Oklahoma lawmakers have introduced 40 bills limiting LGBTQ Oklahomans’ healthcare access, inclusion in schools and options for self-expression this legislative session, an Oklahoma Watch analysis shows.
When the first bills were considered Wednesday by a Senate committee, about 30 LGBTQ community members lined both sides of the meeting room, wearing bright pinks and blues in support of the trans community two days after Gov. Kevin Stitt called for a statewide ban on gender-confirming procedures for minors in his State of the State speech.
Those community members were excluded from discussion on a bill banning gender-confirming care for minors and another that was modified to block public funds from going to providers of gender-confirming care. The Senate Rules committee allowed no time for public comment.
The bulk of the hour-long meeting was taken up by the committee’s Democratic members, Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, and Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, asking rapid-fire questions of the bill’s authors, Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, and Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville.
Daniels and Bullard struggled to answer questions about vague or undefined aspects of their bills. Daniels failed to reference specific peer-reviewed reports she used to develop her bill. Kirt and Floyd were the only votes against sending both bills to the Senate floor.
After the meeting, Nicole McAfee, the executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, stood in a huddle of protestors, many visibly dejected.
“It is not an easy session,” McAfee said to the group. “Being here is never an easy thing. And I want to thank you all for bearing witness to what happened today.”
More bills like these could be advancing. Among the proposals filed by state Republican legislators are bills that would limit classroom discussion of gender and sexual orientation, prohibit the use of pronouns based on gender identity in schools and ban drag shows in public places. At least 16 of those bills could affect gender-confirming care for minors and adults.
Stitt signed a bill basing school-sponsored sports team membership on biological sex last spring. He signed another law into effect banning nonbinary birth certificate gender markers or gender marker changes for trans people after a civil liberties group sued the state over an executive order banning the markers.
Another law went into effect this school year requiring public school students to use the bathroom that aligned with their biological sex. No violations were reported to the state Department of Education last semester and the law is being challenged by the ACLU. In September, lawmakers voted to prevent OU Children’s from receiving federal American Rescue Plan Act funds unless it stopped providing gender-confirming procedures to minors.
In many cases, Republican legislators are aiming to increase restrictions.
“I think that the level of harm threatened when we see people jump onto these trends at this volume is just shocking,” McAfee said.
State legislators across the nation introduced 315 anti-LGBTQ bills last year. At least 180 bills have already been introduced this year. Mississippi lawmakers have filed 30 with many similar themes, including limits to gender-confirming care and discussion of gender and sexual orientation in classrooms.
As community members and advocates in Oklahoma brace for potential impacts, they say vague language and incomplete bills blind them to what could be coming. And McAfee said COVID-19 led to an increased disconnect between legislators and constituents, in many cases shielding lawmakers from any direct knowledge of their bills’ harmful effects.
Limits To Gender-Confirming Care
Stitt has called on the Legislature to send him legislation banning gender-confirming procedures and hormone therapies for minors statewide multiple times, the latest coming Monday in his State of the State address. Eleven of the 16 related bills aim to do that. A handful would limit care for adults.
Though most bills provide definitions for the procedures they’re banning, Senate Bill 787 and Senate Bill 789 by Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman do not. ACLU Oklahoma policy director Cindy Nguyen said the wording of restrictions can often be vague, which can create a chilling effect for physicians that provide procedures that could be affected.
Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, filed a bill banning minors from accessing gender-confirming care. Medical providers who provide that care illegally could risk losing their license, according to the bill. Dahm, who ran unsuccessfully for former U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe’s seat and reaches his state Senate term limit in 2024, said he’s been concerned about the effects of the procedure on people under 18 for years and has filed similar legislation multiple times.
Three other bills focus on preventing young adults from accessing gender confirmation. Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, authored a bill prohibiting anyone under 21 from accessing those procedures.
Olsen, who was elected without opposition in two of his three terms, said he intended the bill to restrict access to puberty blockers, hormone therapy and gender-confirming surgery. He pointed to recent decisions by Sweden, the Netherlands and Great Britain to make gender-confirming procedures more difficult to access.
Dahm filed another bill that would block Medicaid reimbursement — or the use of state or federal money — for gender-confirmation providers. He said the measure would work similarly to the state’s Medicaid block for non-life saving abortions. Dahm said adults should be able to decide whether to receive gender-confirming care for themselves. He also acknowledged that the Medicaid ban could prevent some from accessing that care.
