Oregon Republicans Would Rather Risk Their Careers Than Let Trans People Live In Peace
Let’s start with the good news.
Sensing that the rising tide of anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation across the United States is unlikely to roll back in the near future, the Oregon House of Representatives passed House Bill 2002, one of the strongest protective bills moving anywhere in the country. Among other things, HB 2002 protects access to reproductive health, shields providers and patients from lawsuits, makes interfering with a health care clinic a felony, and requires insurance providers in Oregon to cover a wider range of gender-affirming procedures.
The same week, the Oregon House passed HB 2005, a gun control bill that would make so-called “undetectable firearms” – firearms that were 3D printed or otherwise manufactured without serial numbers, also known as “ghost guns” – illegal in the state, as well as raising the legal age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21 years old. The bill would also close certain loopholes in Oregon law regarding antique firearms and outdated ammunition that were manufactured without serial numbers.
Both bills passed the Oregon House without much fanfare or controversy, as might be expected in a Legislature long controlled by Democrats in a progressive state. But Oregon’s cantankerous Republican minority – unable to pass their own agenda of banning abortion, gender-affirming care, and “critical race theory” – have once again employed their tried-and-true tactic of simply not showing up to work.
Much like they did in 2019, 2020, and 2021, Republicans (and one independent) in the Oregon Senate have denied the chamber the quorum required to do business for the last several days. Under the Oregon Constitution, 20 Senators must be present in the chamber for any legislative work to take place; without this quorum, the Senate cannot debate, vote, or pass any laws, even the ones already passed by the House. Only a handful of states have this requirement in their constitutions, but Oregon Republicans have made a name for themselves by using this stalling tactic. In 2019, a weeklong walkout by Republicans gained national attention after then-Gov. Kate Brown sent the Oregon State Police after the fugitive senators, which sparked the ire of right-wing militia groups like the III%ers and Oath Keepers, who threatened violence at the Oregon Capitol.
And Republican leaders have signaled that they plan to maintain their so-called “work stoppage” (co-opting the language of the labor unions they so despise) until Democrats give in to their demands. Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend) told reporters at a press conference on May 4 that “individual senators are deciding day by day what they’re going to do.”
But there’s a new wrinkle in this year’s edition of Republican chicanery. Last year, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed Measure 113, which bars any lawmaker with 10 or more unexcused absences in a legislative session from running for re-election.
On May 3 and 4, there were four Republican and one independent unexcused absences: Republicans Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, Lynn Findley of Vale, Cedric Hayden of Fall Creek, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, and independent Brian Boquist of Dallas. An additional six Republicans and one Democrat had excused absences on both days, including Republican Bill Hansell of Athena, who was alongside Gov. Tina Kotek on a tour of his Eastern Oregon district. (You may recognize some of these names from my previous reporting on the Oregon GOP’s attempts to restrict gender-affirming care for youth and prisoners, as well as attempts to copy Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.)
But, as Oregon Public Broadcasting noted, Republicans are carefully monitoring who is approaching their 10-absence threshold and could simply swap them out for other members with fewer absences, dragging out the walkout without violating the rules set by Measure 113. OPB reported that Senators Art Robinson, Fred Girod, and Kim Thatcher are excused through the end of the week. Sen. Majority Leader Knopp also voiced support for having at least one Senator violate the law in order to challenge its constitutionality in court, further complicating and delaying the legislature’s work of, you know, legislating.
The walkout continued on Friday, May 5, with Bill Hansell joining the ranks on the unexcused. And on May 6, the number swelled to ten unexcused absences, with Art Robinson, Kim Thatcher, David Brock Smith, Suzanne Weber, and Minority Leader Knopp joining the walkout.
Alongside the walkout, a pair of Republicans–Suzanne Weber of Tillamook and Emily McIntire of Eagle Point–filed a lawsuit with the anti-abortion group Oregon Right to Life trying to halt passage of HB 2002, which was quickly thrown out by a judge in Marion County.
Republicans are arguing that the HB 2002 and 2005 do not pass a so-called “literacy requirement” detailed under Senate rules, which state that all bills must score at least a 60 on the Flesch test, or the roughly equivalent of an 8th-grade reading level. But that seems to be a lame excuse to stall the legislative session and waste as much time as possible before the session is mandated to end on June 25. The Senate readability rule is frequently ignored – the Oregon Capitol Chronicle found that bills routinely pass the Senate without the necessary score on the Flesch test, with neither Democrats or Republicans conducting boycotts in protest.
