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How blowback for trans bathroom bills has changed over the last few years

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In 2016, North Carolina passed the country's first bathroom bill, legislation saying people have to use the bathroom matching the sex on their birth certificate. There was huge pushback, boycotts of the entire state. In the last couple of years, though, bathroom laws have been passed in states from Florida to North Dakota to Utah. The pushback has not been as forceful. Deena Prichep reports.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Mitch Ryan is a data scientist in Oregon, and he was pretty excited to go to his industry's annual conference this year to see colleagues geek out over health informatics.

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MITCH RYAN: But then I went, and I was like, oh, this is in Florida.

PRICHEP: Florida passed a bathroom bill last year, and Ryan is trans, so using the men's room in a public building would be illegal. He's also a middle-aged guy, balding with a full beard. So using the women's rest room would also be a problem.

RYAN: Going to a thing that can help my career and help me do my job better is going to put me in legal danger and probably physical danger as well, frankly.

PRICHEP: Eight years ago, when North Carolina passed the first bathroom bill, some companies and organizations, even entire states, responded with boycotts and travel bans.

ERIN REED: It was an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party and the state.

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PRICHEP: Erin Reed is a transgender journalist and activist who tracks LGBTQ policy.

REED: We saw Deutsche Bank pulled out. PayPal pulled out. The NBA All-Star Game pulled out. The state lost billions of dollars in revenue and in taxes.

PRICHEP: It became an issue many Republicans just didn't want to touch, people like then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

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DONALD TRUMP: You leave it the way it is. There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate.

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PRICHEP: Even Ron DeSantis, who's now the governor behind Florida's recent bathroom bill, back then was hesitant.

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RON DESANTIS: Getting into the bathroom wars, I don't think that's a good use of our time.

PRICHEP: By the next year, the North Carolina bill was rolled back. The governor who signed it, Pat McCrory, was voted out. Here's Erin Reed again.

REED: And so, following that, there was a good four-year period where antitrans legislation sort of took the back seat. They kind of licked their wounds. And they stepped back. And they started planning.

PRICHEP: One of the main planners was Terry Schilling with the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank. Schilling said that, to avoid the pushback faced in North Carolina, advocates had to look outside of North Carolina.

TERRY SCHILLING: We picked Texas and Florida because they really can't boycott Texas. It's just too big. And it's too much of an economic powerhouse. And they certainly can't boycott Florida, the home state of Walt Disney World.

PRICHEP: They also looked beyond bathroom bills. Schilling says his group considered legislation keeping gender identity out of civil rights laws or trans women out of domestic violence shelters. But nothing really clicked until a few years ago.

SCHILLING: The women's sports issue was the first thing that really took off because it had that magic formula of having an incredible amount of public support amongst the American people, but also, politicians were willing to run on it and campaign on it.

PRICHEP: And they did. By 2021, 10 states had passed laws barring transgender athletes from participating in women's sports. And now it's half the country. Schilling says, in a sense, these trans sports bills opened the door for the legislation that followed - policies restricting gender-affirming care for kids and limiting how gender is discussed in schools, and a return of bathroom bills.

SCHILLING: I don't think you could have done it by just focusing on the bathrooms. I think it would be dead right now without the women's sports issue.

PRICHEP: The different camps argue about whether there's been a shift in public opinion or whether it's the result of a small, well-funded political campaign. But the political reality is undeniably changed.

SCHILLING: I do believe that now is a totally different time then because it's now like a threshold issue for being a serious Republican.

PRICHEP: There are now LGBTQ restrictions in half the country, which makes the sort of boycotts we saw in 2016 a lot harder. And journalist and activist Erin Reed says, in the current social media landscape, companies that do take action - Disney, Bud Light, Target - find themselves the focus of outrage.

REED: Regardless of what individual people might think about one trans issue or another trans issue, I have to believe that we all should agree that hate isn't the way that we handle this.

PRICHEP: Reed points out that there have been expansions and restrictions of rights throughout our country's history.

REED: This is not the first LGBTQ moral panic, and it won't be the last. And I think that right now we are in that period where people are getting hurt.

PRICHEP: The Biden administration is attempting to block some bathroom policies, saying they violate Title IX's nondiscrimination rule, while Republicans in several states say they're prepared to challenge the move in court. And at this point, it's hard to say what the future will look like. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deena Prichep