Proponents tout the benefits of gender-confirming care, but the potential risks are still largely unknown. As of October, there had been no long-term studies following people who received gender-confirming care as children to measure their satisfaction with their treatment as they aged. Little is known about the effects of stopping or reversing a transition process, which some advocates warn trans people could be forced to do if gender-confirming care is limited or banned.
The Trust Women clinic in Oklahoma City, which offered abortions until they were banned in Oklahoma, announced last month it would begin offering hormone therapy for minors and adults. ACLU Oklahoma and Lambda Legal promised legal action on any law restricting access to gender-confirming care.
There have been reports of Texas residents leaving the state over anti-LGBTQ laws in recent months. Olsen said he hadn’t considered the impact that legislation like his could have on their desire to stay in Oklahoma. Dahm said he’s spoken with trans constituents and noticed that many disagree with the proposed legislation, but he doesn’t expect to see a similar phenomenon in Oklahoma.
“I've heard that they don't like it and they're disappointed in it, but I know that there are communities (in the state) that are very welcoming to them, that would be supportive to them,” Dahm said.
Affected Public School Policy
There have been 14 bills introduced aimed at changing Oklahoma school policies and giving more control to parents and school administrators. Four authored by Sen. Cody Rogers, R-Tulsa, and Bullard, have been assigned to the Senate Education Committee.
Five of the school-related bills would limit instruction about gender and sexual orientation or ban it for elementary school and early middle school students.
Rogers filed a bill banning instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through sixth grade. He also filed a bill requiring parents to give written consent for their child to be referred to by pronouns that don’t align with their biological sex, or to be called a name that’s not a version of the ones on their birth certificate.
Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, authored a bill that would prohibit that instruction for the same age group, but it also states that for other grades, an equal amount of time must be spent on the “two-gender perspective.”
Jett filed five other school-related bills, including one that states that if a student disputes their biological sex, they can establish their identity with school administrators by sending in a physician’s statement indicating their reproductive anatomy, normal level of testosterone and an analysis of their genetic makeup. That bill also bans schools from creating, enforcing or endorsing a policy respecting, favoring or promoting “non-secular sex based identity narratives” because those identities are part of the secular humanism religion.
Jett also authored a bill banning public schools from making available books with LGBTQ issues as their “primary subject.” The Oklahoma Watch’s four attempts to reach Jett for comment were unsuccessful.
Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, authored a bill amending the parents’ bill of rights to allow parents to inspect all classroom materials. Another authored by Bullard allows parents to inspect all curriculum, tests and surveys related to sexual orientation or gender identity before their student participates.
Emerging Trends In Legislation
Bullard and Jett authored bills with identical language that would ban lewd acts and obscene material in public spaces where minors or other individuals could observe. Another, authored by Rep. Collin Duel, R-Guthrie, could ban drag performers from involving or presenting minors in their performances.
Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, authored a bill that would ban engaging, organizing or authorizing an “adult cabaret performance,” which includes drag. The bill also bans organizing a drag queen story hour in public spaces or in areas where a minor could see. West said he was motivated to author the bill after seeing an influx in videos of drag shows and drag queen story hours that he felt were overly sexual and had minors present. He also said that most of the videos were recorded out of state and he thought many of them likely highlighted extreme cases.
“It's absolutely happening nationwide, and it's only a matter of time before somebody goes ahead and does that here in Oklahoma,” West said. “And it's better to be on the front side than trying to correct it after the fact.”
West said he defines “public property” as state-owned property, adding that that piece of the bill wouldn’t apply to private businesses. He said if it becomes law, he envisions it being enforced through reports from families who feel their child shouldn’t have been exposed to a performance.
Bullard filed a bill assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee that would allow the legislature to review executive orders related to the regulation of marriage issued by the president, Congress or a federal agency to decide whether they’re constitutional. The legislature or the attorney general can then seek an exemption, or ask a court to review the action.
Weeks after President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into effect, federally recognizing same-sex marriages, House Speaker Charles McCall, Rep. Justin Humphrey and Rep. Toni Hasenbeck also filed six bills with little substantial information other than the fact that they relate to “marriage and families.”
McAfee said shell bills like these are sometimes filed because the authors don’t want other legislators to organize opposition, or because they’re still waiting on specific language from a national organization. But they said it’s also difficult for members of the public to know what the bills might do.
“It's certainly an unfortunate part of Oklahoma's legislative process that so much of it is designed to keep people out of the loop and to remove legislators from accountability, and shell bills are certainly a part of that effort,” McAfee said.
Ari Fife is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at (405) 517-2847 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @arriifife.