Kentucky Republicans cover gender-affirming care in debate 

by Belle Townsend

The first Kentucky Republican Gubernatorial debate of the 2023 election year took place on March 7. The debate originally aired on Spectrum News, and one of the topics discussed was whether or not the government has a place in regulating the access of gender-affirming surgery for minors under 18.

Alan Keck, Mike Harmon, Ryan Quarles, and Daniel Cameron are some of the Republican candidates for governor. All of them curated answers to this question that match transphobic narratives from across the nation. On March 9, a Swedish information activist published 2,603 pages of emails wherein legislators, hate groups, lobbyists, and organizations were exposed for curating transgender bigotry across the United States. 

These emails from 2019-2021 showcased how anti-trans narratives were fabricated, giving us different tropes for transphobia that can be immediately disarmed and traced back to medical misinformation, white supremacy, and plain violence. Republican candidates for governor adopted what some might consider to be transphobic phrasing in their answers, but let’s unpack just how each candidate answered and what it means.

Alan Keck, current mayor of Somerville who has framed his campaign around being a more centrist/ fair Republican option, answered that “you can’t go buy alcohol until you’re 18” or “alcohol until you’re 21.” However, it is worth noting that you also cannot legally consent to any surgery as a minor. This not only attempts to delegitimize young people’s understanding of their identity, but also their autonomy and the role of a parent in making a decision with their child and their child’s doctor. He goes on to effectively beg us to not paint him as a bigot, using platitudes like, “…what those children need is love and affection and attention,” to cover his stance. 

Mike Harmon, current State Auditor who uses the slogan “Follow the Data,” ironically called gender affirming care to anyone under 18 both “a crime” and “child abuse.”This categorization contradicts every reputable medical association, including the American Medical Association. The medical truth, backed with reputable data, is that lack of gender affirming care, including surgery, costs the lives of folks who are unable to access it. To many supporters of the trans community, it would be considered a crime and child abuse to remove the option for parents, their children, and their doctors to make decisions.

Ryan Quarles, current Agricultural Commissioner, noted multiple times in his answer that this is a parental issue. Quarles seemed to be attempting to be considered a more reasonable Republican, while still adhering to foundational conservative beliefs like liberty and small government, therefore giving parents power in this equation. Quarles also noted multiple times that it is already illegal to consent to surgeries if you are a minor, which was another framing of the narrative that framed him as more sensible than the others on stage. 

Contrary to Quarles’ attempt to set himself aside from the pack by sounding more reasonable, Daniel Cameron took another route. Cameron is the current Attorney General of Kentucky, whose career has been built by a long time association with Mitch McConnell, by working with the insurrection-tied Republican Attorneys General Association, by protecting the police industrial complex over pursuing justice for Breonna Taylor, and by effectively outlawing abortion in the state of Kentucky (something he repeats often and with pride). 

It is no surprise that Cameron gave such an alarming message, as his political strategy is just a more eloquent and intelligent presentation of Donald Trump, who built his political career on inflammatory narratives. Cameron says that, “We need to make sure that we protect our most vulnerable and that includes our minors, not only in the womb. But also, our minors, making sure that they’re not undertaking some irreversible procedure that they might ultimately regret in the future… But I think we have got to get to a place as leaders where we say ‘enough is enough, we’ve got to stand up for minors.’”

Attempting to make every conversation about abortion rights will be something we see often in this election cycle from Daniel Cameron. If we’ve learned anything about the conservative establishment since the Reagan era, it is that abortion as an issue divides people more than just about anything. Clearly, transness is becoming more of a contentious issue as conservatives run out of platforms to fabricate moral panic over. Knowing this, it is no surprise that Cameron chose to bridge the issue of abortion with transness. Both ignite moral panic in mostly religious bases, therefore allowing him to create a potentially larger group of voters.

Cameron’s political attempt to fuse these two issues is a curated move by his communications team to politically appeal to as many ultra-conservatives as possible. This calculation on Cameron’s campaign team is one that conservative campaigners are deciding across the nation: do we try to garner votes associated with curated anti-trans moral panic (like past Republicans have done with abortion, anti-terrorism, and gay marriage), or do we sit out of this narrative because a lot of voters ultimately recognize it as fabricated, hateful, and also horse shit?

Kelly Craft, Trump-associated wife of a KY coal baron and also a major competitor in the race for governor, did not attend. This was covered as being due to scheduling conflicts. Although, as a political insider and researcher who has watched her live Q & A, I can say that she is not recognized as being her strongest in that realm. Because of her lack of ability to extemporaneously answer outside of spaces curated for her message, we may never see her debate. 

Mason-Dixon interviewed 625 registered voters throughout Kentucky. 10% of those voters weren’t affiliated with one of the major parties, with the remaining voters evenly being Republican and Democrat. This poll was before the debate, but offers insight into what the dynamics are. 

This poll measured name recognition and favorability. Of the 625 Kentucky voters, 52% polled as recognizing and favoring Beshear’s name. On the GOP side, Daniel Cameron had 30% recognition and favorability. Kelly Craft was at 14%, Ryan Quarles at 12%, and Mike Harmon at 9%.

The Kentucky primary elections will be held May 16, 2023.

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