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Opinion: Arkansas governor’s surprising veto of anti-trans law

The bill, HB 1570, erroneously dubbed the “Save Adolescents From Experimentation Act” (SAFE), would have prohibited medical providers from delivering gender-affirming health care to transgender individuals under the age of 18. The bill passed with a large majority in both legislative chambers. And less than a month prior, Hutchinson signed two anti-LGBTQ bills, one that allows health care workers to turn LGBTQ people away from non-emergency treatment and one that denies transgender women and girls the ability to play on female sports teams.
So it came as a shock to many in the LGBTQ community and their allies — and to those who supported HB 1570 — that the Governor would refuse to sign his own party’s bill into law.

The hotly-contested legislation was the most egregious in a string of attempts in state legislatures across the country to prevent transgender people from accessing facets of civic life the rest of us take for granted, including health care and participation in sports.

“Though I can’t speculate as to Gov. Hutchinson’s true intentions, this decision demonstrates the beginning of a shift among conservative politicians about whether interfering with the health and well-being of transgender young people is a bridge too far,” Preston Mitchum told me Monday. Mitchum is the policy director for Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, a network of community activists founded by Gloria Steinem and focused on sexual health.

Of course, this moment could be but a blip in an otherwise vast sea of bills, and we could see a new, revised version of HB 1570 rear its ugly head and become law without any friction.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing a glimpse of a different paradigm emerge. One in which party lines aren’t written in blood, but in erasable ink, amenable to reason and logic, to pushback and critique.

This year, in fact, there is a record number of bills targeting transgender people, with more than two dozen pieces of legislation introduced into chambers from Texas to Maine and many places in between. Many are focused on medical care and access to organized sports. Some have already passed. More hang in the balance.

The unexpected move that a Republican politician made to break party lines and veto this harmful bill has implications that could reach far beyond the Arkansas legislature and even the transgender community. Is it a signal shift away from ride-or-die partisanship? Or merely an anomaly? And does it matter? Are the optics of a right-wing elected official in a right-leaning state killing a bill that would harm some of its most marginalized constituents enough to shift national consciousness, regardless of the move’s intent?

“A product of the cultural war”: Hutchinson cited this assessment of the bill as one of the reasons why he didn’t lift his mighty pen to endorse this legislative razor against the transgender community.

“Government overreach” was another, as the governor claimed the law went too far in dictating what should otherwise be a private conversation between patient and doctor. There was also no provision written into the clumsy and dangerous bill for transgender residents of Arkansas already receiving gender-affirming health care — who would have, if it had become law, been forced to de-transition.

Transgender kids face incredible hurdles when it comes to getting adults to take them and their gender confirmations seriously. The uphill battle to then access affirming health care, which includes treatments like therapy, reversible hormone blockers and other care, could mean the difference between life and death, and the difference between feeling well-adjusted or feeling severely depressed. We know that transgender youth face disproportionately higher rates of depression, suicide and violence than their cisgender peers, due to familial and societal rejection and discrimination. That number only goes up when we further marginalize community members and deny access to medically necessary care.

For those in the transgender community and gender nonbinary community, it represents a brief exhale, one successful swing in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

For those in the LGBTQ community and advocates fighting for full equity, Hutchinson’s action introduces hope, the chance that bad outcomes are not inevitable based solely on who is deciding (as also evidenced by the affirmative Supreme Court ruling protecting LGBTQ employees in the workplace). It certainly puts a spotlight on the federal pulpit, where the pending Equality Act, which passed in the House and now rests with the Senate, could finally prohibit discrimination in places of employment, housing and public accommodations across all 50 states.

For Republicans and political leaders of all persuasions, one can hope this serves as a staunch awakening that there are lines that should be drawn and not crossed. Perhaps this gives more credit to Hutchinson than he deserves, but I hope it also sends a message that elected officials should lead with at least some semblance of humanity.

For everyone else watching, the moment could be a turning point. Or it could not be. Either way, the message it sends will likely have ripple effects that could very well inform what the far-right’s next culture war skirmish will be. We can only hope they leave transgender people, or any of the most vulnerable in our communities, out of the equation — and that they will recognize that you can’t just sling hate at the wall and expect it all to stick.

Whatever the reason or intended effect when Hutchinson put his pen aside, the death of HB 1570 is a welcome development.


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