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'It's Specifically Cruel': Multiple Anti-Trans Bills Considered In Tennessee

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Across the country this year, state governments have already passed an unprecedented number of anti-transgender laws. Tennessee is one state leading that charge. This month, the governor there signed to so-called bathroom bills. No such laws had been passed for the last five years, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Kendall Crawford of member station WPLN reports

KENDALL CRAWFORD, BYLINE: Evelina Kertay has always felt the need to be cautious in public restrooms. She carries pepper spray with her to the bathroom in case she's targeted for being transgender.

EVELINA KERTAY: The standard for trans people in Tennessee is fear for your life.

CRAWFORD: And with new laws taking effect in July, she now feels even more worried about her safety. One law allows students and teachers to refuse to share a restroom with their transgender peers. Another requires businesses to post signs indicating they allow transgender people to use multipurpose restrooms. Carthay says these measures will make life more difficult for transgender Tennesseans.

KERTAY: It's specifically cruel towards trans people intentionally. They want to discourage trans people from being public in society.

CRAWFORD: But lawmakers say the legislation aims to protect Tennesseans from psychological, emotional or physical harm. Republican Representative Tim Rudd says it's a simple notification of who might be in a restroom.

TIM RUDD: I think that it's only reasonable in today's society that we would allow, especially a woman, if she's entering her restroom, to know that there could be a man standing there.

CRAWFORD: Similar arguments were made back in 2015, when North Carolina passed restrictions on transgender bathroom use. The measure faced major backlash, including boycotts of sporting events and threats by businesses to move out of state. The law was eventually repealed. John Vile teaches constitutional law at Middle Tennessee State University. He says the political climate in the state and the rest of the country is ripe for the resurgence of the bathroom debate. He says it may be lawmakers' strategy to drive people to the polls.

JOHN VILE: A lot of politicians right now would rather appeal to highly emotional issues that sort of stir up the base rather than probably issues that affect most of us more deeply on a day to day basis.

CRAWFORD: These bills are just two of a slate of anti-LGBT legislation. In Tennessee, lawmakers have put restrictions on gender-affirming medical care, transgender children's participation in sports and LGBT instruction in the classroom, all of which, Vile says, may be seen as a conservative pushback from progressive wins for LGBT rights for transgender Tennesseans. This legislative surge feels like a denial of their existence, says Rowan Kendall, a transgender man and father to a transgender son.

ROWAN KENDALL: Our identity - we're no different human beings that want to go to the restroom like everybody else. We have no other intent.

CRAWFORD: The Tennessee legislation will likely face legal opposition from advocates and prominent community members alike, some of whom say they will disregard the laws entirely. For NPR News, I'm Kendall Crawford in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "EXPLORE, BE CURIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.