Transgender-bill veto overridden; state 1st to ban kids’ gender-affirming care

FILE - State Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale, questions state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, about her proposed measure to expand absentee voting in Arkansas. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

Arkansas became the first state in the nation Tuesday to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors, after a majority of the state Legislature voted to override the governor's veto.

The GOP-sponsored legislation prohibits providing surgeries -- which are not currently done on children in the state -- and hormones to people under 18. Barring legal action -- which human-rights groups have promised -- the law will go into effect during the summer.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at]

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, announced Monday afternoon that he had vetoed House Bill 1570, describing it as a legislative overreach into the relationship between doctors, and patients and their families.

Just over 24 hours later, sponsor Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, moved to call a vote to overturn Hutchinson's veto. The motion passed 72-25 in the House and subsequently passed 25-8 in the Senate. Both votes were largely along party lines.

Lundstrum said Hutchinson's statement that the legislation was a product of the "culture war" was true, but that the state needed to protect children from those procedures.

"Our children stand as pawns right now. They're minors and they're children and they need to be protected" from surgical and hormonal treatments, she said. "Even medicine sometimes is wrong. We should never experiment on children. Ever."

Leading medical associations consider gender-affirming treatment best-practice and potentially life-saving care that positively affects mental health outcomes. The bill is officially titled the "Save Adolescents From Experimentation," or SAFE, Act, though experts in gender-diverse health care say those treatments have been used successfully for decades.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said if legislators had conversations with transgender youths and their families and health care providers, as Hutchinson said he did, they would agree with the governor's veto.

McCullough, the only openly LGBTQ member of the state Legislature, urged her colleagues to "put aside politics, put aside lobbyists, put aside everything, and to search your own heart and think about these parents and these children and their doctors."

The legislation originally passed 70-22 in the House in March.

Seventy-two Republicans voted for the override Tuesday, and all 22 Democrats voted no. House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Rep. Stu Smith, R-Batesville, did not vote, and Rep. Les Warren, R-Hot Springs, was excused.

Three House Republicans broke ranks to vote against the override Tuesday: Reps. Craig Christiansen of Bald Knob, Spencer Hawks of Conway and Lee Johnson of Greenwood, who is a physician. Hawks and Johnson voted against the bill when it went before the House last month. Christiansen did not vote then.

Hawks said afterward that he voted against the bill and the override because he believed the legislation did not address what would happen to children currently receiving hormone treatment and that he had suggested amending the bill.

Lundstrum said later that those minors would still be able to get counseling and health care.

"When children desist from using those drugs, they still get the health care, and even if they are currently using those drugs, they still get counseling and health care," she said.

McCullough said hormone treatments can be life-saving.

"Yes, counseling's important, but so is medication, and the chemical stuff saves lives," she told the House.

According to the legislation, health care providers are not prohibited from providing procedures to people born with anatomy or chromosomes that fall outside the binary understanding of sex; services to address disorders of sexual development; treatments of any infection, injury, disease or disorder that has been caused by or exacerbated by transition-related care; or procedures treating a physical disorder, injury or illness that would place the person in imminent danger of death or impairment of a major bodily function unless surgery is performed.

The Senate's action on the motion to override Hutchinson's veto came after Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, told senators that he is concerned that the most powerful people are bullying the most vulnerable people, before the Senate approved a motion by Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, to have immediate consideration of the veto override.

With the Senate sponsor of HB1570 -- Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale -- excused to care for a relative, Senate Republican leader Scott Flippo of Mountain Home made the motion to override the governor's veto.

Afterward, Flippo said, "I think we are going to be on the right side of history."

Under House Bill 1570, "if [these children] want to transition to another gender that they need to wait until they are 18," he said, "I think that this is something that oftentimes could be irreversible, depending upon what procedure that they would undertake and that it is not simply too much to ask to let their minds develop and mature a little bit before they make what could be a very permanent and life-changing decision."

Flippo said, "We serve at the pleasure of the people, and I think that the people of this state were very much in support of this bill and this in its override [of the governor's veto]."

Asked about Arkansas being the first state to adopt such a law, he said, "I don't pretend to speak for other states.

"But I will say that I think this is in line with Arkansas values," Flippo said.

But Tucker recalled that then-Gov. Orval Faubus called a special session after the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School, and the Legislature passed 14 bills in a special session and seven were struck down by courts.

"Now 63 years later, those bills were wrong," he said. "In that special session, the way I would sum it up is the most powerful people in the state were bullying the most vulnerable."

Tucker said he sees House Bill 1570 as the most powerful people bullying the most vulnerable ones.

Twenty-five Republican senators voted to override the governor's veto, while all seven Democratic senators and Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent from Sulphur Springs, voted not to override the veto. Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, and Clark were excused.

Tuesday's action in the state Legislature marks the first time a governor's veto has been overridden since 2013, as well as the first overturned veto since Hutchinson has been in office.

