a story about how out of his 5 children, his 13 year old daughter “changes her mind as much as I change my shoes” and uses this to ask why we think a child, particularly a female child, will not change their mind about transitioning. Throughout the hearing process on Arizona’s “Children Deserve Help Not Harm Act” anti-transgender advocates and legislators argued gender affirming care is female genital mutilation, this care will lead to future infertility, and that neurodivergence causes youth to believe they are transgender. In this way, transgender youth, but particularly transgender youth assigned female at birth, are constructed as confused and in need of protection by the legislature until they “embrace their biological sex.”
Our research on these discriminatory bills in state legislatures reveals the face of conservative backlash against shifting gender norms. Bills seeking to restrain the rights of transgender individuals – in sports, in healthcare, in public places – are centred on reaffirming heteronormativity, bowing to patriarchal norms, and maintaining paternal views toward girls. This research reinforces existing work that demonstrates conservatives, in particular conservative woman legislators, do not avoid identity politics as often claimed nor ignore gender as an organizing concept for policy, but rather actively work through discourse and public policy to push a version of womanhood based on femininity and traditional gender roles. Activists in these spaces will need to rebut the construction of transgender rights issues around patriarchal conceptions of girlhood and biological essentialism.