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The Republican Disinformation Campaign Behind Arkansas’s Vile Anti-Trans Law

Even before the vote was called, the bill’s supporters were given the floor to cast doubt on trans peoples’ lives.

Activists and their supporters rally in support of trans people on the steps of New York's City Hall
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When young trans people and their allies testified in the Arkansas state legislature over the last weeks, it seemed clear that this was not supposed to be a debate. Rumba Yambú, the director of Intransitive, a group led by trans people in Arkansas, said people with the Christian-right group Family Research Council, or FRC, seemed to dominate the agenda. “They were present at every committee meeting,” Yambú recalled when we spoke by phone this week. Even when there were more people speaking against the anti-trans legislation than in favor of it, they said, legislative committees still voted with the anti-trans rights side.

This week, Arkansas became the first state in the country to ban gender-affirming health care for young trans people. The bill prevents medical professionals from providing such care by making it punishable with disciplinary and civil actions, along with barring federal funding and encouraging private insurers to deny coverage. If the state’s Republican governor signs the bill, trans youth will be forced to stop treatment they had already obtained, while others will be denied care going forward. Legislators can’t entirely stop people from seeking out what they need to transition, though; like attempts to ban abortion, these bans have only made it more difficult, and more stigmatized. Even before votes were cast, that outcome was playing out in the legislative process itself: Trans people in Arkansas were essentially treated as a disruptive presence to be managed and marginalized, while opponents were given the floor to cast doubt on trans peoples’ lives.

In hearings, opponents of trans rights mixed graphic language—the bill’s sponsor, Representative Robin Lundstrom, referred to transition-related care as “mutilation”—with appeals to protect children. (The bill is officially called the “Arkansas Save Adolescents From Experimentation Act.”) Trans people and their supporters were advised by one hearing’s conveners that if their testimony exceeded two minutes, they could be removed from the chamber. One representative pointed out that this unfairly granted far more time to the bill’s supporters, and when he tried to get the opponents a few minutes more to speak, his motion lost. The supporters had 45 minutes to call on their own experts in an attempt to discredit current standards of gender-affirming care, like puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, which are already recognized as safe, medically necessary, and potentially life-saving.

“We need to correct the record,” said Dr. Michele Hutchinson in one recent hearing, “because the folks that spoke before got an awful lot of time to tell you a lot of inaccuracies.” She went on to cite the standards of care for trans youth, which are recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Pediatric Endocrine Society, among others. But underneath her appeals to the evidence, Dr. Hutchinson was upset, and she said so. “I’m doing everything I can to maintain my sanity here … just after this bill passed the house, these kids heard about it. I’ve had multiple kids in our emergency room because of an attempted suicide. Just in the last week.” If this bill passes, she said, children will die. “And I will call you guys every single time one does.”

As they have in states across the country, Republicans have used debates over anti-trans legislation to flood communities with misinformation and panic about trans people’s lives. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed an anti-trans sports bill in March; announcing the new law, he said President Biden’s affirmation of the rights of trans people, in his opinion, “encourages transgenderism amongst our young people.” This week, a bill similar to the Arkansas law targeting transition-related care was introduced in the Louisiana state legislature–one targeting trans athletes had already been introduced. And in South Dakota, Governor Kristi Noem signed executive orders effectively banning trans women and girls from women’s sports after Republican backlash when she vetoed a similar bill.

This wave of bills, reported Katelyn Burns, has grown “directly from the social media disinformation campaign” concerning a custody battle over a trans girl in Texas whose parents disagreed about the validity of her gender identity. The point of such campaigns isn’t merely to pass laws that would intensify anti-trans discrimination, whether that’s in education or health care or across the board. Rather, they are used to transform the attention trans rights have won in recent years into something just shy of a conspiracy theory: one in which trans athletes are dominating sports and in which young trans people can get care on demand from parents and doctors, all under the influence of “trans activists”—adult outsiders.

“Folks get surprised that there are trans people in Arkansas,” Intransitive Director Yambú told me this week. “Or forget that we are here. And here’s these legislators coming out and saying, not only are they here, but they are dangerous.”

In hearings in Arkansas’s trans youth health care ban over the last month, legislators supporting the bill mocked trans youth at the same time as its sponsor claimed to want to protect them. One cited the Bible to describe trans and gender nonconforming people as an “abomination,” another compared trans kids to children who pretend to be animals. In truth, this comports with other rhetoric painting trans kids as in need of rescue from themselves. “You can’t do this to children,” Arkansas State Representative Robin Lundstrom said on a recent episode of the Family Research Council podcast. The opposition, she said, was “aggressive” and “vicious” and didn’t understand that she just wanted to protect children. (She thanked supporters like the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT group Family Council in Arkansas, whose president called the trans-rights movement “a cultural trainwreck.”)

The pretense that this bill was meant to help children falls away when you look at the coordinated messaging from the Family Research Council. As Yambú described, members of FRC like Joseph Backholm, a senior fellow and anti-LGBTQ rights activist, came to Arkansas to testify. In a policy brief on the trans youth health care ban in Arkansas, FRC instructs supporters to adopt a few key tactics: that “‘Gender transition’ is an experiment” and not treatment, that “The government should not force taxpayers to fund it,” and that young people are harmed by it. These are not original talking points; in a sense, FRC has just adopted their anti-abortion claims to use against trans people.

The points can each be refuted, but the bigger picture they paint is just as important. That is, FRC and their allies against trans rights know that throwing up blocks to someone’s self-determination, casting doubt on their own capacity to know themselves, is a powerful way to render someone less than a person, less deserving of rights. If that doesn’t work, then cast them as predatory. So when Backholm claims, as he did at a hearing, that a phenomenon called “transgenderism” is motivated by profit-seeking clinics, targeting “thousands of children” who will later “look at themselves with regret,” that’s what he is invoking, the right’s campaigns of misinformation and imagined conspiracies about children at risk. Yet children, in truth, are being used to fuel these adults’ agenda of discrimination and exclusion. As one witness who identified as a member of the trans community and who needed access to trans health care told the legislators, “I point my finger at you and call this what it truly is: propaganda, fearmongering, and oppression … [it] will cause children’s death.”

“This act implies that young transgender people are not actually trans, and rather, are mentally ill,” testified Willow Breshears, the founder of the Young Transwomen’s Project. She told legislators that she had been on hormone replacement therapy since she was thirteen, and if she had not been, she may not be alive today. “Health care is a human right, so it is beyond me that any legislator would legalize discrimination in health care, especially for children—’cause bottom line, these are children.”