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Sep 26, 2023, 5:29pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Why did Gavin Newsom veto a high-profile trans bill?

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
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The News

LOS ANGELES – Gov. Gavin Newsom’s weekend veto of a transgender rights bill surprised some progressive Democrats, angered some LGBTQ activists, and got a mixed reaction from conservatives.

But Tuesday, after the governor signed an array of other LGBTQ rights and gender identity bills, the veto’s impact — killing a measure that would have instructed courts to consider a parent’s support of their child’s gender identity in custody cases — had waned.

In conservative media, Newsom’s opposition was covered first as a watershed moment, then as a political dodge. “This guy’s so oily,” said Fox News host Greg Gutfeld, “he should join OPEC.” LGBTQ advocates who had endorsed the bill said they were unlikely to push for a veto override this year; some endorsed part of the rationale in Newsom’s veto message: That courts could already consider a child’s gender identity and a parent’s response in custody cases.

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“Nothing changed,” said Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, based in San Francisco. “Look, Gov. Newsom has many times demonstrated his support for transgender people and transgender youth. His intent here appears to be not separating out transgender youth from other youths.”

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David’s view

Presidential politics have a way of elevating any story — even when the key players are only hypothetical candidates. Newsom’s veto came as he was negotiating a November debate with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an unusual, high-profile intramural media event between candidate and non-candidate; on Sunday, a “60 Minutes” profile of Newsom asked repeatedly if he’d run for president.

That shaped the early, shocked reaction to the governor, who has put California forward as a “freedom state,” a refuge from the wave of red-state legislation limiting abortion access, gender-affirming care, and discussion of gender identity in schools. Legislators, who got only a little notice of the governor’s move, knew that some of their constituents would be horrified.

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“People are really scared about what’s happening in other states,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a co-sponsor of the bill. “They’re scared of what’s happening in Congress, because they know that if the Republicans get back the White House and the Senate and keep the House, that they’ll kill the filibuster, and do all sorts of nasty stuff.

The legislation, known as AB-957, sought to require judges overseeing custody disputes to weigh a parent’s “affirmation of the child’s gender identity” as one among “other comprehensive factors.” Its lead author, Assemblywoman Lori Wilson, herself the mother of a trans child, had argued the language could protect minors from “a non-affirming or an abusive caretaker,”

But the proposal took a pounding from conservatives. The Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal theorized that parents could lose custody of their children if LGBTQ activist groups charged them with abuse; Fox News prime time ran multiple segments about the bill, with a Chicago parent who’d lost custody of her daughter to an ex-partner, and Republican legislators urging parents to “flee” the state.

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Did Newsom cave to the pressure because he has one eye on the White House? To some advocates, that seemed like an obvious explanation. On a Monday night call organized by the California TGI Policy Alliance, TransLatin@ campaign coordinator Ace Anaya told supporters that the bill had been buried by opposition fueled with “a lot of transphobic parental outrage.” Newsom might want to seek higher office, Anaya added, and may have balked at a “controversial” bill as a result.

Newsom offered a more principled reason in his veto statement. While arguing that courts could already take gender affirmation into account in their decisions, the governor explained he was hesitant to dictate new rules to judges in part because other politicians might use a similar bill to “diminish the civil rights of vulnerable communities.” Not everyone found his reasoning satisfying.

“I was a little bit surprised by that part of the message, because this is already happening,” said Terra Russell-Slavin, the director of policy and community building at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. “We’ve even seen federal legislation introduced to try to make this a national standard by far-right legislators in the House of Representatives.”

Still, while Wilson posted over the weekend that she was not “done,” there’s no effort for now to get a revote or override Wilson’s veto. It was an outlier as his pen moved quickly across the rest of the session’s LGBTQ bills, and it’s been 40 years since a governor’s veto was overturned. And the other bills signed by Newsom affirmed the work California Democrats had done to make their state a “sanctuary” for transgender people, such as a new law that would fine schools for banning textbooks with pro-LGBTQ themes.

On Monday, asked by Semafor about the veto during a call with other Democratic Party officials, Newsom said that they’d “stood tall against all the regression that you’ve seen in red state after red state.” Anyone concerned with these issues, he said, knew which party would defend them.

“As it relates to the details of the bill, as it relates to the details and the nuances around making court determinations and decisions, I felt like that was not necessary,” said Newsom. “But as it relates to the advancement of the rights of the trans community, these folks on the other side have this zest for demonization — no humility, no grace.”

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The View From Conservatives

Republicans say they do in fact plan to put trans issues front and center during next year’s elections.

Winless statewide, California conservatives flipped some school boards last year with campaigns that pushed back on transgender policies. They saw Newsom’s veto as insincere — and a sign they were gaining ground by highlighting bills that could pass in Sacramento but alienate red state voters and California moderates.

“We have regular parents watching these hearings, posting clips of these hearings, then going viral, with news stories being written on them,” said Jonathan Zachreson, a co-founder of Protect Kids California. “It’s been helpful in getting the craziness of California out there in the national media.”

Zachreson’s group is trying to get three ballot measures in front of voters next year: A parental notification requirement, a ban on trans athletes in girls’ sports, and a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Later today, the California Policy Center is organizing a rally near the site of the second GOP presidential debate; Lance Christensen, its VP for Education Policy and Government Affairs, said that Newsom had probably done activists a favor by vetoing one bill that would be hard to explain to voters, and signing the rest.

“They’ll send their nastygrams, and act really angry in the media,” said Christensen, who won 36% of the vote in a 2022 bid for state superintendent of education. “Behind the scenes they know that he’ll sign any bill they put up going forward.”

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Notable

  • In Unherd, Eliza Mondegreen suggests that Newsom’s veto was “yet another sign that the political, legal, and social calculus on trans issues is shifting.”
  • In the Sacramento Bee, Andrew Sheeler highlights the timing of the veto and the quick Newsom signatures on other bills: “a day after outraging advocates.”
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