In recent weeks, a number of Republican state legislatures have introduced bills imposing further restrictions on transgender rights and medical care.
One of the most sweeping measures passed in Arkansas this week, banning sex confirmation treatments or surgery for transgender youth – the first such ban to become law anywhere in the country.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, opposed the bill, after supporting other laws limiting transgender rights. He argued that the legislation not only violates conservative principles, but could also harm Republicans politically.
Many Tories disagree: The Republican-controlled state legislature overturned Mr Hutchinson’s veto on the bill. And on Thursday, former President Donald J. Trump lashed out at Mr Hutchinson, saying his opposition to the legislation would mean the end of the governor’s limited-time political career. “Goodbye, Asa,” Mr. Trump said.
We spoke to the governor about the new law, his belief that Republicans are too involved in culture wars, and the party’s straying from core conservative values. The interview has been slightly edited.
This week, the state legislature overturned your veto on a bill making Arkansas the first state to restrict access to gender-sensitive health care for anyone under the age of 18, even with consent. parents. Why did you oppose the bill?
The bill is too broad, it is extreme, and most importantly, it ignores young people who are currently on hormone therapy, which means those in Arkansas who are undergoing, under the care of the doctor and parents, hormone therapy – that would be removed in the middle of this.
It is a terrible consequence of this bill. It is the most extreme law in the land. Arkansas would be the first state to pass this bill. And I couldn’t in good conscience sign it with the concerns I had.
Last month, you signed bills prohibiting trans women and girls from participating in sport competitions consistent with their gender identity and allowing doctors to refuse to treat trans patients because of religious or moral objections. Why is this legislation different for you?
You need to assess each to see if this is the appropriate role for government, if it makes sense and if it is the right balance. We have had a few different bills that concern transgender people.
One of these is the Medical Conscience Act, which I signed, which protects the right of healthcare workers to declare that certain procedures might violate their right to conscience or their beliefs and that they are not obliged to carry out these procedures. This does not apply to emergency situations. Obviously, under the Hippocratic Oath, you have this responsibility. But I saw it as a reasonable accommodation for those with sincere beliefs.
The second bill that has raised concerns concerns girls in sport. I saw competition with biological men as undermining the importance of our Title IX sports and women’s sports activities in the school environment. And so that, again, made sense to me. But when I saw this third bill being introduced, I thought it was going too far. And I said, “We have to show more tolerance. We need to show greater compassion. And so I didn’t sign that.
How many trans people are there in your state?
I do not have precise statistics on the number of people who would identify in the trans community. But if you look at those who are on hormone therapy, then my best guess is that it’s below 200. And that’s based on conversations with the Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
So aren’t these three bills looking for a problem? Is Arkansas Really Inundated With Trans Rights Complaints?
This is one of the biggest culture war issues we have – sometimes we try to deal with the fear of something that is not there in reality.
If you just look at Arkansas itself, there is no instance of biological men trying to compete in women’s sports. It is not a problem that we are tackling. This is a potential future problem and what lawmakers see as trends across the country.
And so, yes, that is part of the challenge of the culture wars that we are engaged in. Often times, we act out of fear of what might happen, or what our imaginations say might happen, as opposed to something real and tangible.
You urged Republicans to rethink their approach to cultural issues more generally. What are your concerns?
It is difficult to paint with a broad stroke because the social issues are so broad. Pro-life protections, for example: I think it’s an important cause, and you can’t run away from it.
But when you look at conservatism, historically you’ve had the Ronald Reagan coalition of defense conservatives, economic conservatives, and social conservatives, and all three formed the base of the Republican Party. There is a certain tension between the different elements of this base. And we’ve handled that very well over the past four decades.
But you see, today the cultural warfare part of conservatism has eclipsed in many cases, and we haven’t struck the right balance with economic conservatism and government restraint.
And that’s how I argued this question, is that while we’re doing this analysis and supporting our social conservatives and fighting for these issues, we still have to ask ourselves the question, is this an appropriate role for government? Is this something that should be run by families and churches and where they impact the culture or are we going to wage all the battles of the state trying to change the culture or preserve the culture?
This is a question we do not ask enough. And this is where I would like to see a greater level of debate, a greater level of restraint, and not just saying that we can solve all the problems in society by passing a law. It is not conservatism. I want us to refocus on this.
Is there a political risk for Republicans?
Well, this is not a political debate which most advisers think is good for me. I very much doubt that all of a sudden the Republican Party will be able to attract a significant number of trans voters.
But what is important here, the risk for the party, is that especially the millennials, the young people, they want to see more tolerance. They don’t believe in judging someone else and making laws that make their life more difficult. And so, although the transgender community is very small, there is a larger group that doesn’t like the government going after them. And this is where we are losing out in the general population – reflecting intolerance and reflecting a lack of diversity.
If you want to be a broad-based party, you have to be true to your principles. And it starts with a restriction on government action.
I have watched your criticism from the Conservatives over the past few days. I saw your interview with Tucker Carlson …
Did you enjoy it?
It was a good ten minutes of television. And as you allude to it, this whole issue has become a bit of a circus. Why do you think so many conservatives feel the need to interfere in the private medical decisions of trans people and their families? What do you think is driving this?
I think it’s the fear of the leadership of the Biden administration, where it’s going to go, and they’re trying to put protective measures in place.
It also reflects a very conservative base. There’s the pressure of, well, if I don’t support that, then I’m going to be the main opponent of the right. And so it is also a question of electoral survival. This is the best answer I can give you.
Are you worried about corporate boycotts or damage to the state’s reputation?
No. Part of the dynamic is that we have tried to pass a hate crimes law in Arkansas. The goal of our business community has been that Arkansas should not be the last state to pass hate crimes law. We need it. I think they’ve been a bit silent on raising concerns about some of the other bills being considered because they’re trying to prioritize that.
And so, in fact, I haven’t gotten any calls from anyone in the Walmarts or the Tysons about this particular bill. But in a larger context, of course. For six years, whether it’s a toilet bill or the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, in every legislative session they’ve raised concerns: how will this affect our recruitment of the best talent in Arkansas to run businesses? It is a concern for them. And that’s obviously a concern I would have too.
What would you say to those who lose access to treatment because of this law?
Well, I hope we can correct the law. It’s too early to tell, but I think the concern I raised about the lack of grandfathering resonated with many. There is a discussion of a legislative solution to this, so we’ll see how the session plays out on this. I hope they can redo that part of it, so that we do not deny treatment to those who are currently on treatment.
But more broadly than that, all I can say is I tried, and I hope they feel the top Arkansas official is backing them.