Faced with wave of hostile bills, transgender rights leaders are playing “a defense game”

For decades, the plotline for LGBTQ+ activism in the U.S. was one of advances — often slow-paced and hard-fought but inexorably moving forward. Now, faced with unprecedented attacks in state legislatures, transgender rights leaders acknowledge they are playing defense — and two of the biggest groups are joining forces to counter the onslaught.

“This is going to be a defense game — and a movement-strengthening game,” said Andy Marra, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. “We have witnessed a sophisticated, well-coordinated and highly resourced effort to dismantle the years of progress that our movement has made.”

The essence of the attack: Scores of bills enacted in Republican-governed states over the past few years targeting transgender people. Many of the laws ban gender-affirming medical care for trans minors or bar trans athletes from competing on girls’ and women’s scholastic sports teams.

With a new wave of anti-trans measures already introduced this year, the TLDEF and the National Center for Transgender Equality announced in January that they plan to merge this summer. The new organization will be called Advocates for Trans Equality; Marra will be its CEO, while its executive director will be Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, who now holds that title with the NCTE.

Marra said a key moment in deciding to consider the merger came in 2022. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, directed state child protection workers to investigate families of trans children for what Abbott termed “abusive gender-transitioning services.”

“I knew we needed a stronger, bolder response to the unprecedented vitriol and legislative attacks on trans people nationwide,” Marra said.

Unlike some mergers, this one is not aimed at cost-cutting or consolidation, according to Heng-Lehtinen. He said current staff from each organization will be retained, and the new organization — after adding a few new hires — will likely have a staff of about 50 by the end of the year, working out of offices in New York and Washington as well as remotely.

“When you hear ‘merger,’ you think there’s some kind of crisis or duplication,” he said. “Not in this case — we simply think we’ll be stronger.”

For Marra and Heng-Lehtinen — and their allies in other LGBTQ+ rights organizations — it’s crucial to keep litigating, state by state, against the anti-trans laws. While some of the measures have taken effect, others have been blocked by federal judges, including some appointed by Republican presidents.

Another priority, in this election year, is to engage in political campaigns.

“We need pro-trans elected officials winning their races and defeating candidates who are attacking trans people only to score political points,” said Heng-Lehtinen. He depicted the anti-trans vitriol as a backlash to the broader gains made by the LGBTQ+-rights movement in recent decades.

“Anti-LGBT groups are shaking in their boots,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, and that’s why they’re fighting so hard.”

He’s been immersed in politics since childhood — his mother, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, served 30 years in Congress, starting when he was 3 years old.

At odds with most of her fellow Republicans in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen became a staunch supporter of LGBTQ+ rights — for example, becoming the first GOP House member to support the legalization of same-sex marriage. She was vocally in support of Rodrigo's decision to come out as a transgender man.

“What makes our family so very proud of Rodrigo is that he’s so happy living an authentic life, being honest about who he is and bringing a lot of joy in our lives,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a 2016 video urging parents to accept their trans children.

The national political environment — in regard to LGBTQ+ rights — has changed dramatically since then.

Back in 2016, after North Carolina enacted a “bathroom bill’ restricting trans people’s use of public restrooms, there was a major backlash, including cancellation of potentially lucrative business projects and sporting events.

Over the past couple of years, the corporate world has generally avoided similar threats as new anti-trans measures took effect in North Carolina and elsewhere. Sales of Bud Light plunged because of conservative backlash to an ad campaign featuring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

Marra suggested that many corporations had become more wary of venturing into potentially divisive political issues, at a time when special-interest groups are scrutinizing how they deal with issues such as affirmative action and workforce diversity.

“We would like them to stay true to their values,” Marra said.

The cumulative impact of the anti-trans laws has been tangible, according to surveys finding that many trans people have considered moving to another city or state that would be more accepting. Several new organizations have emerged in the past few years offering emergency funding to individuals and families affected by anti-trans legislation, either to relocate or to obtain medical care or services outside their home state.

Marra, who has been active in the LGBTQ+ rights movement for 20 years, says she remains optimistic in the face of current setbacks.

“We are in many ways in the fight of our lives right now, but ultimately we are on the right side of history,” she said.

“This year, we have an opportunity to bring the next generation of voters along in the next chapter of the fight for equality in this country,” she added. “We need to be engaging everyday folks across the country, sharing our stories.”

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