Over 30 House Republicans are backing a bill that seeks to ban federally funded institutions from promoting material acknowledging gender identity, gender dysphoria, transgender people and sexual orientation when such topics would reach children under 10 years old.
The bill labels such information about LGBTQ+ people as “sexually-oriented material,” grouping depictions of 7 percent of the country’s population in the same category as pornography and other lewd content. The bill, which is unlikely to advance through a Democrat-controlled House, would affect public schools, state library systems, museums and national parks, as well as educational material across federal agencies.
LGBTQ+ experts are worried that the bill will spark copycat legislation in states where similar bans on information about LGBTQ+ people could actually become law — especially in the next legislative session. The bill is a notable escalation of efforts to restrict classroom discussion of gender and sexuality, efforts that have passed in Florida and Alabama, advocates say.
“This isn’t just a ‘national Don’t Say Gay bill,’” said Logan Casey, senior policy researcher and adviser for the Movement Advancement Project, which tracks LGBTQ+ policy. ”I’ve seen that headline a lot. It goes dramatically farther beyond that.”
That description undersells and misrepresents the extent to which this bill, which was introduced last week by Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, would apply to various areas of life supported by federal funding, Casey said.
Multiple LGBTQ+ researchers and policy experts told The 19th that they had never seen a bill like this one at the state level, introduced in the current Congress, or passed into law in recent memory. A bill that so overtly depicts LGBTQ+ people as sexually inappropriate, especially around children, is a significant escalation — even if it’s all part of the same rhetoric, advocates say.
In state-level anti-LGBTQ+ bills, that argument usually appears as part of the rhetoric surrounding legislation, instead of being part of the legislation itself, said Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow.
“I certainly haven’t seen anything like it in the modern era, to my mind,” Casey said.
- More from The 19th
- The national teacher shortage is growing. In Florida, controversial laws are making it worse.
- What is ‘soft’ censorship? When school districts don’t ban books, they still limit student access
- ‘I see myself in her’: Brittney Griner’s Russia trial resonates with queer Black women and nonbinary people
Chris Erchull, staff attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), said he would expect a bill like this — if it were ever passed into law — to be challenged as unconstitutional, since it aims to prevent LGBTQ+ people from being equal under the law and is too broad to be carried out by institutions affected by it.
How the bill defines “sexually-oriented material,” specifically, calls into question how a mandate so broadly defined could actually be applied, he said. In singling out drag queen story hours and literature about gender transition being available in state library systems as reasons to restrict federal funding, the bill shows that it specifically targets LGBTQ+ people, Erchull said.
“This is targeted at a class of people based on gender identity and based on sexual orientation,” he said. He added that it was likely to violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
A bill like this at the national level reminded several advocates of LGBTQ+ censorship of the past — the “no promo homo” laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s banning LGBTQ+ topics in education during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“At the time, and I think now, it’s an attempt to undermine acceptance of LGBTQ people,” said David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign. What’s changed since then is a much more widespread acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, he said, as a record number of Americans back same-sex marriage, and most Americans favor protecting transgender people from discrimination.
Other efforts targeting trans people have been introduced in Congress in the past, Stacy said, although none of them have moved forward. The Senate last year voted against an amendment added onto $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief that would have banned federal education funds for schools allowing trans girls to play sports with other girls, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced a bill this August that aimed to make gender-affirming care for minors a felony.
The newly introduced bill was brought by Johnson, who is the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, someone involved in official party messaging. Johnson’s sponsorship signals to Stacy that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is becoming more mainstream for Republicans in the lower chamber.
Tiffany Tran, senior legislative manager at the National LGBTQ Task Force, agreed that the bill coming from Johnson signals a more formal embrace of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric within the GOP.
While advocates expect this bill to fail, several said they worry states will use it to model their own legislation. Some also worry that rhetoric insinuating children are in danger from exposure to LGBTQ+ people will provoke in-person threats and attacks. Just this year, a handful of hospitals across the country have received social media threats and, in one case, a fake bomb threat, over gender-affirming care for trans youth.
“There’s a real danger out here, and the fact that this is continuing to feed that rhetoric and ratchet it up as opposed to trying to defuse it, which is what elected officials should be doing, is something that is definitely very concerning for us,” Stacy said.
Watching this rhetoric play out among lawmakers can also harm mental health among LGBTQ+ youth, Warbelow said, regardless of whether the bill goes anywhere. High stress and sadness among LGBTQ+ youth last year was attributed to widespread anti-LGBTQ+ bills, which have already set a new record this year.
When reached for comment on LGBTQ+ experts saying his bill aims to prevent LGBTQ+ people from being equal under the law and escalates anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric that would harm queer youth, Johnson’s office said in an emailed statement that his bill is being mischaracterized by “those who support the sexualization of our culture.”
“Federal grants should be used to keep our country healthy and safe, not to stage drag queen shows for children,” Johnson said in a statement. “Your tax dollars should not fund government programs or private organizations that intentionally expose children under 10 years of age to any sexual materials or programs, regardless of orientation.”