A series of policies that could affect the gay, lesbian and transgender community in Minnesota has local LGBTQ advocacy groups gearing up for a long fight.
The proposals — which include measures that would limit which restrooms transgender students are allowed to use, eliminate health care plans that cover “gender transition” services, and allow schools and businesses to skirt state and federal discrimination laws under religious belief pretexts — aren’t necessarily new or unique to Minnesota. Rather, they are part of what advocates see as a significant rise in what they call anti-LGBTQ measures throughout the country.
In states like Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina, dozens of bills have been introduced that, if passed, would significantly limit options for LGBTQ people in both public schools and in areas like health care, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national LGBTQ advocacy group that tracks these kinds of bills. This year alone, the group counted more than 130 bills across 30 states that it believes would significantly harm the LGBTQ community.
“We’ve been trying to battle back this wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation we’ve been seeing over the last several years,” said Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s senior legislative counsel, at a forum held in Minneapolis last week. “In 2016, we saw an unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ legislation … more than 250 bills filed at state legislatures across the country.”
A divided Legislature
Many of the bills considered anti-LGBTQ by advocates have been pushed by conservative Republicans. Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, said one reason Minnesota is seeing so many of the bills this year is the GOP’s dominance in the Minnesota House, where it holds a 20-seat majority.
Because Republicans only hold a single-vote majority over Democrats in the Senate, however, the legislation will likely never pass, she said. “No matter how crazy people can get in the House,” she said, “it seems that there are some sane people in the Senate.”
But Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said that such a gridlock also means bills that would help the LGBTQ community are stalled as well — bills like the one Dibble authored that would ban conversion therapy in Minnesota. “We’re kind of treading water here,” Dibble said. “Ultimately, there will have to be some electoral change before we can bring any policy change around.”
Manilan Houle, the policy and organizing coordinator for OutFront Minnesota, said banning conversion therapy — the practice of treating homosexuality as a mental disorder — has gained major traction across the country, and already 14 states have adopted official bans. Minnesota has yet to become one of those states, he said, and one reason is that the bill can’t even get a committee hearing.
And while most of the bills at the Legislature won’t make it into law, Dibble says he’s concerned about activism among the LGBTQ community in the face of a national Republican party unified around repealing Obama-era LGBTQ protections, he says.
“The last [Republican] national platform that they passed is the most extremist anti-gay platform in the history of the party,” Dibble said. “We have not only not gained ground in the party, we’ve lost ground.”
Same fight, different place
The fights are not just at the state or national level, though. Last year, after Dave Edwards pulled his now first-grade transgender girl out of a St. Paul charter school for getting bullied, he testified against a bill that would have required all transgender students in the state to use bathrooms or locker rooms that corresponded with their birth sex rather than their gender identity.
That bill failed, but Edwards is now engaged in a similar fight in a different location. Last month, Transforming Families — a Twin Cities transgender advocacy group where Edwards is a board member — along with other LGBTQ advocacy groups, squared off at an Anoka-Hennepin School Board meeting with groups who wanted the board to deny students from using bathrooms that didn’t match their birth sex.
Currently, the school board said its district determines which bathrooms or locker rooms students can use on a case-by-case basis. But LGBTQ advocacy groups like Transforming Families and OutFront Minnesota want the district to adopt a more “gender inclusive” policy like that of Minneapolis Public Schools and St. Paul Public Schools — both of which adopted policies last year that allow transgender students to use facilities that match their gender identity.
LGBTQ advocates argue that not adopting such a policy could carry dire consequences for transgender students. According to the 2016 Minnesota Student Survey, transgender students are far more likely to feel unsafe and get bullied in school, and are also more likely to attempt suicide than other students.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district has yet to change its stance, but Houle said they’re planning to pack the school board’s next meeting on April 24 in a show of force. “If they show up and we’re absent, they look like they’re the majority,” Houle said, regarding those opposing “gender inclusive” policies.
And with President Trump’s recent reversal on a federal directive that pushed for more gender inclusive policies nationwide, Houle said, they may be in for more pushback than normal this year. “We cannot afford to not show up,” he said. “Now more than ever.”