Is Missouri terrified of transition or is this culture war karaoke?

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Magdalena Padilla poses with new friends. Magdalena came with her mom and brothers from Russellville, Missouri. // Photo by Chase Castor

On January 24, 2023, Missouri House members debated a record nine pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in a single day—for nine hours, until 1 a.m. the next day. 

Missouri representatives lost sleep that night arguing over whether or not queer kids should be allowed to play sports with their friends, attend drag shows or drag story hours, learn about people like themselves at school, or receive gender-affirming healthcare. 

The paranoia among those who support such legislation is, unfortunately, infectious, and the hate could fester outward from the Bible Belt and across America if we don’t work to counteract it now.  

The nine anti-LGBTQ+ bills heard at the State Capitol on Jan. 24 are Senate Bill 42, in which “school districts are prohibited from teaching about The 1619 Project or any successor theory or concept, critical race theory or any successor theory or concept, and any divisive concepts;” House Bill 170, which aims to keep trans kids from participating in school sports by stating “Before the beginning of each school year, a parent of a student who competes 18 on an athletic team of a public school or private school and is seventeen years of age or 19 younger shall sign an affidavit acknowledging the biological sex of such student at birth;” House Bill 183 and House Bill 337, which also concern trans kids participating in school sports; House Bill 419 and House Bill 463, which aim to limit access to gender reassignment surgeries or any form of medical assistance while transitioning, such as hormone replacement therapy or puberty blockers; and House Bills 490, 494, and 498, which attempt to limit venues where drag performances would be legal, such as banning drag shows from any public venue where minors could be in attendance.

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Scenes from the Drag Queen Protest in Jefferson City where drag queens and friends gathered to protest a bill that put in place parental review boards that could have librarians fined and jailed for holding drag queen story hours. // Photo by Chase Castor

Where do this hatred and fear stem from, and why is Missouri an epicenter for such ignorant ideology? Katy Erker-Lynch, Executive Director of PROMO—Missouri’s LGBTQ+ public policy and advocacy organization—says there’s no single clear-cut answer to this question.

“One reason is that the LGBTQ+ community in Missouri has held the line for years,” says Erker-Lynch. “We have not allowed these types of transphobic and homophobic bills to pass. States all around us have been passing healthcare bands, they’ve been passing trans athlete bans, and there have been general attacks on bodily autonomy. We have an incredibly resilient community that has continued to fight back.” 

“Another reason is that certain politicians are being influenced by far-right extremists, often funded by white Christian nationalist groups, like Parents Defending Education, Focus on the Family, and the Heritage Foundation, who are funneling money to candidates to build culture wars to try to build their base,” Erker-Lynch continues. “That’s one of the biggest reasons. There is not a problem here that we need to deal with, and they’re creating an issue that’s nonexistent.”

“Other politicians, certain politicians, have a fear of the unknown,” Erker-Lynch says. “They don’t know trans folks, and they don’t know queer folks. And it’s making them act out in this way to try to legislate something they don’t understand. Those folks—we’re very happy to work with them. And the people that I mentioned already couldn’t be happier to be in conversation with them.”

“And then the last thing is Missouri’s funky,” Erker-Lynch concludes. “You could introduce the same exact bill multiple times and call it something else and give it a different bill number, so we have an increase in the number of bills. Even that, though, when you kind of account for a unique trend, it’s still extremely high. But that is one quirk to the Missouri State Legislature.”

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Photo by Chase Castor

PROMO is one committed group of individuals in Missouri actively advocating against anti-LGBTQ+ legislature. PROMO rallies together dozens of LGBTQ+ people and their families from across the state to show up at congressional hearings of anti-LGBTQ+ legislature and testify, a head-on approach to activism that humanizes the issues for representatives who support anti-LGBTQ+ legislature. 

For the Jan. 24 hearing of nine bigoted bills, PROMO managed to rally nearly two hundred people to testify against the anti-LGBTQ+ bills with nearly less than a day’s notice. 

“Legally in Missouri, the Legislature is required to post notice of bills being heard in a committee 24 hours in advance,” says Erker-Lynch. “We were given 25 hours and had to mobilize folks very quickly, and I could not be more proud of how the community showed up for our rally.”