Asked at a unrelated news conference, on the latest in the covid-19 pandemic, after the House's vote to override and before the Senate's action, the governor said the move was expected.

"As I said yesterday, I fully expected both the House and Senate to override the veto based upon the large majority that supported it initially, so I don't consider it a surprise. I stated my convictions and belief yesterday, and I understand their vote and the support for it in the House and Senate," Hutchinson said.

The American Civil Liberties Union vowed Tuesday that it would challenge the law in court.

"The Arkansas Legislature has ignored dozens of local doctors and national medical experts, as well as trans youth and their parents. This bill will drive families, doctors and businesses out of the state and send a terrible and heartbreaking message to the transgender young people who are watching in fear," Chase Stangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU's LGBTQ and HIV Project, said in a written statement.

Stangio added that the ACLU is "preparing litigation as we speak."

Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said the Legislature's decision "disregarded widespread, overwhelming and bipartisan opposition to this bill and continued their discriminatory crusade against trans youth."

"Attempting to block trans youth from the care they need simply because of who they are is not only wrong, it's also illegal, and we will be filing a lawsuit to challenge this law in court. We are hearing from concerned families all over the state who are afraid about the impact of this bill and others like it. We are committed to doing all we can to support these families and ensure they know how to continue to fight for their rights and get the care and resources they need," Dickson said in a written statement.

Hours before the Legislature convened Tuesday afternoon, the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization started by the founders of Walmart, issued its first public statement on House Bill 1570 and on other measures in the Legislature that would affect LGBTQ Arkansans.

"We are alarmed by the string of policy targeting LGBTQ people in Arkansas. This trend is harmful and sends the wrong message to those willing to invest in or visit our state. We support Gov. Asa Hutchinson's recent veto of discriminatory policy and implore government, business and community leaders to consider the impact of existing and future policy that limits basic freedoms and does not promote inclusiveness in our communities and economy," Tom Walton, home region program committee chairman for the foundation, said in a written statement Tuesday morning.

The Human Rights Campaign says HB1570 is one of a historic number of anti-transgender bills moving through statehouses across the country. There are 30 pieces of legislation that would deny gender-affirming care to transgender youths, according to the nation's largest LGBTQ civil-rights organization.

"This discriminatory bill, peddled by national anti-equality extremists is a cruel and shameful way for legislators to score political points by targeting transgender youth who are simply trying to navigate their adolescence," Eric Reece, Arkansas state manager for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a written statement.

Lundstrum thanked the Arkansas Family Council as well as national groups including the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation and the Women's Liberation Front for their support of the bill.

"I'm glad it's done, and we can move on to the next thing," she said.

Arkansas Family Council President Jerry Cox praised the Legislature and the lawmakers who sponsored HB1570 for passing the bill and overriding the governor's veto.

"We appreciate their leadership, their moral courage, and their resolve to do what is right. This is historic legislation. Arkansans ought to be proud of their leaders for doing the right thing by passing the SAFE Act into law," Cox said in a written statement.

Arkansas is one of 18 states this year to introduce legislation that aims to ban transition-related health services for minors, according to the conservative Family Research Council.

Asked about Arkansas being the first to have the law in the nation, Lundstrum said, "Now we are protecting children from experimentation, both surgically and chemically. I think that's a good step forward, and they can make the decision when they are 18."

Lundstrum likened the procedures to other things people under 18 can't do in Arkansas, such as buying cigarettes, drinking alcohol and getting tattoos.

"I have a list as long as my arm. Why would we want them to use a drug that is not even approved?" she said.

Hormone treatments as gender-affirming care are considered an off-label use of the drugs by the Food and Drug Administration, which means they have not been explicitly studied within that context, Dr. Robert Garofalo, division head of adolescent and young adult medicine at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, said at a virtual news conference put on by the Human Rights Campaign midday Tuesday.

"We use off-label drugs all the time and to suggest in any way that there's something different about this population" is a political tool and unjust, Garofalo said.

Also on Tuesday, the House Education Committee advanced a bill that would allow public school and higher-education institution employees to address students with the name and pronoun corresponding with the sex listed on their registration forms, even if they ask to be addressed with a different name or pronoun.

LGBTQ-rights advocates say the measure would enable teachers to discriminate against transgender youths.

Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, said House Bill 1749 is intended to protect teachers from facing legal action if they use the wrong pronoun or fail to use a student's preferred name. Bentley acknowledged that no teacher in Arkansas has been sued for that reason as of Tuesday, and in response to a question from Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, Bentley said it would protect teachers who intentionally do so.

"Most teachers just want to call the student by the name that they registered with," Bentley said.

Bentley said she had heard from administrators in her district who said students were changing their names and pronouns multiple times a year, something Godfrey said sounded "implausible" and that Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, said he had never heard a teacher say.

"What I think most teachers are saying is they want to treat their students with dignity and respect and call them by their preferred pronouns," Godfrey said.

Information for this article was contributed by Andy Davis of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.