Opinion | A Midwestern Republican Stands Up for Trans Rights

As 2023 slouches to an ignominious end, some news came Friday that gave me an unexpected jolt of hope. I have spent much of the year watching with horror and trying to document an unrelenting legal assault on queer and trans people. Around 20 states have passed laws restricting access to gender-affirming care for trans and nonbinary people, and several have barred transgender and nonbinary people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.

So it was shocking — in a good way, for once — to hear these words from Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, as he vetoed a bill that would have banned puberty blockers and hormones and gender-affirming surgeries for trans and nonbinary minors in Ohio and blocked transgender girls and women from participating in sports as their chosen gender:

“Were House Bill 68 to become law, Ohio would be saying that the state, that the government, knows better what is medically best for a child than the two people who love that child the most — the parents,” DeWine said in prepared remarks. “Parents are making decisions about the most precious thing in their life, their child, and none of us, none of us, should underestimate the gravity and the difficulty of those decisions.”

DeWine, by situating his opposition to the bill on the chosen battlefield of far-right activists — parents’ rights — was tapping into an idiom that is at once deeply familiar to me and yet has almost entirely disappeared from our national political discourse: that of a mainstream, Midwestern Republican. It is a voice I know well because it is one I heard all my life from my Midwestern Republican grandparents.

I did not agree with all of their beliefs, especially as I got older. But I understood where they were coming from. My grandfather, a belly gunner in the Pacific Theater in World War II, believed a strong military was essential to American security. My grandmother was a nurse, and she believed that science, medicine and innovation made America stronger. They made sure their children and grandchildren went to college — education was a crucial element of their philosophy of self-reliance. And above all, they believed the government should be small and stay out of people’s lives as much as humanly possible. This last belief, in individual freedom and individual responsibility, was the bedrock of their politics.

And so I am not surprised that defeats keep coming for anti-transgender activists. At the ballot box, hard-right candidates in swing states have tried to persuade voters with lurid messaging about children being subjected to grisly surgeries and pumped full of unnecessary medications. But in race after race, the tactic has failed.

Legally, the verdict has been more mixed, which is unsurprising given how politically polarized the judiciary has become. This week a federal judge in Idaho issued a preliminary ruling that a ban on transgender care for minors could not be enforced because it violated the children’s 14th Amendment rights and that “parents should have the right to make the most fundamental decisions about how to care for their children.” The state is expected to appeal the decision.

In June, a federal court blocked an Arkansas ban on gender-affirming care for minors. “The evidence showed that the prohibited medical care improves the mental health and well-being of patients,” the ruling said, “and that, by prohibiting it, the state undermined the interests it claims to be advancing” of protecting children and safeguarding medical ethics. In 2021, Asa Hutchinson, then the governor, had vetoed the ban for reasons similar to DeWine, but the Arkansas Legislature overrode his veto. (The Ohio Legislature also has a supermajority of Republicans and may decide to override DeWine’s veto.)

In other states, like Texas and Missouri, courts have permitted bans to go into effect, forcing families to make very difficult decisions about whether to travel to receive care or move to a different state altogether. The issue seems destined to reach the Supreme Court soon. The A.C.L.U. has asked the Supreme Court to hear its challenge to the care ban in Tennessee on behalf of a 15-year-old transgender girl. Given how swiftly and decisively the court moved to gut abortion rights, it seems quite possible that the conservative supermajority could choose to severely restrict access to transgender health care for children or even adults.

But maybe not. After all, the overturning of Roe has deeply unsettled the country, unleashing a backlash that has delivered unexpected victories to Democrats and abortion-rights advocates. Ohio voters just chose by a wide margin to enshrine the right to end a pregnancy in the state Constitution.

This is why I think DeWine’s veto speaks to a much bigger truth: Americans simply do not want the government making decisions about families’ private medical care. Polling on abortion finds a wide array of views on the morality of ending a pregnancy at various points up to viability, but one thing is crystal clear: Large majorities of Americans believe that the decision to have an abortion is none of the government’s business.

Rapidly changing norms around gender have many people’s heads spinning, and I understand how unsettling that can be. Gender is one of the most basic building blocks of identity, and even though gender variations of many kinds have been with us for millenniums, the way these changes are being lived out feel, to some people, like a huge disruption to their way of life. Even among people who think of themselves as liberal or progressive, there has been a sense that gender-affirming care has become too easily accessible, and that impressionable children are making life-changing decisions based on social media trends.

It has become a throwaway line in some media coverage of transgender care in the United States that even liberal European countries are restricting care for transgender children. But this is a misleading notion. No democracy in Europe has banned, let alone criminalized, care, as many states have done in the United States. What has happened is that under increasing pressure from the right, politicians in some countries have begun to limit access to certain kinds of treatments for children through their socialized health systems, in which the government pays for care and has always placed limits on what types are available. In those systems, budgetary considerations have always determined how many people will be able to get access to treatments.But private care remains legal and mostly accessible to those who can afford it.

Republicans are passing draconian laws in the states where they have total control, laws that could potentially lead to parents being charged with child abuse for supporting their transgender children or threaten doctors who treat transgender children with felony convictions. These statutes have no analog in free Europe, but they have strong echoes of laws in Russia, which is increasingly criminalizing every aspect of queer life. These extreme policies have no place in any democratic society.

Which brings me back to my Midwestern Republican grandparents, Goldwater and Reagan partisans to their core. My grandfather died long before Donald Trump ran for president, and 2016 was the first presidential election in which my grandmother did not vote for the Republican candidate. But she did not vote for Hillary Clinton, choosing another candidate she declined to name to me. Like a lot of Republicans, she really didn’t like Clinton, and one of the big reasons was her lifelong opposition to government health care. She didn’t want government bureaucrats coming between her and her doctors, she told me.

I think many, many Americans agree with that sentiment. Transgender people are no different. They don’t want government bureaucrats in their private business.

“I’ve been saying for years that trans people are a priority for enemies and an afterthought to our friends,” Gillian Branstetter, a strategist who works on transgender issues at the A.C.L.U., told me. “I’ve made it my job to try and help people understand that transgender rights are human rights, not just because transgender people are human people, but because the rights we’re fighting for are grounded in really core democratic principles, like individualism and self-determination.”

Those are core American values, but 2024 is an election year, and even though transphobia has proved to be a loser at the ballot box, many Republicans are sure to beat that drum anyway. Mike DeWine has me hoping that some Republicans will remember what was once a core principle of their party, and embrace the simple plain-spoken truth of my heartland forebears: Keep the government out of my life, and let me be free to live as I choose.

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