The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How one Republican governor just shamed his whole party

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R). (Rick Bowmer/AP)
5 min

There is no question that the Republican Party sees benefit in stirring up fear about the existence of transgender Americans. Targeting transgender children and teenagers in particular with maximal hostility and cruelty has become a way for Republican politicians to signal that they are hardcore, that no one is going to get to their right.

Witness Texas targeting the parents of trans kids for investigation as potential perpetrators of “child abuse," or Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) demanding that Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson define the word "woman,” and segueing into a rant about a transgender swimmer.

Which is why it was so extraordinary when Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a mainstream conservative Republican, on Tuesday vetoed a bill meant to stop transgender kids from participating in school sports.

What truly distinguished Cox’s actions wasn’t the veto itself, which came after the Republican governor of Indiana vetoed a similar bill. It was the letter Cox released explaining his veto, which did something I don’t believe I’ve seen any Republican do since the party launched its moral panic over transgenderism a few years ago.

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What did Cox do? He showed consideration for transgender kids themselves.

It’s a simple thing, but it illuminates the void in all the GOP scare rhetoric over this issue. Republicans constantly talk about parents’ “rights” not to have their kids taught that transgender people exist, or the supposed threat to the sanctity of the school bathroom, or the idea that a battalion of “biological males” is about to rampage over girls’ sports at every level.

Just as their critical race theory panic is all about the supposedly fragile feelings of White kids who might become “uncomfortable” if they read about racism, their focus is anywhere but on trans kids themselves.

Cox’s letter goes into detail about the bill’s legislative, legal and financial implications, and mentions the case of Lia Thomas, the transgender University of Pennsylvania swimmer who has become a kind of hate totem for the right.

Thomas’s success has been held up by innumerable conservatives as evidence of the danger transgender women pose to other women athletes. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, always on the lookout for culture war venom to pour into the political debate, even made an official proclamation declaring the Florida resident who came in second to Thomas the “rightful winner” of the NCAA contest Thomas won. Blackburn asked Jackson to say “what message” Thomas’s victory “sends to girls who aspire to compete” in sports.

But Thomas is an extraordinary exception. A small portion of Americans are trans. A small portion of that small portion are interested in school sports when they’re young. And a microscopic portion of that small portion of that small portion will be good enough to compete at an elite level. It isn’t hard to come up with rules to deal with that tiny number of elite trans athletes.

The NCAA already has them, including a requirement that a trans woman must have completed one year of testosterone suppression treatment and show a testosterone level below a defined standard. If anyone thinks those are the wrong requirements, they can debate that and perhaps they’ll be adjusted. As Cox points out, the state of Utah has similar rules for high school athletes.

But he also observes that there are just four trans kids playing school sports in the entire state of Utah, and only one is a trans girl.

Cox compares that to the 86 percent of trans youths reporting suicidality and the 56 percent who say they’ve attempted suicide according to one study (other studies show similar results). He writes:

Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.

How often have you heard a Republican say something like that? Heard them express understanding and sympathy for trans kids, some of the most vulnerable people in society? Heard them put those kids’ struggle and pain and hope at the center of their thinking, not as an afterthought or something that must be ignored, but as a concern that should inform policy? Heard them treat trans people not with contempt and fear but with decency and caring?

The new visibility of trans people and their demand for equal treatment are disorienting for many traditionalists. They don’t know how to integrate it into what they believe about the world. They worry that change is happening too fast. Trans people have always been with us, but many people were much more comfortable when they were silent.

But we’re never going back to that. We just aren’t. Trans people are not going to disappear. Because of that, there will have to be some policy changes.

There will be disagreement about exactly what those changes should look like, which is fine. That’s democracy. But imagine if we all came to that debate with the kind of humanity Spencer Cox just showed, not looking for an opportunity for demagoguery but trying to treat people with understanding and care. We might be able to create a very different future, and not tear ourselves apart along the way.