The Hate Train Rolls on in Arkansas with a Third Blow to the Trans Community.

What is going on in Arkansas (and for that matter across GOP America) with its new culture war?

Something very nasty is happening in the state of Arkansas, and it is likely a harbinger of similar nastiness across GOP-controlled states in America. Yesterday, the state legislature in Little Rock overrode Governor Asa Hutchinson’s last-minute veto of H.B. 1570, the most virulent of the anti-trans bills to surface in that state. This law now bans all gender-affirming treatments for transgender minors in the state—the first such blanket ban in the country.

The law states, falsely, that “the risks of gender transition procedures far outweigh any benefit at this stage of clinical study on these procedures.” In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out against the ban, as did the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which all pointed to research that clearly supports the benefits of gender-affirming treatment. 

The law is actually the third anti-LGBTQ law passed in Arkansas this legislative session. Another state law blocks trans girls from playing on women’s sports teams and yet another allows medical workers to refuse to provide certain treatments to others on the basis of their personal religious beliefs.

With study after study showing that LGBTQ and particularly transgender youth are at high risk for suicide, and that many suffer continued depression often stemming from discrimination and ostracization, why is Arkansas so bent on passing these laws? And why suddenly are so many state legislatures latching onto this idea of attacking trans kids?

The cynical answer is, the religious right has found a new culture war. Having lost the battle over workplace discrimination and same-sex marriage, their polling has shown that there is an opening if they can successfully reframe the issue around so-called “victims” of trans people, especially if those “victims” are cisgender women. They attempted this a few years ago with bathroom laws, raising unfounded fears of “biological males” using the girls’ bathrooms, but they overreached and it cost them dearly in places like North Carolina, where the anti-trans bill there garnered a boycott of the state (led by George Takei and Team Takei, I must proudly add) and the death of that measure.

So who are the new victims that the GOP are supposedly fighting for in these new bills? They run an odd gamut: religious objectors who claim they shouldn’t have to bake cakes or even perform medical procedures for others whose identities and lives they believe are sinful; girls on sports teams who might theoretically be forced to compete against a trans girl (despite little evidence this happens widely, and despite rules often already in place requiring proof of use of testosterone-suppressing medication by trans athletes); and now, even the trans kids themselves, whom they lawmakers claim, against all expert evidence, would be harmed rather than helped by gender-affirming procedures. 

The right has conducted opinion polling and sees an opening and a chance to leverage women against the trans community (no thanks to high-profile and regrettably ignorant statements by the likes of J.K. Rowling), but they may have miscalculated. Three governors in GOP states have either vetoed or demanded changes to anti-trans bills, in deeply red Utah, South Dakota and now Arkansas, even if ultimately they are overruled by their legislatures. The governors understand on some level that these measures are hateful and reflect badly on their states. Indeed, national polling shows such measures are viewed as discriminatory, to the point of triggering boycotts from organizations like the NCAA or major league sports. Targeting any group, let alone the most vulnerable among us, let alone kids, is still widely seen as unAmerican and wrong. 

But this has not stopped the GOP from attempting to drive this particular culture war further, with 25 states now considering 65 bills aimed at trans youth, according to reporting by Axios. “On the Democratic side, this is not an issue that really excites the base,” Dan Cox, the director of the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, told Axios. “But on the right, I think these issues are really, really salient, so it tends to fire up folks disproportionately on the right than the left.” It’s an old but trusted playbook. “A lot of this stuff is being framed as dangerous for children. That harkens back to the gay rights movement,” Cox said. “And that's a pretty effective way to get people who are sort of more moderate and middle of the road off and active on this issue. It's not random that these are the issues that are being brought up.”

Stepping up to defend trans youth in the courts is the ACLU, which is preparing to file suit to stop the latest attack in Arkansas. “Laws that single out transgender people for discrimination violate the Constitution and a range of federal civil rights statutes,” said Chase Strangio, an ACLU lawyer specializing in transgender rights. H.B. 1570 “bans health care only when it is being provided to transgender patients while permitting the care for others,” Strangio said, per the New York Times, “which is a classic example of a violation of the equal protection rights of transgender people.”