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Missouri GOP part of national trend targeting transgender rights as potent political issue

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri House of Representatives, led by Speaker Dean Plocher (R-Des Peres) convenes in early January during the first day of the legislative session in Jefferson City. Republicans have said their efforts to curtail certain types of healthcare for transgender youth is a way to protect children.

Proposals that would affect transgender Missourians have moved to the top of the GOP agenda in Jefferson City.

“It is a priority,” House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, said during a press conference last week before lawmakers departed the Capitol for spring break. “We’re going to protect women’s sports. We’re going to protect surgical intervention for minors.”

Proponents and opponents of what Plocher is advocating have different theories on why transgender-related issues have become so prominent in Missouri politics and policy.

Republican supporters of these initiatives say they are trying to reclaim ground against what they see as corrosive left-wing beliefs at a time when same-sex marriage and efforts to fight discrimination against LGBTQ people are much more popular than they were 20 years ago. They have also described their efforts to curtail certain types of healthcare for transgender youth as a way to protect children.

But opponents of these proposals see a cynical political ploy to bolster enthusiasm among the Republican base at the expense of a vulnerable part of the LGBTQ community. They also contend that whatever Republicans may gain politically isn’t worth the hit to Missouri’s reputation.

“Missourians are asking not if I leave, but when do I leave?” said Shira Berkowitz, senior director for policy and advocacy for PROMO, a Missouri-based group that supports LGBTQ rights. “And I think it's an incredibly scary time for either parents raising transgender kids or transgender Missourians living here.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, on Jan. 4 during the first day of the legislative session at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. Moon is the sponsor of legislation that bans gender-affirming care for minors.

Top of the agenda

The first half of the 2023 Missouri General Assembly session featured marathon committee hearings and dramatic debates on the floor over bills that target the state’s LGBTQ community.

Some of those proposals include:

These types of ideas have caught fire in other GOP-controlled states over the past few months. For instance, Tennessee, Florida and Iowa have prohibited gender-affirming care for minors. And North Dakota and Arkansas have pursued curbs on drag show performances.

“What we see from the left is they’re trying to push their agendas on other people,” said Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a likely GOP candidate for governor in 2024. “And Republicans generally are just saying: ‘Look, we disagree with you. If you want to do that, you can. But don’t make us affirm that.’”

“I think most Republicans at the very least would say: ‘Don't do that to a minor,’” he added, referring to certain types of gender-affirming health care.

These issues are not just top of mind in the legislature, but also on the campaign trail. During this year’s Missouri Republican Party Lincoln Days in Springfield, numerous candidates for office in 2024 expressed strong support for barring transgender youth from accessing certain forms of health care and forbidding transgender girls to play girls sports.

“We ought to send a clear message, which is a message rooted in the truth of the Bible and all of our history,” said U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, who is running for a second term next year. “Which is: ‘Guess what? God made you as you are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.'”

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 05:  Sen. Josh Hawley, (R-MO), speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Oversight of the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation" on Capitol Hill on August 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Crossfire Hurricane was an FBI counterintelligence investigation relating to contacts between Russian officials and associates of Donald Trump. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster-Pool/Getty Images)
Pool/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Sen. Josh Hawley speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in August 2020. Hawley has said the GOP should more closely align with Christian scripture. “We ought to send a clear message, which is a message rooted in the truth of the Bible and all of our history,” he said during this the Missouri Republican Party's Lincoln Days gathering last month.

The Kansas City Star reported that polling by Hawley and others shows voters are concerned about transgender issues — and have helped fuel efforts by politicians to push the issue.

Some have attributed the rise in prominence to transgender-related proposals to conservative media outlets and social media platforms amplifying the issue. State Sen. Rusty Black said he saw a major uptick in interest from Republican voters when the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago.

“I’ve got grandparents getting a hold of me over these issues,” said Black, R-Chillicothe. “And for some reason during that time when we were at home and quit running to the park or whatever else we were doing, people became so much more intense about what’s going on with their children and grandchildren.

“There’s all sorts of people saying ‘we’ve got to do something about it,’” he added. “What we’ve got to hope that we do at the end is … if we do something about it, we do something that does the least amount of harm as possible.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, on last January during a Senatorial swearing-in ceremony on first day of the legislative session at the Missouri State Capitol.

