COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Bills pending on state lawmakers’ desks could be emboldening groups targeting LGBTQ+ people, and researchers are using data to back up that claim.

Anti-LGBTQ+ incidents — demonstrations, political violence and offline propaganda activity — more than tripled from 64 events in 2021 to 193 events in 2022 as of mid-November, according to a report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Advocates have pointed out that the rise in threats coincided with hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in legislatures across the nation.

“It’s difficult not to think the cruelty is the point,” said Sam Ames, director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. “We’ve witnessed increasingly vitriolic public rhetoric directed at LGBTQ people.”

A climate of hostility 

At least 340 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year. More than 140 of them target transgender rights. Thirteen states have signed these bills into law while an additional 23 states have introduced similar bills, a report from the Human Rights Campaign shows. 

The proposed legislation preceded a shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado this November, which marked the deadliest attack on the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. since Orlando’s Pulse shooting in 2016. The Nov. 19 shooting on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance left 19 injured and five dead, including two transgender individuals. A day prior, the National Center for Transgender Equality released a report finding at least 47 transgender people were killed in the last year.

Ames said members of the LGBTQ+ community are feeling shocked following the incident, but not surprised. Violent rhetoric toward the community has become normalized through anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and language in media, they said.

“That climate, that hostility contributes to this record violence we are witnessing year over year against trans people, especially against Black trans women who are experiencing that violence and rhetoric from several different angles,” Ames said.

ACLED’s report confirms the correlation: Far-right groups are increasing their engagement as anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has become mainstream through legislation. The report found far-right militias like the Proud Boys increased their engagement from 16 events in 2021 to 52 this year as of mid-November.

The Ohio connection

The increase in mobilization led to about 50 to 70 members of the Proud Boys gathering to protest an Ohio school’s “Holi-Drag Storytime” featuring three drag performers on Dec. 3. The event was canceled after a security dispute.  

Ohio is home to several anti-LGBTQ+ bills moving through the legislature. A “divisive concepts” bill opponents have dubbed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill was introduced in April, a bill banning various medical procedures for transgender or non-binary minors was introduced in May, and a bill banning transgender athletes from participating in sports was introduced in June. In addition, the state’s board of education is considering a resolution that could reject proposed federal protections for LGBTQ+ students.

Republicans, including Rep. Jena Powell, who introduced the amendment to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports to an unrelated bill, argued that the legislation levels the playing field.

“All these girls ask for is a fair shot, and to be given the chance to play and win by the rules in the sports that they love,” Powell said. “The opportunity is being ripped from them by biological males.”

In the case of the Ohio bill banning minors’ transgender medical procedures, sponsor Rep. Gary Click characterized his legislation as a protective measure for minors.

“Gender affirmation therapy does not affirm an individual’s gender but rather affirms their dysphoria, kicking the can down the road and leaving grave consequences to be dealt with later,” Click wrote in his testimony before fellow lawmakers in February. “Minors may not vote, hold office, marry, buy or possess firearms, or even play bingo … is it reasonable to allow them to consent to medicalized treatment that leads to sterilization and other long term health risks?”

Maria Bruno, public policy director at Equality Ohio, countered, claiming that adding restrictions like these could have other consequences for LGBTQ+ community members.

“When legislators push for legislation that relies on harmful stereotypes or legislation that has an overt, harmful impact on LGBTQ community members, that absolutely leads to an environment in which people feel more justified in bullying LGBTQ kids and acting on their existing biases,” said Bruno.

‘An enormous amount of power’

A majority of the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced in Ohio restricts the community in schools. Ames said the rhetoric is having a life-or-death effect on youth, whose mental health is negatively impacted by the political climate.

Trevor Project research shows 73% of LGBTQ+ youth are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, while 61% are experiencing symptoms of depression. Youth who identify as LGBTQ+ are more than four times as likely as their peers to attempt suicide, with more than 1.8 million LGBTQ+ youth seriously considering suicide each year in the U.S.

In addition, research shows 93% of trans and nonbinary youth are worried about being denied access to gender-affirming medical care and 83% are worried about being denied the ability to play sports. 

“LGBTQ+ people in the state right now are being traumatized and targeted and that weighs heavy on people,” Bruno said. “It’s stressful, it can be really depressing.”

However, Ames said classrooms can be a refuge for these struggling students. Fifty-five percent of LGBTQ+ youth told The Trevor Project their school is an LGBTQ-affirming space, while only 37% said their home is an affirming space. 

“We know that these safe spaces save lives, we know that they are connected to a reduction in suicide risk and depression,” said Ames. “It is painful to watch these lawmakers actively work to strip away the things we know keep our most vulnerable young people alive in Ohio and all over the country.”

To combat the misinformation Ames encourages educators, school leaders and community members to speak out. A young LGBTQ+ person having one supportive adult in their life can decrease their suicide risk by as much as 40%, Trevor Project research shows.

“There is an enormous amount of power in just demonstrating support,” said Ames. “If you have a platform, start combating this rhetoric, first and foremost, the children being targeted by that rhetoric are listening. They are internalizing the hateful messages and negativity they see on TV and on the internet, and so are the people who would do them harm.”