Movement Protecting Kids from Gender Transition Cements Record with Texas, Florida Laws
Laws to protect minors from gender transition procedures have made massive strides over the past three years, but two recently enacted laws mark a new milestone. On May 17, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law SB 254, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) signed into law SB 14 on June 2. More than any of the other bills passed in 2023 or previous years — and there were many good ones — these two laws solidify the place of protecting children from gender transition procedures as part of mainstream conservatism.
Although the common sense of laws to protect minors from dangerous, experimental procedures might be obvious, they weren’t a guaranteed success. When the Arkansas legislature passed the very first successful bill of this kind in 2021, Republican then-Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed it, although the legislature overrode the veto. Hutchinson claimed (in The Washington Post, of all places) that the law “den[ied] best practice medical care to transgender youth” and that his veto represented “restrained and limited government.” The bill not only faced ridicule from local outlets, but even from national platforms like “60 Minutes.” With fierce media opposition and a real possibility of bumping against Republican icebergs, the first bills to protect minors from gender transition procedures were truly sailing through uncharted waters.
Another 2021 controversy over a transgender-related bill in another ruby-red state demonstrated another possible vulnerability states could encounter when passing legislation to protect minors from gender transition procedures. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, also a Republican, vetoed a women’s sports bill, citing fears that the NCAA might sue or boycott the state: “If South Dakota passes a law that’s against their policy, they will likely take punitive action against us.” Indeed, major corporations have shown themselves more than willing to win brownie points with the Left by boycotting states that pass conservative legislation on social issues.
These handicaps lead us to consider why laws protecting minors in Texas and Florida can be so influential.
For starters, Texas and Florida have huge populations. Texas (30 million inhabitants) and Florida (22 million inhabitants) are the second and third largest states by population, behind only California and ahead of New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Florida has twice as many people, and Texas has almost three times as many people, as the next-largest right-leaning states, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina — the next-largest states whose legislatures could conceivably pass conservative policies.
Their huge populations make Texas and Florida more costly to boycott. While major corporations have called for boycotts on North Carolina over its bathroom bill and Georgia over its heartbeat bill, they stand to lose more if they boycott a larger state. This calculation holds for urban markets as well. Texas and Florida are home to 15 of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, including Dallas (fourth largest), Houston (fifth), Miami (ninth), Tampa (17th), Orlando (22nd), San Antonio (24th), and Austin (26th). These markets are too large to abandon lightly.
Their huge populations also make Texas and Florida important electorally. After the 2020 census, Texas boasts 38 seats in the House of Representatives, and Florida boasts 28 seats — combining for 30% of a House majority. Many members of Congress embrace policies popular in their states, so this could influence congressional support for similar legislative proposals. Texas and Florida will also combine for 70 votes in the electoral college in 2024 (a candidate needs 270 to win). Historically, Florida has been an important swing state (although trending to the Right), which has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1996 except for 2020. Meanwhile, Texas has been a must-win state for Republican candidates (but where Democratic candidates believe they can expand the map); presidential campaigns cannot afford to bypass either state on their path to victory.
Substantial Democratic Minorities
Due in part to their size, Texas and Florida are also home to considerable Democratic minorities that can maintain a critical mass to keep the Republican majority on their toes. For perspective, in the U.S. House, there are currently 13 Texas Democrats (the fourth-largest Democratic delegation) and eight Florida Democrats (tied for the 10th-largest Democratic delegation, even after Democrats lost three Florida seats in 2022). This enables state Democratic parties to mount credible challenges in statewide races; for example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) won reelection in 2018 by only three points over Beto O’Rourke (D), and Nikki Fried (D) defeated Matt Caldwell (R) in a 2018 race for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture.
Such credible opposition prevents the dominant Republican parties in these states from ossifying, a common side-effect of one-party rule. Republicans must continue to run competent candidates to win races, which helps these states lead nationally on many issues, including protecting minors from gender transition procedures.
