In the first few days of this year, lawmakers in several states have already introduced, or carried over from previous sessions, bills to continue their assault on progressive ideals — an escalation of the culture wars that have become central to Republican agendas in recent years, despite a lukewarm response from voters.
Polling indicates that even some GOP voters aren’t particularly convinced that waging war on equality or progressive ideals should be the top priority for elected officials, and the 2022 and 2023 elections proved that they’re not always persuasive policy ideas. Still, some GOP-controlled states are not ready to move on from them.
The bills introduced so far in 2024 range from an attempt to strip transgender people of their civil rights, like bills that would remove the ability for trans people to change the gender on their driver’s licenses or take away access to gender-affirming care, while others seek to put limitations on drag performances and keep people from using their correct pronouns at work.
Florida has begun its legislative session with a slew of bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community.
“As jaded as I am having dealt with the Florida legislature for two decades, I’m astounded by the level of bigotry that’s already been espoused [this session],” Howard Simon, the interim executive director of the ACLU of Florida, told HuffPost.
The state is no stranger to the culture wars, as GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis has positioned himself as the anti-woke candidate in his presidential campaign. The Republican-led state legislature has already passed controversial bills like the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which restricts what teachers can say about sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom, and the S.T.O.P Woke Act, which places limits on what educators teach about racism.
“I don’t think these are popular,” Simon said. “I don’t think the people of Florida think this is the right to do. These are just invented culture war issues.”
In December, state Rep. David Borrero (R) refiled a bill that would ban public buildings from flying a flag that represents “a political viewpoint, including, but not limited to, a politically partisan, racial, sexual orientation, and gender, or political ideology viewpoint” — which, in practice, would make it illegal for public entities to display a Pride flag. Borrero filed a similar bill last February that died in committee.
Florida Republicans are also looking to expand some elements of the “Don’t Say Gay” law to the workplace.
If passed, HB 599 would ban government employers and other entities that receive state money from requiring that employees use the correct pronouns for their colleagues, and would even ban disciplinary action against people who misgender their colleagues. It would also prohibit employers from requiring training on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Believe it or not, they think being gay or transgender is an ideology,” Simon said. “It’s not. It’s just being who you are.”
“This isn’t conservatism,” he added. “It’s moralistic authoritarianism.”
Another big part of the right’s culture war has centered around books, and which ones children should be able to access at school or in public libraries. Around the country, educators and librarians have been forced to remove books deemed inappropriate for kids, which has mostly meant those with LGBTQ+ or racial justice themes.
Republicans in Tennessee have introduced HB1661 this year, which would allow for so-called “obscene” books to be banned from the public library if just 2% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election sign a petition.
Missouri Republicans are also looking to censor teachers in the classroom with SB 1024, which mirrors Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. If passed, teachers wouldn’t be allowed to talk at all about sexual orientation or gender identity to students in kindergarten through third grade, and would be limited in what they could say to older students.
Then there’s SB 728, which includes a clause requiring parental notification if a student uses a name or pronoun that doesn’t match their birth certificate. Experts and activists say these kinds of policies can be especially dangerous for children whose families may be hostile, even abusive, toward LGBTQ+ kids.
“Trying to legislate the right to call somebody by the right pronoun all has to do with a future without trans and queer people existing,” said Shira Berkowitz, the senior director of public policy and advocacy at PROMO, an LGBTQ+ rights advocacy organization in Missouri.
And it’s not just schools Missouri lawmakers are focused on.
Republican state Rep. Mike Moon introduced a bill that would deem any bar or restaurant that has drag performances as a “sexually oriented business,” making it so that minors are not allowed to be present. A drag performance is defined in the bill as “a performance in which a performer exhibits a gender that is different from the performer’s biological sex as assigned at birth.”
There’s a similar bill in Nebraska, which would make it illegal for anyone under 18 to attend a drag performance if there is no alcohol being served, and under 21 if there is. The bill is a carryover bill from last year, and it also would prohibit state agencies, like libraries, from using state funds to host a drag show.
New Hampshire joined the fray with a pair of bills targeting transgender students. A group of Republicans introduced a bill that would ban transgender girls from participating on girls sports teams. (There is no clause for transgender boys.) There is also a measure that prohibits educators from using a name or pronoun that doesn’t appear on their birth certificates without parental permission. A similar law in Iowa resulted in teachers asking parents for permission to call their child by the nickname they’d always used — for example, calling a child John when their school records list their name as Jonathan.
As the moral panic of critical race theory, or CRT — an academic framework that examines the role of structural racism in society — died down, conservatives moved on to fearmongering about diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. These initiatives, meant to help diversify schools and workplaces, and make them more equitable for marginalized people, became a new conservative boogeyman — and some of the bills introduced in 2024 reflect that.
SB 1005 in Arizona, for example, would prohibit requiring state employees to participate in DEI training and would ban using state money on any DEI programs. Some of the ideas the bill spells out as falling under DEI programs include discussions of unconscious or implicit bias, cultural appropriation, anti-racism, inclusive language, and transgender people.
The deluge of proposed laws will likely continue in the coming months, and advocates argue lawmakers aren’t concerned about what residents actually value.
“In a lot of red states, our elected leaders are actively harming their own constituents,” Berkowitz said.