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.
This week, the state legislature in Little Rock overrode Governor Asa Hutchinson's last minute veto of the most virulent of the anti-trans bills to surface in that state. This law, cynically named the Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE), bans all gender-affirming treatments for transgender minors in the state—the first such blanket ban in the country—but similar bills are pending in many GOP-controlled states, primarily in the South and Midwest, from Mississippi to Iowa.
The Arkansas law states, falsely, that "the risks of gender transition procedures far outweigh any benefit at this stage of clinical study on these procedures." 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 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 a third permits medical workers to refuse to provide certain medical treatments on the basis of their personal religious beliefs.
With study after study shows that LGBTQ and particularly transgender youth are at high risk for suicide and continued depression often stemming from discrimination and ostracism, Arkansas's drive to punish trans kids and the doctors who treat them is best understood as part of a new-found culture war.
Having lost the battle over workplace discrimination and same-sex marriage, polling has shown the religious right that there is an opening if they can successfully reframe the issue around so-called "victims" of trans people. They attempted this a few years ago with bathroom laws, raising unfounded fears of "biological males" using the girls' bathrooms, but this cost them dearly in places like North Carolina where the anti-trans bill there led to a boycott of the state and the death of that measure.
The new alleged victims that the GOP are supposedly fighting for in these bills run an odd gamut: the religious objectors who shouldn't have to bake cakes or perform medical procedures for others whose identities and lives they believe are sinful; the girls on sports teams who might theoretically be forced to compete against a trans girl; and now, even the trans kids themselves, whom the lawmakers claim, against all expert evidence, would be harmed rather than helped by gender affirming procedures.
But with big organizations such as the NCAA and some of corporate America on opposite sides of these bills, three governors in GOP states have had second thoughts and either vetoed or demanded changes to anti-trans bills in deeply red Utah, South Dakota and now Arkansas. And while these objections are usually ultimately overruled by their legislatures, the governors understand on some level that these measures are hateful and reflect badly on their states. National polling shows such measures are seen as discriminatory, and they very much wish to avoid boycotts from organizations like the NCAA or major league sports. Moreover, targeting any group, let alone one of the most vulnerable among us, is viewed widely as un-American and wrong, and such laws give their states a deserved veneer of intolerance.
This has not stopped the GOP from attempting to drive the culture war further, with a total of fifteen states now adopting or seeking to adopt similar anti-trans measures, according to the New York Times. The ACLU has stepped up to defend trans youth and has filed 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, a lawyer at the A.C.L.U. focused on 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 Times, "which is a classic example of a violation of the equal protection rights of transgender people."