Another factor bolstering the credibility of Republican leadership in Texas and Florida is the states’ demographic diversity (and, increasingly, the diversity of the Republican coalition). According to the 2020 census, approximately 40% of Texas’ population is non-Hispanic white, while nearly 40% are Hispanic, 12% are black, and 6% are Asian or Native American. Similarly, Florida’s population is 51% non-Hispanic white, 27% Hispanic, 15% black, and 6% Native American or Asian.
Obviously, Republicans could not win elections in such diverse states without substantial support outside of whites alone. Not only does this belie media narratives, it also forces the Republicans in these states not to insulate themselves. And, in fact, Republicans are successfully winning over increasing numbers of Hispanic voters in both states. This broadens the appeal of any laws that are successfully passed by state governments in Austin and Tallahassee. Republicans couldn’t maintain power in these states if they passed laws that only appealed to a narrow group of extremists.
It’s also worth noting that both Texas and Florida are growing rapidly. Both state populations grew by an estimated 15% from the 2010 census to the 2020 census (twice the national average), resulting in Florida gaining one seat in Congress, while Texas gained two. It’s one thing for the media to write off a state passing conservative legislation if that state is stagnant or declining, demographically or economically. But both Texas and Florida are booming. Lots of people are moving there (which, in a free country, implies lots of people want to move there), a sign that these state governments aren’t quite as benighted as the media suggests.
One final reason why it matters that Texas and Florida passed laws protecting minors from gender transition procedures is that these large, diverse, and growing states — where credible minority opposition keeps the majority honest — passed strong, robust legislation that offered effective protection to minors. Both bills provide multiple enforcement mechanisms for a prohibition on doctors treating minors with puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgeries, limit an exception for children currently receiving hormone treatments, and forbid the use of public funds in performing gender transition procedures on minors. Florida’s bill, in particular, is among the strongest protections for minors passed to date, and Texas’ is not far behind.
This is relevant because some of the 19 states that have enacted legislation watered down the language, pulled their punches, or failed to approach the issue comprehensively. State leaders in Utah rewrote a bill to protect minors from gender transition procedures, so that the final version contained “massive loopholes,” while at the last minute the West Virginia Senate majority leader amended that state’s bill to grandfather-in anyone currently receiving gender transition hormones. In Georgia and Tennessee, no version of the bills that passed attempted to save minors already sucked in by the lifelong hormone regimen. Legislators in Kentucky saved their bill from near failure by amending a slimmed-down version into another bill, while legislators in Nebraska excepted gender transition hormones from the prohibition to acquire the votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Except for Nebraska (signed into law on May 22), all these states adopted their laws before Texas and Florida. That is, they voted before the two red-leaning giants had voted to adopt strong protections for minors from gender transition procedures. Earlier this year, it wasn’t clear how much traction the legislative push to protect children would achieve. With the media and hospital associations lining up against the bills, and limited information on what other states would do, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine how some state legislators talked themselves into watering down their proposals. And if Texas and Florida had imitated their lack of conviction, they would have appeared entirely justified.
Instead, Texas and Florida raised the bar. The 800- and 600-pound gorillas of democracy’s laboratory climbed up to the top shelf, inspiring or daring other states to do likewise. It turns out that mainstream conservatism (or simple American common sense) is consistent with zealously protecting children from predatory and experimental policies.
Nearly every state that passed a bill to protect minors has room for improvement in future legislative sessions — although Arkansas (2021), Arizona (2022), Mississippi (2023), and Montana (2023) stand out as laudable exceptions. Specifically, state legislatures should bar state funding for such procedures on minors, require informed consent, and set a sunset date for any exception for minors currently on gender hormones.
The legislative movement to protect children from gender transition procedures has seen some significant milestones. First, Arkansas’ legislature passed a bill over the governor’s veto in 2021. Second, in 2023 the laws exploded across the country, as at least 16 other states joined the three early adopters, indicating a spike in momentum. But not all of these bills were of equal quantity. The third milestone was when Texas and Florida, the largest and among the most influential right-leaning states, enacted strong protections for minors, signaling that this issue was now squarely embraced by mainstream conservatives.
The next step is for states to improve on the initial laws they passed this year, to more securely protect minors from these predatory practices — even as the movement continues to expand to other states.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.