Empower Missouri often describes itself as the oldest and largest anti-poverty organization in Missouri. We have over 120 years working on legislative policy change, and a network of thousands of community members across the state working to advance evidence based public policy to end poverty. In those years, we’ve had exciting wins and faced difficult setbacks. The 2023 legislative session was no different. Last week, we wrote about some of our core victories and defeats, and this week, we want to address the passage of some extremely painful legislation that directly impacts our neighbors across the state: Senate Bills 39 and 49. These bills will directly harm our neighbors who are queer and trans*.
One of the most difficult decisions we make every year here at Empower is deciding whether we engage in an issue or not, and to what extent. As staff we have a shared decision making model, and Mallory wrote briefly about that in 2022. We are, first and foremost, an anti-poverty organization. More than 22% of queer people live in poverty (nationally), much higher than the 16% national average for everyone in the country. Twenty-nine percent of transgender people live in poverty, and the number grows even higher for trans women. Race and ethnicity also further exacerbates that inequity; 48% of Hispanic/Latino trans adults and 39% of Black trans adults struggle in poverty. LGBT+ people are more likely to experience food insecurity, homelessness and housing insecurity, and are less likely to have medical insurance. Queerness is a poverty issue, so, in our decision making process, it met the first hurdle.
The second thing we look at when deciding whether we should engage in specific policy work is whether or not we are the appropriate voice to lead, or whether other organizations / tables are already successfully leading this work. PROMO and the ACLU led an amazing coalition of queer and allied folks and nonprofits in a really smart and thoughtful campaign strategy. At great personal cost, including threats of violence and hateful words, there were a number of rallies opposing the variety of anti-trans* bills this session. Not once was I in the capital that I didn’t see someone walking around the building with a rainbow or trans flag pin. They led a well planned and executed campaign. Empower Missouri wasn’t the voice to lead this fight, though many of our staff and board members joined and supported in personal or free time.
Before session had even begun, House and Senate leadership had identified trans* youth as a priority target. The focus on the queer community isn’t new; Missouri doesn’t include gender identity or sexuality in our protected classes, meaning LGBT+ Missourians can be discriminated against in employment, housing, and other public accommodations. For 20 years, lawmakers have tried to change this by passing Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA), and the legislature as a whole has prevented that from happening. During the committee hearing for MONA this year, the chair of the Missouri Human Rights Commission testified against it, saying that it was imperative that landlords be able to discriminate against LGBT+ people. Calls for Timothy Faber to be removed have gone unanswered. In Missouri, the man appointed by the governor to lead the state to “eliminate discrimination through the enforcement of the Missouri Human Rights Act and prevent social inequality through education and outreach,” publicly testified that his religious liberty to discriminate was more important than my queer friends’ liberty to be themselves. Missouri was not a safe place for queer people before January, and in the last 5 months it has become even more unsafe, both in statute and in the community.
Over 15 bills were filed to increase the amount of discrimination in Missouri this year. At least 8 of them got hearings, and ultimately two passed. Senate Bill 39 prevents any school (private or public) from allowing any child to play on a sports team that is different from their biological sex marked on their birth certificate. The law allows for a change only when there is no girls team at a school; then, girls may play on the boys team. The bill sponsors talked about these bills centering ‘fairness’ of cisgender girls being able to access scholarships. Of course, there were already rules governing sports that most commonly receive scholarships, such as basketball, soccer and baseball. Guidelines already existed from the NCAA and The Missouri State High School Activities Association. In fact, only about 8 trans* athletes currently compete in Missouri. During testimony, bill sponsors admitted they didn’t know about these rules, but moved the legislation forward anyway. Finally, there is absolutely no evidence that trans* kids have any sort of advantage over cisgendered kids. As a parent, coach, and a person who deeply supports evidence-based public policy– it is my opinion that this bill and law change is strictly just to make sure trans* kids know they are other, less, and unwanted in some communities.
Senate Bill 49 is also devastating. SB 49 limits practitioners from offering any gender affirming treatment to transgender kids. This includes surgery and pharmaceutical treatment including puberty blockers and hormones. Gender affirming surgery is incredibly difficult to access in America for adults, let alone youth and teens, and national data suggests it is extremely rare (less than 200 per year). There is no evidence that these surgeries have happened in MO on minors since 2017.
However, cisgendered children DO regularly get gender affirming treatment, including hormones for growth and to bring on secondary sex characteristics when their bodies do not produce the right amounts to reach a certain standard. The opposite is also true, where physicians prescribe puberty blockers for cisgender kids who are diagnosed with precocious puberty, preventing five year olds from growing breasts and facial hair. Lawmakers aren’t preventing this type of care, even though it is becoming more and more common. In fact, our lawmakers must know things we don’t know, since they felt comfortable going against every major medical organization to take away the right of parents to make our own decisions for and with our own children. Gender affirming healthcare is safe, medically necessary, and life saving medical treatment. An important note, while the MO legislature passed this bill limiting trans* healthcare for youth, Attorney General Andrew Bailey issued an emergency rule that would ban trans* healthcare for adults. After a court issued a restraining order stopping the emergency rule from being enacted, Bailey withdrew the rule this week. SB 49 also prevents Medicaid from covering transgender health care for youth, which was already the law. In fact, MO Medicaid doesn’t cover transgender health care for any age. Regardless, it is simply not the role of lawmakers to determine what medical treatments are safe and who in our society can access them.
Our state taking such a strong stance against the inclusion and healthcare needs of transgender people in our state is devastating. The cost of these bills is literally human. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people (10-24 years old), and queer kids are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight and cisgendered peers. There are evidence-based ways to reduce this number. One way is providing places of belonging, communities, for our LGBT+ neighbors. Affirming one’s gender by acknowledging their pronouns, name, and allowing a social (and medical, when appropriate) transition. Missouri lawmakers may be trying to prevent some of these things from happening here, but know that there are communities rising up and resisting. Kansas City has voted to identify itself as a Sanctuary City, providing gender affirming healthcare despite Missouri law. The less devastating human loss we are experiencing in Missouri is families leaving the state. Truthfully, I can’t blame them. I’m not sure what the future of Missouri looks like if we continue to push out young families who just want to be able to keep their kids alive.
Empower Missouri is devastated by the passing of these two bills and the pain and havoc our LGBT+ families are experiencing in our communities. We cannot talk about the rest of the legislative session, including the good things advocates were able to accomplish, without acknowledging the impact these bills and the harmful ideology behind them have on our state. As a queer person raising queer kids in Missouri, I’m not going anywhere. I hope you all take good care of yourselves and practice good boundaries. Use the 988 suicide prevention line if you need support, or any of these other text and phone support lines. Know that you are valued, loved, important, and necessary to the good functioning of our state. I tell my kids everyday that the best part of our world is being able to all be different. That holds true even when our lawmakers are short sighted.