By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - Oklahoma's governor has signed into law a bill making it a felony to provide gender-affirming healthcare to a minor.
Indiana has enacted a law requiring teachers to tell parents when students ask to be called by a new name or different pronoun. North Dakota has approved a law that lets public school teachers and state employees ignore using a transgender person's preferred pronoun.
And the latest such action came in Florida on Wednesday when Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that bans gender-affirming medical care such as puberty blockers or hormone therapy for transgender youths - a measure that joins the state's growing list of legislation that limits the rights of LGBTQ people.
This month's rush of bills, certain to attract court challenges, has become central to the Republican agenda in statehouses across the country and inflamed the so-called culture war in the United States that also encompasses abortion, gun rights and school curricula.
A group of Florida parents has already sued in federal court to try to stop new law there.
To many political observers, these measures offer a preview of the 2024 elections, with Republicans portraying Democrats as out of touch on issues of sex and religion, and Democrats calling Republicans extremist and anti-democratic.
Republicans have introduced more than 500 bills affecting LGBTQ people in 2023, with at least 48 passing, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights group. Those numbers are up from 315 bills introduced and 29 passed in 2022.
The majority of those bills specifically affect transgender people, touching on nearly every aspect of a transgender person's public life. Some seek to ban transgender girls from participating in girls' sports. Others require transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender assigned at birth or prevent transgender people from changing their sex on identity documents.
Neal Allen, chair of the political science department at Wichita State University, said it remains unclear whether the transgender issue will help Republicans defeat Democrats in 2024, but that many Republicans are more concerned about an internal party challenge from the right.
"You have to win the first election first. And the vulnerability of most Republican state legislators right now is in the primary, if at all," Allen said.
'FLORIDA IS THE VANGUARD'
Among the governors at the forefront is DeSantis, who is expected next week to announce a bid for the 2024 Republican U.S. presidential nomination. The bill he signed on Wednesday also adds obstacles for transgender adults and grants courts jurisdiction in child custody battles in some cases involving gender-affirming care.
"I've watched anti-trans legislation for four years now and I can tell you that Florida is the vanguard," said Erin Reed, an independent researcher who tracks the bills. "You see it pushed in Florida, and then you see it emanate across the country."
LGBTQ rights activists are pushing back.
Florida protesters flung underwear at state House Republicans from the gallery with messages such as "not your business" and "leave my genitals alone."
Demonstrators swarmed the Texas House, leading lawmakers to send a bill banning gender-affirming care back to committee. The bill finally passed the legislature on Wednesday.
In Montana, protests contributed to the censure of transgender state Representative Zooey Zephyr, who was banned from the state House floor by Republican legislators.
President Joe Biden's administration has entered the fray. Last month, the Justice Department sued Tennessee to challenge its Republican-backed ban on gender-affirming care for minors, one of several states where it has filed a complaint or supported lawsuits.
Some Republicans have said they have momentum.
The State Freedom Caucus Network, a coalition of conservative legislators in 11 states, has helped pass transgender-related bills in five states.
"In five to 10 years, I feel like the country will look back on this and realize that it was a horrible mistake to let (gender-affirming care) occur," said Andrew Roth, president of the network. "I think that's the eventual conclusion of this."
A recent Fox News poll found 57% of respondents believe political attacks on families with transgender children is a major problem. A Data for Progress poll found 72% of Democrats, 65% independents and 55% Republicans think too much legislation is aimed at limiting LGBTQ rights.
But a Reuters/Ipsos poll from March found 55% of respondents agreed that doctors should be banned from providing transgender treatment to minors, versus 33% who disagreed.
The major pediatric, endocrinology and mental health associations endorse gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy when appropriate, some calling it life-saving for many transgender youths.
But many Republican supporters of the bills distrust the prevailing medical consensus, characterizing the treatments as dangerous and experimental. Some have called the measures chemical castration or child abuse.
Since 2021, least 15 states have banned gender-affirming care for minors.
"It's catastrophically bad," said Cathryn Oakley of the Human Rights Campaign. "The number of young folks who are going to be losing access to medically necessary, best-practice, age-appropriate healthcare is really scary."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Paul Thomasch)