The 2023 legislative cycle has already seen a massive increase in the number of anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in state legislatures, with a total of 378 pieces of legislation filed as of the end of February. In previous legislative sessions, these sorts of bills have largely been about transgender youth and education, but this round of legislation goes much further. For instance, Tennessee has enacted a law that criminalizes certain drag performances, which could not only restrict drag venues and performers but possibly also constrain some transgender people from going about their day-to-day lives.
Some states, including California, Washington, and New York, have not had a single anti-LGBTQ bill filed this legislative session. Meanwhile, 29 such bills have been filed in Texas, 34 in Missouri, and 35 in Oklahoma, which has seen the largest number in the country. To attempt to explain these differences, I relied on a simple model that looks at the number of proposed bills in a given state while taking into account partisan control of that state and statewide support for LGBTQ rights based on the PRRI American Values Atlas. While there are certainly more dynamics at play than these two characteristics (for instance, the work of organized interest groups and their lobbyists), this simple model explains about 35% of the variation between states that differ in the number of proposed anti-LGBTQ bills.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, party control of the state — that is, whether Democrats or Republicans hold majorities in each legislative chamber and the governor’s mansion — is a particularly strong determinant. Public opinion matters as well, however, and states where support for LGBTQ rights is low and Republicans dominate the government have the highest number of anti-LGBTQ bills. States controlled by Democrats or where neither party dominates have fewer pieces of legislation proposed, and the number declines to near zero in the states with the highest levels of public support for of LGBTQ rights.
This simple model takes into consideration only two attributes that might help explain why anti-LGBTQ bills proliferate in certain states, but there are likely a number of other factors to consider. A prominent theory in public policy has to do with policy diffusion, which is the idea that policy innovations in one state can inspire nearby and similar states to consider the same policies. Importantly, recent work has shown that model legislation distributed by “super interest groups,” can greatly influence the diffusion of new policy proposals. Lawmakers may be more likely to propose and sponsor such legislation because it takes the difficult work of writing policy off their plate. In the case of recent anti-LGBTQ bills, many may be based on pieces of model legislation floating around Republican and conservative circles.
While these policy fights continue, it is important to recognize that LGBTQ people and the rights afforded to them are the subject of a polarized, hyper-partisan dialogue. These anti-LGBTQ proposals are part of a trend of anti-LGBTQ activists steering the LGBTQ policy agenda by strategically focusing on certain controversial issues. Because resources are finite, the energy LGBTQ advocates must devote to fighting these new policy proposals detracts from activism in other areas that they might otherwise prioritize. Because of this, the effects of such proposals go beyond the policies contained in the text of legislation. At the end of the day, people will be affected by these policies both directly and indirectly — for instance, some families with transgender children have reported that they are considering moving out of states that are passing restrictive laws. Debates on these issues are certain to continue. My analysis suggests that the hearts and minds of local populations and the partisan control of certain states are two factors that partly explain the rise of anti-LGBTQ policy proposals. Thus, changing public opinion and mobilizing voters can be important pieces of any efforts to forestall future surges in anti-LGBTQ bills.