Why social conservative backlash made Indiana the right state for anti-LGBTQ+ bills
Indiana lawmakers proposed nearly two dozen anti-LGBTQ+ bills during this year’s legislative session. The departure of several longtime lawmakers and a prior Republican focus on "kitchen table" issues has set the scene for a backlash in Indiana on social conservative issues. Political scientists say that backlash made the Statehouse an apt environment for out-of-state groups to push anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
Several longtime Republican leaders stepped down from their roles in the Indiana Statehouse over about the last five years.
Andrew Downs, director emeritus of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said they – and former Gov. Mitch Daniels – focused on “kitchen table issues.”
“There were folks who wanted to push a much more further right social agenda,” Downs said. “But he was able to convince the majority, or the Republicans at that time, hey, let's focus on the economic issue. Let's focus on the sort of the bread and butter stuff, the kitchen table issues, to keep–keep the state moving in a good direction or get it moving in a good direction.”
Former Senate President Pro Tem David Long left in November 2018. Former House Speaker Brian Bosma retired in May 2020. And several other prominent committee leaders have changed in the last several years.
Downs said Bosma and Long were particularly adept at maintaining a focus on economic issues, while still allowing space for social issues – especially abortion.
“There was a bit of a pent up frustration on the part of those who wanted to push social issues, so that when you saw the change in leadership, those individuals said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you know, we've been on hold for a long time. Whether you want to talk about Daniels or Bosma or Long – we’ve put our stuff on hold. It’s our time now,’” he said.
Downs said that “pent-up frustration” coincided with a national push on social conservative issues.
“There were organizations … that had decided instead of trying to make a difference at the federal level, they would try to make a difference at a state level,” Downs said. “And really that's just a basic philosophy: Which way do you think you can be most effective?”
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One of the groups implementing that strategy in Indiana is the Alliance Defending Freedom. It has recently filed briefs in favor of laws on sport and gender-affirming care bans for transgender Americans. And 20 years ago, it filed briefs in favor of sodomy laws that were eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jason Pierceson is a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.
“They are incredibly powerful. They have a lot of money. They're very focused. They're very successful at legal strategies and legislative strategies,” Pierceson said. “I think the ADF in particular is probably the least known but most powerful anti-LGBTQ+ group out there.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom testified on all of Indiana’s bills targeting LGBTQ+ youth during the legislative session, including: a gender-affirming care ban for trans youth; Indiana’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which advocates also refer to as a “forced outing” law; and a “parental rights” bill that would have stopped Indiana courts from intervening when a transgender child is at risk of suicide, which did not move forward in the Senate. Last year, it supported Indiana’s transgender girls sports ban as well.
The organization told State Affairs Indiana earlier this year that it was asked to consult on those measures by lawmakers.
“Lawmakers often seek advice from experts in law, policy, medicine, and other fields as they craft legislation. ADF regularly provides expert legal advice and public testimony regarding these bills,” said Matt Sharp, ADF senior counsel and director of its Center for Legislative Advocacy, in an emailed statement.
Pierceson said groups that use “bill mill strategies” often find newly elected lawmakers to carry these measures through their legislatures.
“This has been documented: that these groups, like ADF or ALEC, they really are used by freshman, new legislators, because they don't have the expertise and the staff support and all things like that,” he said. “So they are receptive to these overtures from groups like ADF. And they're more likely to respond to their legislative efforts.”
Pierceson said the goal is for these laws to be challenged in court tolimit protections for LGBTQ+ Americans.
“The legislative fight in many of these states, like Indiana, is over. There's no going back,” he said. “The courts are where this is going to be playing–where this fight will play itself out.”
Allison Chapman, an independent legislative analyst and transgender activist, said those legal fights will set precedent.
“We'll get those Supreme Court cases over the next few years, most likely. And then that's going to define the rest of my life,” she said. “That's going to define the rest of my life as a trans person in America, on: Do I have access to health care to not do I not? Am I, you know, what is going to happen to me? What's going to happen to my family, my friends?”
More than 500 bills were proposed in Statehouses across the country this year. Chapman and other LGBTQ+ activists anticipate that, while there may not be an increase in anti-LGBTQ+ bills next year, the ones proposed may be more restrictive than this year’s.