May 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Why some Republican governors oppose anti-trans bills

Photo illustration of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R).

Photo Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Chistopher Goodney (Bloomberg), Drew Angerer, Stephen Yang/Getty Images

Some Republican governors have found themselves at odds with their own party over a record number of bills targeting transgender children.

Why it matters: Social conservatives see a winning issue in bills to restrict trans students' participation in sports and access to health care, but the sudden push has met resistance even from some staunch conservatives.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) vetoed a bill to criminalize gender-affirming care for trans kids last month, calling it an "extreme" government overreach. The state's GOP-controlled legislature later overrode his veto.

  • Hutchinson told Axios he was concerned about the harm the bill could cause and also wanted to send a message to his Republican colleagues that they need to get back to a restrained government.
  • "This one, it was important to draw the line ... it's the most extreme law in the country," he said.
  • Although he vetoed the health care bill, Hutchinson signed two measures on trans students' participation in sports. The health care legislation "was not theoretical, it was very real, and that's the difference in those two bills," he said.
  • Hutchinson acknowledged that "no one has cited an example of where trans athletes have tried to compete [in the state]" — which has been a liability elsewhere.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) vetoed a bill that would ban K-12 trans students from playing sports on teams that align with their gender identity, saying: "There is no evidence" to suggest fairness in sports is in danger.

  • "To date there has not been a single recorded incident of a transgender girl attempting to play on a North Dakota girls' team," he said in a veto statement. His office declined to comment further.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) initially opposed a bill in her state to ban trans students from playing women's sports, citing "vague" language and the threat of a lawsuit from the NCAA. She later used executive orders to enact a modified version of the ban.

  • Her initial opposition met with blowback on the right, and "planted some doubts among social conservatives" about her strength as a potential 2024 presidential contender, the N.Y. Times' Jonathan Martin writes.

Between the lines: Anti-trans bills are "just an election strategy in general to instill fear in others, whatever that 'other' is," said Dan Zwonitzer, a Republican member of the Wyoming House, who came out as gay several years ago. "That's a great political tactic to help win elections. It just sucks that you're the target."

  • Two freshman Republicans in the state legislature said at the beginning of their session that trans youth in junior high sports are Wyoming's most important issue, Zwonitzer told Axios.
  • "Half of us did that awkward look at each other, like, 'where's this coming from?'" he said. "All of a sudden this year, it is seemingly the new battleground issue."

The other side: Former Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican whose son is transgender, told Axios that Republicans may be misreading the politics of the issue.

  • “Doing the right thing to support trans youth does not mean that you will be handed a political death sentence," she said.
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