Proposals that would affect transgender Missourians have moved to the top of the GOP agenda in Jefferson City.
“This is a priority,” House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, said during a news conference last week before lawmakers left the Capitol for spring break. “We will protect women’s sports. We will defend minor surgery.
Supporters and opponents of what Plocher stands for have different theories about why transgender issues have become so prominent in Missouri politics and policy.
Republican backers of the initiatives say they are trying to regain ground against what they see as corrosive leftist beliefs at a time when same-sex marriage and anti-LGBTQ efforts are far more popular than they were 20 years ago. They also described their efforts to limit certain types of health care for transgender youth as a way to protect children.
But opponents of these proposals see it as a cynical political ploy to drum up enthusiasm among the Republican base at the expense of a vulnerable segment of the LGBTQ community. They also argue that whatever Republicans gain politically isn’t worth the hit to Missouri’s reputation.
“The people of Missouri are not asking me if I’m going to leave, but when am I going to leave?” said Shira Berkowitz, senior director of policy and advocacy for PROMO, a Missouri-based group that supports LGBTQ rights. “And I think it’s an incredibly scary time for both parents who are raising transgender children and transgender Missourians living here.”
Top of the agenda
The first half of the 2023 Missouri General Assembly session featured marathon committee hearings and dramatic floor debates on bills targeting the state’s transgender community.
Some of these suggestions include:
These types of ideas have caught fire in other GOP-controlled states in the past few months. For example, Tennessee, Florida and Iowa have banned gender-affirming care for minors. And North Dakota and Arkansas pursued a curtailment of drag show performances.
“What we’re seeing on the left is that they’re trying to push their agenda on other people,” said Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a likely GOP candidate for governor in 2024. “And Republicans in general are just saying: “Look, we disagree with you. If you want to do that, you can. But don’t make us confirm that.
“I think at least most Republicans would say, ‘Don’t do this to a minor,'” he added, referring to certain types of gender-affirming health care.
These issues are not foremost in the mind of the legislature, but also of the election campaign. During this year’s Missouri GOP Lincoln Days in Springfield, numerous candidates for office in 2024 voiced strong support for banning transgender youth from accessing certain forms of health care and banning transgender girls from playing women’s sports.
“We need to send a clear message that is a message rooted in the truth of the Bible and all of our history,” said U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, who will run for a second term next year. “Which is, ‘Guess what? God made you the way you are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
The Kansas City Star reported that research by Hawley and others shows voters are concerned about transgender issues — and has helped fuel politicians’ efforts to push the issue.
Some attribute the rise in prominence of transgender offerings to conservative media and social media platforms amplifying the issue. State Sen. Rusty Black said he saw a big spike in Republican voter interest when the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago.
“I have grandparents who hold me to these issues,” said Black, R-Chillicothe. “And for some reason, during that time when we were at home and stopped running in the park or whatever else we were doing, people became much more intense about what was happening to their children and grandchildren.
“There are all kinds of people saying ‘we have to do something about it,'” he added. “What we should hope to do in the end is … if we do something about it, we do something that causes as little harm as possible.”
A matter of social wedge
Critics of the transgender proposals say Republican supporters are more interested in political progress than implementing sound public policy.
Sen. Greg Reiser, Missouri’s only openly gay member of the Senate, said the push to limit transgender rights could be linked to Missouri Republicans’ penchant for using gender issues to shore up their base.
Unlike other states with GOP-controlled governments, Missouri has a state senate where lawmakers can use the filibuster to force compromise on legislation. Sen. Greg Reiser of Kansas City spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum about how this procedural device could change the course of legislation that bans care for gender-affirming minors.
The Kansas City Democrat added that since Missouri has banned most abortions and lifted many gun restrictions, there aren’t that many ways Missouri Republicans can use these social issues to motivate voters.
“There’s nothing else you can get past, so you have to find a new social problem,” Razer said. “I think they thought it would be critical race theory. That arrow didn’t stick. They are trying to get him to stick with the trans kids. If that doesn’t work, they’ll go after another.”
Razer added that while Republicans may get some short-term political gain from passing legislation affecting transgender people, the issue is not as politically powerful as they think. He pointed to former congresswoman Vicki Hartzler’s decisive loss in the GOP primary for the US Senate, even though she made opposition to LGBTQ rights a cornerstone of her political career.
Berkowitz said PROMO sees the GOP’s push against transgender rights as “a real misunderstanding of who is transgender and what makes someone transgender.”
“From the kids we see testifying all the time in the Missouri Legislature, we’ve heard them say things like, ‘My family supports me. I get support at my school. My teachers use the correct pronouns for me. My classmates see me as I am. The only people who don’t are our elected leaders in our state.”
One example of what Berkowitz was talking about happened in January when Clayton High School junior Chelsea Freels testified about legislation that would bar minors from accessing gender-affirming care.
“These bills claim to protect children, I think that’s in the title of two of them. The other is “Saving Adolescents from Experimentation.” But what exactly are you protecting me from?” Freels said. “I recently transitioned, relatively speaking. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m not depressed anymore. I’m not suicidal anymore. I have a great group of friends since I switched.’
A filibuster can block bills
Unlike some other Republican states, lawmakers like Razer can use the Senate filibuster to force Republicans to change their transgender rights bills.
“I think Missourians should be happy that we have a very strong filibuster,” Reiser said. “Whichever party is in the minority, a strong filibuster helps that party rein in the more extreme tendencies of the majority party. I think that’s the goal.”
Razer added that it is possible that Republicans could use a legislative maneuver known as the previous question and called the “nuclear option” to end the filibuster, but that could cause Senate Democrats to derail other GOP priorities. He adds that his overall goal is to “walk away with some semblance of these kids going to be okay.”
“I’m under no illusion that they’re not going to use the nuclear option to get this bill passed,” Reiser said. “There’s just a desire to do it.”
Eight senators who support banning gender-affirming care for minors signed a letter saying they are “unfazed by threats to stop action on the state budget — or any other bill — if [Sen. Mike Moon’s legislation] shall be put to the vote.’
“We will not be deterred from protecting children,” the letter said.
The result is personal for Congresswoman Barbara Pfeiffer, and she also worries about the ramifications for the state.
The Kirkwood Democrat has a grandson who is transgender. She said if her GOP colleagues follow other states’ lead, it will tarnish Missouri’s reputation.
“If you want to look at it very pragmatically, how is the state going to attract people who are educated to come and live in the state of Missouri?” Phifer said. “People won’t come.”
Gov. Mike Parson said he hopes cooler heads can prevail before lawmakers adjourn in mid-May.
“I think there’s a lot of things up there that are hot-button issues that we’ve all been talking about,” Parson said. “I hope you will bring people to the table and find a solution.”
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The Missouri Republican Party is part of a national trend toward transgender rights as a powerful political issue