September 25, 2023 - 1:00pm

Late on Friday evening, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have required affirmation of a child’s gender self-identification to be considered in custody and visitation disputes. In his veto message, Newsom praised the “passion and values that led the author to introduce this bill” and expressed his “deep” — and, somehow, “many decades-long” — “commitment to advancing the rights of transgender Californians”. 

Newsom packaged his veto in the warning that “[o]ther-minded elected officials, in California and other states, could very well use this strategy to diminish the civil rights of vulnerable communities”— suggesting that other states may retaliate by favouring non-affirming parents in custody disputes. 

There was a shorter way for Newsom to say all of this. What he meant was: I’m running for president. During his four years in office, the Governor’s signature has entrenched gender ideology in California’s schools, healthcare settings, and prisons in state law. There’s little reason to think he has had a sudden awakening to the potential harms of an agenda he has long supported. But what Newsom lacks in principles or scruples, he makes up for in political sensitivity: the political winds are shifting and thus he must shift, too — 0r at least appear to. 

Predictably, California Democrats and advocacy organisations reacted with outrage. State Senator Scott Wiener — who has made a career from pushing controversial legislation putting male prisoners in women’s prisons, lowering the penalty for knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV, and making California a “sanctuary state” for trans-identified minors — decried the veto as a “tragedy for trans kids here & around the country.” 

“These kids are living in fear, with right wing politicians working to out them, deny them health care, ban them from sports & restrooms & erase their humanity,” Wiener wrote. 

There’s a lot going on here — as there is every time “pro-trans” politicians and advocacy organisations try to spin political setbacks. By “out[ing]” children, Wiener means notifying parents before schools embark on social transition, a serious psychosocial intervention that teachers and guidance counsellors are unqualified to enact. By “deny them health care,” he means refrain from the kinds of experimental hormonal and surgical interventions that European countries as conservative and hidebound as Finland and Sweden have stepped back from. By “ban them from sports”, the senator means requiring kids to compete with members of their own sex. “Eras[ing] their humanity” is a favoured flourish, a nebulous accusation designed to monster political opponents without getting specific enough to be refuted. 

As far as the climate of fear goes, Wiener and his fellow activists are largely to blame. By misrepresenting their political opponents’ policies and intentions and engaging in rampant catastrophising, Wiener and co. instil irrational fears in members of a vulnerable community, then ride the votes, donations, and clicks that manufactured fear and outrage generate. 

There’s reason to hope trans activists are losing control of the conversation. Newsom’s veto is yet another sign that the political, legal, and social calculus on trans issues is shifting. Last week, thousands of Canadians rallied against gender indoctrination in schools. Under pressure from state legislatures, gender clinics are starting to pull back from hormonal and surgical interventions on youth — sometimes pulling back even further than the law requires. 

What was until recently a medical imperative is becoming a legal liability. What was until recently a political imperative among Democrats is starting to turn into a political liability. 

Eliza Mondegreen is a graduate student in psychiatry and the author of Writing Behavior on Substack.