OPINION: How transgender bills became the new abortion issue in Georgia

(L-R) State Rep. Debra Bazemore, D-South Fulton, embraces Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, who was the first openly gay member of the Georgia legislature, after Drenner spoke against SB 140 at the House of Representatives on Thursday, March 16, 2023. SB 140 limits treatment for transgender youth. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

(L-R) State Rep. Debra Bazemore, D-South Fulton, embraces Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, who was the first openly gay member of the Georgia legislature, after Drenner spoke against SB 140 at the House of Representatives on Thursday, March 16, 2023. SB 140 limits treatment for transgender youth. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

I always get worried in a committee hearing when a member of the state Legislature presenting a bill doesn’t seem to know exactly what he or she is talking about.

Case in point — when state Sen. Carden Summers, a farmer and small businessman from Cordele, presented Senate Bill 140 to the House Public Health Committee Tuesday. The legislation would ban doctors and hospitals from providing gender-affirming surgery or hormone replacement therapy to transgender minors.

As Summers described what was in the bill, he admitted there were some portions “a little bit over my pay grade, when it comes to the X-Y, Y-X, and that kind of stuff in regards to gender dysphoria at birth.”

When state Rep. Spencer Frye, a Democrat from Athens, asked how many minors in the last year have had the kind of surgery Summers proposed banning, Summers responded, “In the past year? I don’t know.”

Frye shot back, “Nobody knows, is my point. So you’re not protecting any kids with this bill.”

Rep. Michelle Au, a doctor from Gwinnett County, read for Summers the standards of care for gender dysphoria from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which she said called the kind of approach Summers’ bill would take as outdated and dangerous.

“Why do you think the judgment of the Georgia state Legislature, 99%-plus of which have no clinical training in pediatrics whatsoever, should supersede what the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has determined to be best practices in caring for gender diverse children?” she asked.

Summers said, “There’s also other literature out there that says the opposite. So there we go,” he said.

All of this begs the question of why Summers and dozens of Republicans in the state House and Senate are pushing to legislate on a topic they seem to know little about. And why is the topic, which affects a tiny minority of Americans, taking center stage now?

One answer is politics. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June of last year, Georgia’s own six-week abortion ban — one of the strictest in the nation — went into effect. The culture war issue that had occupied Republicans in the state for so many years was suddenly settled in their favor. There simply aren’t many restrictions left to enact in that space this year.

Only one Republican bill related to abortion has been introduced this year— and it hasn’t even had a hearing.

The same is true of gun expansions. After pushing for years to expand access to firearms in the state, Republicans in the General Assembly last year passed a bill that allows Georgians to carry weapons without a permit.

That followed the 2014 bill that vastly expanded the places where guns are allowed in the state. Like abortion, there are few items left on the Right’s wish list for gun expansions that haven’t already been checked off.

What’s left to legislate when Republicans have already done most of what they’d promised their base?

That answer became clear to me over the summer of 2022 watching Herschel Walker’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

Even though Walker lost to U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in a runoff, his rowdy campaign speeches were like a real-time poll to see where the energy on the far right was consolidating. Walker’s biggest applause line at any 45-minute event inevitably focused on restrictions on transgender children.

“Men should not be in women’s sports,” he told a rally in McDonough. “That’s like asking me to compete against your daughter. You don’t want that.”

At a separate rally, he warned that Jesus would not recognize children in heaven if they changed their genders. The crowds cheered him on and polling told Republicans he was onto something.

The issue is now prominent on the far right. The Heritage Foundation is newly focused on the issue, as is U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome.

When she proposed a national divorce on Sean Hannity’s show last month, Greene listed five transgender issues as a reason for a split, including gender care,” We do not want our children having their gender change or transition.” But she never raised abortion once.

And when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave his inauguration speech this year, his wife Casey sat next to Chloe Cole, an activist who had gender-affirming surgery as a minor who now says she regrets it.

Frontline Policy Council brought Cole to Georgia this week to advocate for SB 140.

It passed the House 96 to 75 on Thursday.

The debate ahead of the bill’s passage was emotional and personal, especially for Democrats who said they know transgender people or are gay themselves.

State Rep. Karla Drenner, a Democrat from Avondale Estates, was the first openly gay state representative anywhere in the South when she was elected 23 years ago.

“To all of the children who will be negatively impacted by this bill, please don’t lose hope, please don’t give up, please don’t kill yourself,” she said on the floor.

State Rep. Ruwa Romman, a freshman Democrat from Gwinnett County, said she believes that the Republicans pushing the measure are sincere.

“But it does not make sense but for those of us that have never spoken to those kids, that have never sat down with those kids, that have never heard those kids, make laws about those kids,” she said.

At one point earlier in the week, Sen. Summers suggested that the General Assembly consider a study committee to investigate the long-term effects of administering medications to children that block puberty.

He said he couldn’t say what the effect would be and would like to know more.

A better approach would be a study committee for lawmakers to better understand the entire transgender issue, especially transgender children, before passing laws that won’t be easily undone, no matter what the politics of the moment look like .

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