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Are US firms ready to do more than voice concerns on trans rights?

NEW YORK — Leading US companies have become more vocal in criticizing proposed laws restricting transgender rights and taking a stand on LGBT+ issues but have failed so far to take concrete action against states with such legislation, advocates said.

Nearly 100 companies, including Facebook, Pfizer, and Dell, said late last month they were “deeply concerned” about a slew of trans-related legislative proposals presented recently in conservative states, calling the bills “discriminatory.”

Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, a US-based nonprofit LGBT+ athletic advocacy group, said the joint statement underscored the broader willingness of American corporations to step into the political arena.

“Since George Floyd’s murder over the summer, that was really a moment … where you saw businesses across the country really taking a strong stance in wading into political water in ways they haven’t done before,” Ms. Lieberman said.

Republican lawmakers have introduced a record 175 bills in at least 32 states on trans issues so far this year, according to Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the country’s largest LGBT+ advocacy group.

Most of the legislative proposals seek to stop trans girls and women from competing in school sports, and to restrict children’s access to gender transition-related medical care.

Proponents of the measures say they want to protect young people from medical procedures they could later regret and have voiced concerns that trans athletes have a physical edge that disadvantages girls and women.

It is not the first time big companies have taken a stand on LGBT+ rights issues. Last year, 36 firms signed a statement condemning a Tennessee law allowing adoption agencies to turn away LGBT+ couples on religious grounds.

“The sheer volume of businesses that engage is higher,” said Jessica Shortall, director of corporate engagement at Freedom For All Americans, an LGBT+ advocacy group that coordinated the statement with HRC.

“And honestly, practically speaking, there’s strength and safety in numbers,” Ms. Shortall added.

POLITICAL WATER’

The business community’s stance against conservative trans legislation came soon after leading companies spoke out against US state voting curbs that activist groups say unfairly target Black and other racial minorities.

Apple, Amazon.com, and Starbucks were among more than 100 companies to sign a letter in April opposing “any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.”

Still, some trans rights advocates want business leaders to take a stronger line — as some companies did in North Carolina after the state passed the so-called “bathroom bill” in 2016.

The legislation banned trans citizens from using the public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity, prompting companies including PayPal, Adidas and Deutsche Bank to axe expansion plans in the state.

In an open letter in April, the HRC advocacy group urged companies to refuse new business in states where trans athletes were barred from competing and pull their support from sporting events where trans athletes cannot compete.

“Although we certainly appreciate those efforts, they are not enough,” the letter said.

More recently, Jennifer Pritzker — the world’s first trans billionaire and a Republican — has threatened to move her family’s business out of Tennessee due to a range of restrictive trans-related bills, several of which have passed.

Despite the dozens of proposals presented this year, so far only Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Dakota have pushed through measures banning trans women and girls from playing in female sports.

Idaho passed a similar law last year that has been blocked by federal court.

Last month, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, a Democrat, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, a Republican, vetoed bills in their states that aim to restrict trans athletes, with Kelly calling her state’s version of the bill “regressive.”

Both chambers of Arkansas’s state legislature passed a measure that would have made the state the first in the country to criminally punish doctors for providing certain types of care to trans youth.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, vetoed the bill shortly afterwards, saying it would be “vast government overreach,” however his veto was overturned by the legislature.

But despite the reprieve in some states, more such bills are bound to become law — particularly if lawmakers do not fear repercussions for their local economies, Ms. Lieberman said.

“Money, not morals, shifts the conversation far too often,” said Ms. Lieberman. — Matthew Lavietes/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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