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Hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have already been introduced this year. Here may be why

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, it is only April, and 2022 is already on track to set a record for the number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures. Some focus on sports, others on transgender medical care, and still others on classroom instruction.

NPR's Melissa Block joins us now to talk about what's behind this wave of bills. Hi, Melissa.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so how many bills are we even talking about here - like, in how many states?

BLOCK: Well, according to the LGBTQ rights group Freedom For All Americans, so far this year, there have been more than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in nearly 40 states...

CHANG: Wow.

BLOCK: ...Which means there's just been explosive growth. And this year, more than a dozen of those bills have been passed into law. Just yesterday, we saw the Kentucky legislature override the governor's veto and pass a bill that bans transgender girls from participating in girls sports. Last week, Alabama's governor signed a bill that criminalizes gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth. That law makes it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

CHANG: Wow. OK. So obviously, these bills are about different things, but what trends are emerging? Like, what are LGBTQ advocates seeing?

BLOCK: Well, first of all, they're just trying to keep up with the sheer numbers of them. I talked about this with Jenny Pizer. She is senior counsel with the group Lambda Legal.

JENNY PIZER: It's increased at a feverish pace. Last year was overwhelmingly terrible, and this year is even worse.

BLOCK: For example, Pizer is tracking a whole wave of copycat bills like the ones signed in Florida and Alabama that opponents call don't say gay. These are bills that ban classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

PIZER: It's spreading, really, like a kind of hateful, misguided wildfire in state legislatures.

BLOCK: Also, Ailsa, LGBTQ advocates are seeing an evolution toward bills that are specifically aimed at transgender people and particularly trans youth. It started with bathroom bills that prevent trans people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity. Then came the trans sports bans and trans medical care bans.

CHANG: Well, when it comes to these so-called don't say gay bills - the ones that deal with classroom instruction - they've been framed by supporters, like, around parental rights. But we've seen that some of these supporters - they're taking their justifications way further. They're using the word grooming, saying that if you oppose these bills, you actually support the grooming of children.

BLOCK: That's right. It's really homophobic and dangerous language, and it harkens back to a theme from the '70s, when the anti-gay-rights activist, the singer Anita Bryant, launched a campaign that she called Save Our Children. And she was using language like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANITA BRYANT: Just biologically - that God made mothers so that we could reproduce - homosexuals cannot reproduce biologically, but they have to reproduce by recruiting our children.

BLOCK: And that throwback smear - the obviously false claim that LGBTQ people are predators or pedophiles - that's gained traction as these bills advance. Here's Sarah Longwell. She's a political strategist and an anti-Trump conservative Republican.

SARAH LONGWELL: Watching the QAnon conspiracy theory go from the darkest corners of the right-wing dark web to being somewhat mainstream, coming up in the focus groups I do - just from middle-aged women talking about Q and pedophilia - it's become this obsession on the right.

CHANG: Well, Melissa, I mean, listening to this language, this rhetoric, where do you think all of this is heading?

BLOCK: Well, these bills have strong backing from deep-pocketed conservative organizations on the Christian right, like the Alliance Defending Freedom. And, of course, it is an election year, so Republican Sarah Longwell expects to see quite a bit more of this. She says that issues around LGBTQ rights have become weaponized by the right into incredibly potent wedge issues. She calls them a political cudgel. She also admits how surprised she is to see these culture wars come roaring back.

LONGWELL: I got married to my wife in 2013, we had kids, and those fights that I was so engaged in in the early 2000s, all the way up to the Supreme Court making the decision to legalize gay marriage - they had started to become kind of a memory.

BLOCK: Longwell told me, I thought we were past it as a country. I was overly optimistic.

CHANG: That is NPR's Melissa Block. Thank you so much, Melissa.

BLOCK: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.