Anti-Trans Legislation Study 2023

Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Most cable news segments on anti-trans legislation in 2023 did not include the voices of trans people

In a record year for legislation restricting the rights of transgender Americans, coverage varied widely in tone and time spent across cable news networks

A record number of anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2023, including bills targeting the rights of trans people to use public bathrooms or access lifesaving gender-affirming care. New data from Media Matters finds that while 2023 coverage of anti-trans legislation varied widely in terms of tone and time spent across cable networks, reporting on this onslaught consistently failed to include the first-person perspectives of trans or gender-nonconforming people. 

  • Cable coverage varied widely across networks in a record year for anti-LGBTQ legislation

  • 2023 saw more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures across the country, 75 of which became law. More than 20 states have now passed bans on gender-affirming therapy, puberty blockers, or surgeries for minors, while nine states restrict or block trans people's access to bathrooms or other facilities consistent with their gender identity. 

    A Media Matters study found that coverage of anti-trans legislation in 2023 — specifically, in this case, laws introduced into state legislatures that sought to ban or restrict trans people's access to gender-affirming care or public facilities — varied widely in terms of tone and time spent across cable networks.

  • Time by network
  • Of all the cable networks that covered anti-trans legislation in 2023, MSNBC dedicated by far the greatest amount of time, with 4 hours and 27 minutes of airtime — accounting for almost half of the combined cable total of 9 hours spread over 137 segments and nearly as much as both CNN and Fox News combined. Fox News spent the least time — 2 hours and 11 minutes — covering specific bans or restrictions on health care or bathroom access for trans people, and CNN covered such legislation for 2 hours and 22 minutes. 

    While networks across the political spectrum covered the same story, the tenor varied significantly. On MSNBC and CNN, 42% and 36% of segments, respectively, cited research to counter anti-trans narratives or misinformation, while 49% of Fox News segments argued in favor of restrictions on gender-affirming care or bathroom access for trans people. 

  • Network coverage failed to include trans and gender-nonconforming people in discussions of anti-trans legislation

  • Across MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News, the vast majority of segments covering anti-trans legislation did not include the voices of openly trans or gender-nonconforming people. MSNBC included trans or GNC guests in 22% of its segments while CNN included trans or GNC guests in 16% of its segments. Coverage was even more grim on Fox News, where no segments included a trans or GNC person — even though the network counts media personality Caitlyn Jenner, who is trans, among its employees

  • Segments and guests
  • Even accounting for segments which featured the parents of trans children — a total of 10 interviews on either MSNBC or CNN – only 19% of all segments analyzed in this study included a trans or GNC person or one of their parents as a guest. More than a quarter of segments that featured a trans or GNC guest featured the same trans woman, Montana legislator Zooey Zephyr, who was banned from the floor of the Montana House chamber by her colleagues after she gave a passionate speech accusing them of having “blood on their hands.” 

  • Networks both countered and perpetuated anti-trans narratives and misinformation

  • The majority of segments on MSNBC and CNN placed discussions of anti-trans legislation within a broader political context, noting, for example, the uptick in anti-LGBTQ measures or the prevalence of anti-trans rhetoric and violence. No segments on either of these networks advanced common anti-trans talking points or endorsed the legislation.

  • Video file

    Citation From the April 29, 2023, edition of MSNBC's Velshi

  • By contrast, on Fox News nearly half of segments included anti-trans rhetoric or endorsed the legislation in question. 49% of segments on Fox News argued that bans on transition care would protect minors, while 40% of segments advanced arguments questioning either the science behind gender-affirming care or the credibility of the scientific institutions supporting access to gender-affirming medicine. 

    All major medical associations in the U.S. support youth access to gender-affirming care. Unlike hosts and guests who claim that banning gender-affirming care will protect young people, an overwhelming number of experts agree that gender-affirming care is medically necessary and lifesaving. Experts also note that social affirmation of gender identity is key to a healthy transition.

  • Coverage favored gender-affirming care bans over legislation restricting access to bathrooms or facilities

  • Coverage of bills introduced into state legislatures largely favored discussions of gender-affirming care restrictions over public facility restrictions. While 97% of all segments discussed gender-affirming care bans, only 11% of segments discussed bathroom bans. 

  • Total segments by topic
  • CNN and Fox News watchers would have had to pay close attention to know that Florida and other states advanced legislation banning trans people from using public bathrooms or facilities: Just two segments on CNN and three on Fox News discussed the bills. MSNBC dedicated a total of 10 segments to at least some discussion of legislation restricting bathroom or facilities access at the state level.  

  • 2024 threatens to break the previous record for anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in state legislatures

  • So far in 2024, state legislatures have already introduced at least 478 bills targeting LGBTQ people. Ninety-nine of these bills aim to restrict trans people's access to health care in some way. Twelve of these bills aim to restrict trans people’s access to public accommodations, such as bathrooms and locker rooms, while an additional 31 bills pertain specifically to school facilities. 

    As legislators in these states discuss an “endgame” that includes total bans on treatment for gender dysphoria and as families of trans people plead for funding to be able to flee their homes for states where they can receive care, the spotlight of media coverage will play an increasingly important role in the way that Americans understand this quiet crisis of internal displacement. The quality of this coverage and its real-world impacts depend on cable news networks including the perspectives and experiences of the trans and gender-nonconforming people most impacted by these legislative efforts. 

    Charts by Molly Butler. 

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream and Kinetiq video database for all original programming on Fox News Channel, CNN, and MSNBC for any of the terms “trans,” “transgender,” “biological boy,” “biological men,” “biological male,” “biological girl,” “biological women,” “biological female,” “gender identity,” or “single sex” within close proximity of any of the terms “restroom,” “bathroom,” “locker room,” “women’s spaces,” “girls room,” “boys room,” “gender affirming,” “health,” “puberty,” “surgery,” “surgical,” “therapy,” “counsel,” “dysphoria,”  “mutilation,” “mutilate,” or “hormone” from January 1, 2023, through December 31, 2023. 

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when gender-affirming care or bathroom bans were the topic of significant discussion or when we found significant discussion of such anti-trans bans. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed such anti-trans bans with one another.

    We did not include mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned such anti-trans bans without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about such anti-trans bans scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for whether they discussed gender-affirming care or bathroom bans; featured a trans or gender-nonconforming guest; contextualized the legislation within a larger wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, sentiment, and violence; echoed anti-trans talking points, such as claims that trans women pose a particular danger to cis women in public facilities or that trans identity is the product of mental illness, rendering gender-affirming care unnecessary or abusive; or cited statistical or scientific evidence to rebut the aforementioned anti-trans talking points.