Social wedge issue

Critics of the transgender-related proposals say Republican proponents are more interested in advancing politically than implementing sound public policy.

Sen. Greg Razer, the only openly gay member of the Missouri Senate, said the push to curtail transgender rights could be linked to the propensity of Missouri Republicans to use social wedge issues to rev up their base.

Sen. Greg Razer on how the filibuster could dramatically change bill on transgender health care
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 Razer of Kansas City talked with St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum about how that procedural device could alter the course of legislation that bans gender affirming care for minors.

The Kansas City Democrat added that since Missouri banned most abortions and removed many restrictions on firearms, there aren’t that many ways that Missouri Republicans can use those social issues to motivate voters.

“There’s nothing else you can pass, so you have to find a new social wedge issue,” Razer said. “I think they thought it was going to be critical race theory. That dart didn’t stick. They’re trying to make it stick to trans kids. If that doesn’t do it, they’ll go after another one.”

Razer added that while Republicans may get some short-term political gain from passing legislation affecting transgender people, the issue isn’t as politically potent as they may assume. He pointed to former Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler's decisive loss in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, even though she made opposition to LGBTQ rights a cornerstone of her political career.

Berkowitz said PROMO sees the GOP push against transgender rights as “a real misunderstanding of who is transgender and what makes somebody transgender.”

“From the kids that we see that testify constantly at the Missouri legislature, we've heard them say things like 'I’m supported in my family. I'm supported in my school. My teachers use the right pronouns for me. My classmates see me as who I am. The only people that don't are our elected leaders in our state.’”

One example of what Berkowitz is talking about occurred in January, when Clayton High School junior Chelsea Freels testified about legislation barring 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 are you protecting me against, exactly?” Freels said. “I transitioned recently, relatively speaking. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m not depressed anymore. I’m not suicidal anymore. I’ve got a great group of friends since I transitioned.”

Gov. Mike Parson greets legislators on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, before the State of the State address at the capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson greets legislators before delivering the State of the State address in January. Parson made no mention of LGBTQ issues during his speech. He said recently that he expects opposing sides of transgender-related bills will come to a compromise.

Filibuster could block bills

Unlike in some other Republican states, lawmakers like Razer can use the filibuster in the Senate to force Republicans to alter their bills around transgender rights.

“I think Missourians should be happy that we have a very strong filibuster,” Razer said. “Whichever party is in the minority, the strong filibuster helps that party rein in the more extreme tendencies of the majority party. I think that's the purpose of it.”

Razer added that it’s possible that Republicans will use a legislative maneuver known as the previous question and referred to as a “nuclear option” to end a filibuster, but that could push Senate Democrats to derail other GOP priorities. He adds that his overall goal is to “walk away with some semblance of these kids are going to be OK.”

“I'm under no illusion that they won't use the nuclear option to get this bill passed,” Razer said. “There's just a lust to get this done.”

Eight senators who support the ban on gender-affirming care to minors signed a letter saying they are “unmoved by threats to stall action on the state budget — or any other bill — if [Sen. Mike Moon’s legislation] is brought up for a vote.”

“We will not be deterred from protecting kids,” the letter stated.

Coalition of religious leaders sues to overturn Missouri's ban on abortion
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-St. Louis, who also is a retired United Methodist minister, speaks to the media alongside faith leaders suing to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans and restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state last month. Phifer said the legislation targeting transgender youth is personal to her because she has a transgender grandchild.

The outcome is personal for Rep. Barbara Phifer, and she also worries about the consequences for the state.

The Kirkwood Democrat has a grandchild who is transgender. She said that if her GOP colleagues follow the lead of other states, it will stain 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 aren’t going to come.”

Gov. Mike Parson said he hopes that cooler heads can prevail before lawmakers adjourn in mid-May.

“I think there are a lot of things up there that are hot-button issues we’ve all been talking about,” Parson said. “I think hopefully you’re going to get people at the table and get a solution.”

Jason Rosenbaum on "St. Louis on the Air"
STLPR political correspondent Jason Rosenbaum analyzes the Missouri's GOP's focus on trans issues, and previews what could happen when lawmakers convene next week.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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