The top legislative priority of the Republican party across the United States in 2023 has been to limit the rights of transgender Americans. Hundreds of bills (the ACLU says they’re currently tracking 452) have been introduced in almost every state in the U. S. — each one targeting transgender and gender nonconforming Americans, of all ages, in all areas of life. Many of the bills target children, banning evidence-based healthcare for children with gender dysphoria, banning children or their parents from requesting updated pronouns, or banning trans girls from participating in youth sports. Others, like the move to criminalize all-ages drag shows, and the new bathroom bans, have set their sights on adults. There are so many different laws targeting trans people, in so many states, with such wide-ranging effects and potential interactions with constitutional law, that it becomes almost impossible to keep up, or to keep track.
For journalists and newsrooms covering LGBTQ+ rights, legislation, and the courts, the number of laws represents an unprecedented challenge considering the number and scope of the laws targeting the trans community continues to grow.
Reporters (including myself) have expressed frustration, bordering on despair, that the nature of these attacks on the trans community aren’t being done justice, as those seeking to tell the story fold under the magnitude of the task.
“For reporters, the challenge is number, the complexity, and the particulars of each piece of state legislation, of whether it will pass, what it will do if it does,” said Alejandra Caraballo, a trans woman, lawyer, and reporter covering trans rights. “Every day, there are several hearings in different states. Republicans have developed a conscious ‘flood the zone’ approach.”
Mark Joseph Stern, who covers legislation and the courts for Slate Magazine, agreed.
“As a journalist, I feel an existential despair that all of this is happening. I want to cover it, but as a legal reporter, it’s hard to find fresh angles when every Republican legislature is copy-and-pasting virtually the same laws and passing them all at basically the same time,” Stern said.
The similarity of so many of the bills, and the coordination of their timing, has created an unprecedented challenge for a profession who are trained to set their sights on stories that are new, surprising, or unusual. You can’t write the same story dozens (or hundreds) of times and expect the audience to stay engaged, but if you don’t keep writing about it, there’s no way for the public to appreciate the scope.
As reporters struggle to find something new to say, they run the risk of not successfully communicating to the public the sheer scope and cruelty of the ongoing attack on trans people’s rights — or the underlying political truth: For Republicans, attacks on the trans community constitutes the preeminent legislative priority of this moment. This is true despite the fact that polling suggests legislation targeting trans people is unpopular with voters nationwide.
“When I tell people about this stuff, they say ‘That’s horrible! Why didn’t I know about this?’” said Caraballo. “They think if these bills were really that bad, the news media would be covering it, but then the news media don’t cover it because they think people don’t care.”
The result has been an extreme agenda, pushed by ideologues, succeeding wildly thus far. Week after week, it continues to expand in cruelty and in scope, as Republicans bay for more punishment, more scapegoating, more cartoonish depictions of trans people as being fundamentally evil and against God. Meanwhile, in the trans community, panic, desperation, and despair threaten to overwhelm the ability to continue to fight. Individuals and families routinely ask themselves whether, how, and when to leave their homes, particularly in red states. Some families have already fled, while others plan for a future of displacement even as they try to stay and fight.
For national news organizations struggling to cover this story, the picture isn’t going to resolve into clarity any time soon. Even as new bills continue to be passed, the ones that have become law are beginning to enter the courts.
“It’s going to look very similar to the marriage equality fight,” said Stern, referencing the extended fight for same sex marriage rights in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Which bills are upheld and which are overturned will depend on who the district court judge is for these states. We’re going to see a circuit split, between liberal and conservative circuits, which is the most classic justification for the Supreme Court to step in.”
Once it gets to that point, Supreme Court cases, and eventual decisions, based on these laws will be national news. However, that’s a process typically takes years, and trans people in many states will have their lives upended as they wait. Against a continuing drip of new laws continuing to be passed by Republican politicians and recently passed laws making their way through the courts, trans people’s rights in practice will be highly dependent on where they live, and their ability to move to safety if they find themselves in the wrong state as bans on their participation in all aspects of public life go into effect.
Some trans people are quietly beginning to wonder where the national LGBTQ+ and transgender organizations are. Conversations I’ve had have brought up major op-eds unwritten, open letters unsigned. One explanation of the sparse news coverage could be a lack of outreach from big groups with lists of reporters’ email addresses doing the work of helping reporters find angles, experts, and quotes to make reporting on anti-trans legislation an easier lift.
Whatever the full explanation, as national reporting struggles, there are independent reporters, particularly transgender reporters, stepping in to fill the gap.
Erin Reed, a trans journalist who writes on Substack, covers anti-trans legislation daily, and in depth. Caraballo, who spoke with The Objective for this article, is another source of daily updates I recommend. You can find her Twitter feed here.
There are many local newspapers doing stellar work covering trans issues in their state or metropolitan area, so readers addicted to national news should remember not to neglect high quality reporting in their state. Examples include the Texas Observer, the Missouri Independent, and VT Digger. It also never hurts to send an email to the national outlets you follow, asking them why they’re not devoting more resources to covering such a massive, ongoing story of national import.
The trans community, who are already disproportionately poor and subject to widespread discrimination, do not have the resources to support internally displaced refugees and their families, fleeing unjust laws from an increasingly extreme, unmoored, semi-fascist GOP. We need the broader public to notice, and to care about, what’s happening. We need those who believe in equality and human dignity for all Americans to mobilize, and bring us relief.
Evan Urquhart is a reporter and founder of Assigned Media, a daily news site covering anti-trans propaganda in the US.
Editing by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Marlee Baldridge and Jen Ramos Eisen.
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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.