Protesters rallied at the foot of the House steps March 2 against anti-trans legislation. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)
Republicans wasted no time jumping on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a bill Friday that put LGBTQ rights and public schools in the political spotlight, setting the stage for both issues to play a leading role in this year’s race for governor.
Republican gubernatorial candidates Daniel Cameron, Kelly Craft and Ryan Quarles quickly issued statements criticizing Beshear’s veto of Senate Bill 150, sweeping legislation that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth, let teachers misgender trans students and not allow trans kids to use the bathroom of their choice.
The Republican Party of Kentucky issued a statement saying that the veto “may very well be remembered as the day Andy Beshear lost his bid for re-election.”
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said Beshear “really had no choice,” even if his veto proves symbolic as an override by the Republican supermajority is likely. The rights of transgender people have become a “defining issue” for the American left, Voss said.
“So the only question is, how do you spin it? And I think Beshear’s main message as to why he’s vetoing it, and why Kentuckians should accept that veto is a wise one,” Voss said. “He’s framing it in terms of parental rights, which is language that has worked well for Republicans.”
Most of the voters who are likely to be angered by Beshear’s veto were also likely to not vote for Democrats anyway, Voss said. For voters who fall between Democrats and Republicans and do not have policy preferences, Beshear could have an advantage in terms of perception.
“He’s able to frame his side of this issue in what looks like a very orderly and reasoned way, a veto notification, whereas the way the Republicans got to their … anti-trans bill looked to the general public kind of like a clown show,” Voss said. “I mean, it’s just so many moving parts and it was so stop and start and this thing happens last minute after you thought something else was going to happen.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky has called the legislation, which was amended and passed within hours last week, “the worst anti-trans bill in the nation.”
When it comes to Kentucky elections, Republicans want them framed around social and cultural issues whereas Democrats would prefer the frame on economic or “lunch pail issues,” Voss added. Kentucky tends to lean more conservative on social issues than on economic and domestic policy.
Beshear has consistently spoken in favor of trans rights and said health care for trans minors should be decided by them, their parents and doctors. In his veto message he said SB 150 “allows too much government interference in personal healthcare issues and rips away the freedom of parents to make medical decisions for their children.”
Republicans decry veto
After the veto, Republicans accused Beshear of supporting gender-affirming surgeries for youth. But trans Kentuckians say that isn’t happening in the state now and that LGBTQ+ organizations have never advocated for surgeries for minors.
Attorney General Daniel Cameron, considered the Republican frontrunner for governor, accused Democrats of supporting “chemical castration” and “mutilation” of minors. “That is not care — it’s irreversible and is the exact opposite of how we should support children experiencing gender dysphoria or mental health struggles.”
Cameron said in a Friday tweet he “would have absolutely signed” the bill were he governor. Cameron also criticized media coverage of the bill and added that Beshear’s veto “not only sets a dangerous precedent for our children’s future, but also endangers their health and well-being.”
After Cameron’s statement was issued, the campaign of former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft said Beshear’s veto was “politically motivated.” Her running mate, Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, is the primary sponsor of SB 150 and has called the legislation a way to protect parents’ rights.
In a joint statement, Craft and Wise said Beshear is “out of step” with what Kentuckians are talking about: “communication and engagement with their children’s schools.” The two vowed to “ensure our children are protected, make sure parents are heard, and empower teachers to focus on providing a world-class education that teaches our children how to think, not what to think.”
Craft added: “As a mother and grandmother, I think the fact that we’re even having this conversation is insanity. This movement across the nation to impose radical gender ideology on our kids instead of improving reading, writing, and math skills, is wrong. We should not allow children to be subjected to these life-changing, irreversible surgeries and drugs.” She again vowed to dismantle the Department of Education and start over.
Another candidate, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, said in a statement according to the Lexington Herald-Leader: “By vetoing this bill, Andy has shown his views more closely align with the radical far-left rather than that of Kentuckians. Gender reassignment surgeries for children and minors should not be allowed in Kentucky and teachers should have certain protections in the classroom when it comes to their own personal beliefs.”
Rebecca Blankenship, Kentucky’s first openly transgender elected official and the executive director of Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky, said gender-affirming surgeries for minors currently do not happen in the state and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in Kentucky haven’t opposed banning them. Blankenship is a member of the Berea Independent School District Board of Education.
“When we really look at what is human and real about this — which they are trying to distract us from with this rhetoric — we find that there are people who are suffering, who just want to have options, that there are kids who are afraid for what their lives are going to be, that there are parents who are just trying to safeguard their children’s health, that there are doctors who want to take care of their patients, and all of them are being set aside in favor of these silly scare tactics,” Blankenship said. “And they know better.”
Such surgeries for minors would violate the standard of care followed by leading medical organizations like the American Medical Association, said Emma Curtis, a trans Kentucky woman who has testified against legislation like SB 150 this session.
“Nobody in Kentucky — and believe me, I’ve been at the Capitol pretty much every day this session — nobody I have met the entire time has advocated for genital surgeries on minors,” Curtis said. “It’s just not a thing that’s happening and it’s not a thing that we want to happen.”
Cameron and Craft are two of 12 Republicans vying for their party’s nomination in the May 16 primary.
The Republican Party of Kentucky accused Beshear of supporting “life-altering sex change surgery” in its statement on the veto.
“Most people agree that you need to be a certain age before participating in certain activities, like consuming alcohol or smoking cigarettes,” RPK spokesman Sean Southard said. “Not Andy Beshear. Andy Beshear thinks it’s okay for children to have access to life-altering sex change surgery and drugs before they turn 18. Today, he revealed how radical he truly is. Is Andy Beshear the Governor of Kentucky or California? Despite years of attempting to look like a moderate, he has shown that he will never stand up to the special left-wing interests that bankroll his campaign.”
The Kentucky Democratic Party responded that the bill Beshear vetoed “pander(s) to the extremes of the Kentucky Republican Party.”
“If it becomes law, this bill will harm children. This bill prohibits parents from making healthcare choices that are in the best interest of their child’s well-being. There is an overwhelming amount of data that shows this will lead to more suicides among Kentucky kids,” Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge said in a statement. “It is cruel and wrong and the Kentucky GOP, in their statement today, made it clear that they passed this bill to try to win an election. In vetoing this legislation, Governor Beshear is doing what he has always done: looking out for Kentucky children and families, and saving Kentucky lives.”
Effect of rhetoric on trans Kentuckians
Trans people have been visible for a short time, Blankenship said, so she does not think voters have made up their minds on gender-affirming care yet or the trans community at large. An example of that is the variety of polling on the topic and how questions are phrased.
“The voters’ attitude can be influenced dramatically. And so what I find in my personal dealings is that most people are very open to learning and that their minds are not set on this topic. I think that that’s not good for those that are supporting policy that hurts kids, hurts families and hurts doctors.”
Even if bills like SB 150 do not become law, they have a “catastrophic effect” on the lives of trans adults and youth in Kentucky, Curtis said.
“For folks who don’t know a trans person, it’s really easy for them to fall prey to a lot of these false expectations, these false understandings and outright lies about who we are and how we exist and what medical care we seek out,” Curtis said. “It’s extremely disappointing to see this level of willing ignorance and intentional misinformation from our legislators.”
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