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West Virginia Conservatives Want to Legally Define Trans People as “Obscene”

“Our elected officials are aiming to dehumanize and erase our existence,” a transgender activist said.

West Virginia State Sen. Michael Azinger (R) introduced a slew of anti-transgender bills on Wednesday, including one that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth and one sanctioning conversion therapy.

“Even though it’s just the second day of the session, nine bills that oppose LGBTQ+ rights have already been introduced, with a heavy focus on the trans community in West Virginia,” Ash Orr, transgender activist from West Virginia, said on social media.

SB 194 would prohibit transgender people from accessing gender-affirming care until 21 and defines being transgender as a “sexual deviation,” similar to pedophilia, exhibitionism, masochism, sadomasochism or fetishism. The bill would make providers of gender-affirming care subject to a fine of up to $10,000 and could lead to revocation of a medical professional’s medical license.

SB 194 also sanctions conversion therapy, which the United Nations has said constitutes torture, and prohibits mental health care professionals from providing gender-affirming therapy or counseling. A health care professional who affirms their client’s gender would be subject to a $5,000 fine and would be prohibited from working at public schools, private schools, daycares, or other academic institutions.

“Gender identity conversion therapy is consistently linked to suicide attempts. Every major medical organization says it’s dangerous (APA, AAP, AACAP, AMA),” Dr. Jack Turban, an assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, said on social media. “So West Virginia decided to mandate that therapists do it. What in the world is going on with these politicians?”

SB 195 defines doing drag performances or performing while existing as transgender as “obscene matter or sexually explicit conduct” which constitutes “indecent exposure” if a minor is present. An individual who violates the provision could be jailed for six months and fined $1,000. The bill also targets venues which host drag performances that include transgender people. A venue which allows a minor to be present at such an event could be guilty of a misdemeanor and be fined $500. Similar drag bans in Florida and Tennessee led to the cancellation of pride events last June before courts blocked the laws for likely infringing on First Amendment rights.

“WV SB 195 is presented as a drag ban but it becomes clear that its true aim is to prohibit the public presence of trans folks,” Orr said on social media. “The language used in this bill categorizes anything related to trans individuals as ‘obscene material’ and could lead to a felony charge.”

SB 195 also prohibits adults from showing a minor any films, pictures, graphics, magazines, or written material that includes transgender people. This provision is eerily similar to the “gay propaganda” laws in Russia and Hungary which banned material featuring LGBTQ+ people and have led to further stigmatization of queer people in those countries.

Azinger also introduced another anti-drag law, SB 237, which would effectively ban drag performances in the state.

“Drag is a historical art form that has been around for centuries and holds significant importance in LGBTQ culture and history. Although laws limiting how people can dress based on gender have existed since at least the 1800s, the year 2023 witnessed a renewed push to restrict freedom of speech and expression, particularly targeting drag performances,” Orr said. “These assaults are just one aspect of a larger, organized campaign aimed at undermining gender expression, trans folks, and the broader LGBTQ+ community.”

SB 197 classifies transgender people as “obscene material” and prohibits them from being within 2,500 feet of a public school. Any school faculty or staff who allows a transgender person within 2,500 feet of school could face up to a year in prison and a fine of $500. This bill could be particularly harmful because a 2017 study suggested that West Virginia had the highest percentage of gender-diverse youth in the country. A 2022 study conducted by West Virginia University, meanwhile, found that more than 7 percent of junior high and high school students in rural Appalachia identified as a gender that did not fully align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

The enactment of these anti-trans bills would unquestionably harm transgender people in West Virginia. However, the mere introduction of such bills has been shown to impact the mental health of transgender youth. In a 2023 survey conducted by the Trevor Project, 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth expressed that ongoing discussions regarding anti-trans bills had an adverse effect on their mental wellbeing.

“The mere introduction of these bills conveys a message to trans West Virginians that our elected officials are aiming to dehumanize and erase our existence,” Orr said on social media.

These laws represent an escalating attack on trans people by right-wing legislators in West Virginia. In March, Gov. Jim Justice (R) signed a gender-affirming ban into law that went into effect on January 1, effectively barring transgender youth from accessing gender-affirming care in the state.

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