A few months ago, Seattle-based software developer Andrew Bales noticed something strange happening in legislatures across the country.
Conservatives have always singled out trans people for discriminatory treatment, but in 2020 and 2021, there was an unprecedented surge in transphobic bills, many going much further than ever before: Texas Republicans threatened to criminalize medical care for trans youth; in Iowa, they wanted teachers to force anti-transitioning talking points on kids; a bill in New Hampshire included the line “civil rights shall not apply.”
Over a hundred such bills popped up across the country in 2021 — double the number of bills in 2020. That includes HB1556 here in Washington, which would have restricted trans students’ access to educational programs. (Its sponsors are Republicans Brad Klippert and Rob Chase, both dreadful.)
“What is this movement?” Bales wondered. “Where did it begin? Who’s driving it?”
As luck would have it, Bales has some experience when it comes to making sense out of large volumes of data. So they got to work.
Bales' project is called Inflection Point, and they built it for their employer, a digital studio called Substantial. Released to the public on August 3, the tool is named for the moment when a mathematical curve starts trending in a new direction, and it seeks to track every anti-trans bill in the country.
Drawing on data sets from the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Campaign, Bales has assembled data visualizations to help illustrate the scope of the problem.
Glancing at the Inflection Point’s map, it’s easy to spot some trends — though they don’t tell the full story.
“A lot of bills are in Texas, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee,” Bales says. “But I hesitate personally to think of it as ‘these are bad states’ ... this is more of a national issue.”
Indeed, it’s clear from looking at the bills that they result from a coordinated nationwide campaign. Among the national organizations pushing these bills is The Heritage Foundation, a DC-based conservative activism group that had a major role in guiding the Trump administration. Heritage organizes workshops and speaking events for anti-trans activists, including one recent panel entitled “Biology Isn’t Bigotry” — a slogan adapted almost word-for-word from failed anti-marriage-equality campaigns.
Also pushing the anti-LGBTQ bills are groups like The Family Policy Alliance and The Alliance Defending Freedom — names that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed homophobic activism over the last two decades. Where these groups once focused on opposition to equality for same-sex couples, they’ve now turned their attention to trans people, particularly youth.
This didn’t just come out of nowhere, Bales says. “In 2015 we saw the introduction of the idea of the ‘bathroom bill,’ a one-issue place to go after trans rights,” they say. This was a timely pivot, since the US Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality. Homophobic groups could see that they were on the losing side of that particular issue, Bales says, so they switched to an issue they felt they could win.
“Their goal is pretty clear, which is to cleave transgender issues away from a larger coalition,” Bales says, and “to create policies that keep trans people out of public lives. Understanding that dynamic is fundamental to being able to combat it.”
But can it be combatted? Maybe. Bales says the best shot is with the Equality Act, a pending federal bill that would expand American civil rights law. The Equality Act would broaden protections already provided to religious and racial minorities to cover LGBTQ+ Americans.
During the last presidential campaign, Joe Biden said, “I will make enactment of the Equality Act a top legislative priority during my first 100 days.” The bill passed the House in February of 2021, and it's been sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee with no action since then.
While we wait (and wait, and wait, and wait), voters can take action by contacting legislators and asking them to refuse to sign onto a new anti-trans campaign called “Promise to America’s Children.” Despite the pretty name, it’s a ten-point pledge that contains all the same old toxic anti-queer rhetoric we’ve heard for years, just with a slightly different coat of paint to focus on trans youth.
If there’s any one trend that’s constant across all of the data, it’s that right-wing groups are simply recycling the same scare tactics they’ve been using for decades. This is what happened with the criminalization of homosexuality; with treating it as a mental illness; with banning queer people from working in schools; with creating concentration camps for people with HIV. The right wing has rehearsed for decades, Bales says; and each time, they portray queer people in the exact same way.
“First they mock them,” Bales says, “then they go after them as a real threat.”