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Protesters gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Oct. 8, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Susan Walsh

In just the past six months, more than 110 bills have been introduced in state legislatures attempting to roll back transgender rights, most of them targeting transgender youth. At the same time, legislative efforts to actively protect the rights of LGBTQ+ young people have virtually ground to a halt.

At least 36 of the introduced bills would deny transgender children transition-related health care, forcing them to undergo puberty instead of receiving hormone blockers that give them time to navigate their gender. These became law in Alabama and Tennessee, jeopardizing the physical and mental health of young people in those states and prompting some families with transgender children to leave.

Lawmakers in dozens of other states have sought to bar transgender children from participating in sports with their peers, cutting them off from a crucial lifeline for physical and social development. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia all enacted these restrictions.

Tennessee barred transgender children from using bathrooms or locker rooms at school consistent with their gender identity, a restriction that, according to a Human Rights Watch report, jeopardizes their privacy and puts them at risk of harassment, assault and medical conditions.

Meanwhile, progress on legislation to help LGBTQ+ children has virtually stopped. While pouring their energy into pursuing anti-transgender laws, state legislatures have failed to take steps to actually protect the health and rights of these children.

Federal data show that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are almost twice as likely to be bullied at school as their heterosexual peers, with even higher rates of bullying targeting transgender youth. Yet no additional states have enacted LGBTQ+-inclusive anti-bullying protections this year. 

Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have statewide laws prohibiting bullying in schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (In South Dakota and Missouri, it’s actually against state law for local schools to forbid bullying based on these and other characteristics.)

Many children face discriminatory restrictions, particularly around gender expression and access to basic facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms. LGBTQ+ youth are more likely than their peers to grapple with mental health problems and often face real difficulty concentrating and succeeding in school.

Addressing these issues should be a priority for any lawmaker who truly cares about the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ youth.

Yet only 17 states and the District of Columbia expressly prohibit discrimination in schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity — and notably, no states have enacted such laws in 2021.

Many children lack access to comprehensive sexuality education, and even fewer receive inclusive sexuality education. Many never see positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ people in the classroom. Only four states — California, Colorado, Illinois and New Jersey — incorporate LGBTQ+ history and related topics into school curricula. No additional states have adopted these kinds of positive laws this year.

Instead, Tennessee took a step backward, requiring schools to notify parents or guardians so they can withdraw their children when sexual orientation or gender identity is going to be discussed. These types of laws jeopardize the rights of LGBTQ+ children, who need the information and resources, and deepen anti-LGBTQ+ stigma by suggesting that these discussions are somehow inappropriate.

The many lawmakers who insist they care about children should, at the very least, reverse discriminatory laws that exclude LGBTQ+ youth and cut them off from supportive resources. They should enact inclusive anti-bullying and nondiscrimination protections to protect children from mistreatment.

And to really support these children, they should incorporate LGBTQ+ issues into school curricula, fostering diverse and respectful environments where everyone feels welcome.

This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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