PROMO’s “Rally in the Rotunda” saw speeches from faith leaders, drag queens, senators in support of the LGBTQ+ community, parents of LGBTQ+ kids, PROMO board members, and other LGBTQ+ people and their families. By simply talking to Representative Sander and showing him how the passing of the bills would impact real people, drag queens Jordan Braxton and Akasha Royale inspired Sander to remove his name from two bills he had previously supported. 

“I really just asked him, what is the bill, and what are your experiences with drag entertainers?” says Akasha Royale. “What makes you believe that we are now a threat to children? And he really couldn’t answer.”

“I think that it was really great that I was in the Capitol for the start of the one hundred and second general assembly,” Royale continues. “I said I was in this building for hours all day long. I was not a threat to anyone’s kids, Democrat or Republican or libertarian or otherwise. I interacted with them, took pictures with them, and gave them high fives. I know how to act and how to present myself around children.” 

Again on Jan. 31, over 30 PROMO advocates showed up to testify against six anti-LGBTQ+ bills being heard at a Missouri Emerging Issues Committee meeting. Those pieces of legislation included Senate Bill 2, SB 29, SB 39, SB 48, SB 87, and SB 165. These bills focus on banning people from changing their gender on documents such as birth certificates, and several aim to ban transgender and gender nonconforming children, even as young as kindergartners, from playing team sports.

“There are so many things that our state representatives and senators could work on that would enrich the lives and create opportunities for Missourians in rural and urban areas across the state,” says Erker-Lynch. “And instead, they’re spending probably three or four hours tomorrow and literally nine hours last week of taxpayer money to go after a very vulnerable population.”

“As a queer kid, growing up in Missouri, athletics meant the world to me,” says Erker-Lynch. 

“The opportunity to participate in sports improved my self-confidence, made me feel connected to my peers, and helped me to develop a sense of community. We need to call these bills exactly what they are — attempts to deprive transgender youth the opportunity to have a full educational experience.”

Unfortunately, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation aren’t exclusive to Missouri, though these attacks are concentrated here. Utah banned gender-affirming healthcare for minors in January, such as puberty blockers and hormone treatments, for example. Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and Arizona had previously passed similar bans between 2021 and 2022, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and as of June 2022, a total of 15 U.S. states had introduced 25 bills between them attempting to restrict gender-affirming healthcare for trans and gender non-conforming youth. 

Several other states will likely attempt to follow suit after Utah’s recent decision; Lisa Dunn reports in The Mary Sue on a radicalizing video posted by the big bad bigot himself, former President Donald Trump, to far-right social media site Truth Social in January. In the video, Trump calls for a federal ban on gender-affirming healthcare for youth should he be reelected in 2024—he has announced that he plans to rerun for President then, much to the chagrin of anyone with a conscience. But the possibility of his reelection is very real, and that would mean four more years of targeted attacks on LGBTQ+ Americans at a national level. 

Such legal limitations on one’s identity could mean life or death consequences for many people who would experience dysphoria as a result. “LGBTQ+ youth are not predisposed to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation,” says Erker-Lynch. “The conditions that we create in our state push towards a mental health crisis. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now. This kind of language, this kind of rhetoric, has consequences. And some of them are really serious, and some of them are really dangerous, and some of them are deadly.”

So, what do we do in defense? According to Erker-Lynch, the best thing we can do is combat ignorance and fear with education through dialogue. 

“We show up, we share our stories, and we make it very hard for the legislature to do what they propose, which is to hurt us and to hurt Missourians and to hurt Missouri’s economy,” says Erker-Lynch.

We can show up and humanize the issue. We can show legislators there are real people, including children, who these bills hurt. We can write to our representatives and tell them our stories, call them, or start petitions. We can make our voices heard. It may sometimes feel like shouting into a vast void, your pleas for change just a raindrop in the ocean, but storms are made up of thousands of individual drops. Remember that. Two drag queens changed the mind of one Representative by simply talking to him. You might be able to do the same for someone if you engage with them and speak your mind, too. 

Categories: Politics