West Virginia bill defining gender is transphobic and ‘political rubbish,’ Democrats say

Feb 14, 2024, 2:32 PM

This photo made available by the West Virginia Legislature shows Mike Pushkin, a Democratic member ...

This photo made available by the West Virginia Legislature shows Mike Pushkin, a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates and chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, speaking during the floor session of the House Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. (Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislature via AP)

(Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislature via AP)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s Republican-supermajority House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed legislation Wednesday to narrow the definitions of gender that Democrats label as a dystopian bill that would give women no additional rights and is a way for the GOP to suppress transgender people.

The bill passed on an 87-12 vote and now goes to the GOP-dominated Senate.

“I cannot believe we’re doing this on Valentine’s Day,” said Democratic Del. Kayla Young, of Kanawha County.

The legislation says “equal” does not mean “same” or “identical” with respect to equality of the sexes. It would define in state statues and official public policies that a person’s sex is determined at birth and that gender equity terms may not be substituted. It also would establish that certain single-sex environments, such as athletics, locker rooms and bathrooms, are not discriminatory.

During a public hearing at the state Capitol last week, dozens of speakers condemned the “Women’s Bill of Rights,” with many transgender people saying it promoted transphobia. All 11 House Democrats spoke during a lengthy debate Wednesday and voted against the bill. Kanawha County Del. Mike Pushkin, chair of the state Democratic Party, even made a motion afterward to amend the bill’s title to the “Women’s Bill of Wrongs.” The motion was rejected.

On Friday, the House rejected attempts by Democrats to rewrite the bill by, among other things, adding pay equity for women, letting women make their own health care decisions and removing a tax on feminine hygiene products. During debate during the bill’s second reading Friday, lawmakers removed an exemption in state code that allows unwanted sexual contact among married people.

Fairness West Virginia, the state’s only LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, said the bill would ban transgender people from using government building restrooms that align with their gender identity.

JB Akers, a Kanawha County attorney, was one of two Republican delegates to speak in favor of the bill Wednesday, saying it is meant to protect women in “vulnerable spaces.”

“None of this is aimed at anyone who simply lives the life they want to live,” Akers said.

Pushkin called the bill “political rubbish” and compared it to the book “1984,” George Orwell’s classic chilling tale of a society in which facts are distorted and suppressed in a cloud of “newspeak.”

“That’s what this bill’s really about: unifying people against a perceived threat,” Pushkin said. “But the problem with it is, it affects real people, real constituents of ours, real West Virginians.”

From 2010 to 2020, West Virginia lost the highest percentage of residents compared to any other U.S. state. Pushkin said scared constituents who are transgender called him over the weekend asking whether they should leave a state in which they were born and raised.

“It’s sad — a horrible conversation to have with somebody that means nobody no harm,” Pushkin said. “And they feel threatened by the members of this body. And they should.

“It makes me wonder,” Pushkin continued. “If getting people who don’t think like you, people who don’t look like you, people who don’t love like you, people who don’t pray like you, eventually, getting them to leave the state, is that the goal?”

Del. Diana Winzenreid was the only Republican to vote against the bill. She said afterward that the city of Wheeling in her home base of Ohio County has its own human rights policies on equal treatment. Winzenreid said she was unable to support the bill because it would target a Wheeling City Council member who is a transgender woman.

The bill’s language lacks details such as enforcement mechanisms and penalties, leaving its potential impact unclear. In other states with laws restricting how transgender people can use bathrooms, officials have struggled to understand how they will be implemented.

Republican West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice strongly backed the bill at a gathering shortly before its introduction in January. At least 10 states are taking up similar measures so far this year.

Another bill that would prohibit transgender students from using school restrooms that aligns with their gender identity advanced through the West Virginia House Education Committee last month. That bill has not been taken up by the judiciary committee.

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West Virginia bill defining gender is transphobic and ‘political rubbish,’ Democrats say