It wasn’t until Sunday, May 7–as the walkout reached its fifth day–that Minority Leader Knopp finally admitted to the Capital Chronicle that Republicans were “protesting” what he called “hyperpartisan bills.” He also said that absent Republicans would return to the Senate only if Democrats agreed to abandon about 20 bills, including HB 2002 and 2005.
A savvy reader might recognize this as the same kind of political blackmail that has worked for Republicans over the past few years.
All this work, drama, and potentially career-destroying maneuvering is in service of an unpopular and dangerous right-wing agenda to roll back reproductive healthcare and transgender protections in a state that largely supports access to safe and legal abortions and transgender protections. The Republican walkout, while embarrassing and ridiculous on the surface, has a truly sinister agenda hiding beneath the surface. If they’re allowed to get away with their political chicanery, Oregon will give away an opportunity to lead the nation on transgender and abortion rights.
As noted by Erin Reed, HB 2002 would be one of the “strongest trans-protective laws” in the country. Currently, insurance providers in the state are required to cover some, but not all, gender-affirming procedures.
To speak from personal experience, my OHP insurance covers my weekly estrogen shots, my testosterone blockers, and a portion of my mental health treatments, and will eventually cover the top surgery I expect to get in the near future. This is great! It is an amazing and incredible experience to have quick and easy and supremely affordable access to the life-saving medications, procedures, and services that have completely transformed my life! I am blessed and privileged to be in such a position at this time in history! I am a living, breathing testament to the benefits of gender-affirming care!
But, thanks to a strange quirk of OHP insurance coverage, my hormones are fully covered, but the needles and syringes I need to inject them are not. Nor does it cover the electrolysis I’d like to get to zap the beard from my face, which forces me to pay out of pocket for a very expensive and painful procedure, nor would it cover facial feminization surgery or a tracheal shave, should I opt for those procedures in the future. And if I wanted my voice changed, I’d be left to track down expensive and rare plastic surgeons that specialize in such work or resort to a long and difficult course of vocal feminization study through YouTube videos and Reddit threads.
HB 2002 would bring all those various procedures under mandatory insurance coverage under Oregon law, bringing the full suite of gender-affirming care within reach of many trans and non-binary Oregonians. It’s also designed to protect abortion and gender-affirming health providers from out-of-state lawsuits and injunctions wielded by tyrannical neo-fascists in places like Texas and Florida and offers refuge and care to anyone fleeing those states’ attempts to eradicate queer people.
It’s not perfect – it doesn’t help trans people who can’t afford or otherwise obtain health insurance, and it still carves out exceptions for religious institutions and businesses, and it still contains that infuriating clause that more or less requires trans people to undergo some sort of psychotherapy or mental health examination to “prove” their transness before they can obtain their gender-affirming care, but it’s one big ass step forward in an era where being trans is essentially illegal in over a dozen states.
That’s what’s at stake in this latest chapter of Oregon’s Republican malfeasance. It’s further proof that today’s Republican party isn’t really concerned with states’ rights, family values, or personal autonomy. They’d rather see an entire legislative session ground to a halt than allow people the right to decide what’s best for them and their families, or allow queer people the dignity of living their truth. They’ve long since removed their masks and shown their true faces–that much has been clear for years to anyone who’s paid attention to Oregon politics.
The Oregon GOP has once again taken the state government hostage. They’ve turned trans lives and abortion rights into bargaining chips–made us pawns in their fucked-up game of political chess.
As a trans woman, I struggle to find the words to describe just how distressing it is to watch this unfold in my adopted home state. I have it better than most–my heart aches for my queer siblings in Tennessee, in Montana, in Florida, in Texas, everywhere where the fascists have made it their mission to destroy the very existence of people like us–but this entire legislative session has shown that the comfort we are afforded here is much more precarious than we like to believe. It only takes a few committed Republicans from tiny towns in the high desert or deep in the forest to demolish our state’s ability to legislate on our behalf.
But I admit, what worries me the most is that Oregon’s Democratic majority will give in to the fascist bullying tactics employed by the minority party.
They did it in 2019 and 2020, when Democrats agreed to shelve a landmark bill that would’ve taken concrete steps to address the climate crisis in exchange for bringing Republicans back to work, delaying the implementation of critical carbon emission caps needed to prevent climate catastrophe. So far, Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber has said that Democrats are committed to passing these bills and not giving in to what she called Republican “gamesmanship,” but with the Legislature’s looming June 25 deadline to adjourn for the year, there’s no guarantee that the liberal party won’t panic and allow Republicans to dictate the remainder of the session–leaving trans rights and abortion protections to wilt on the vine.
And Gov. Tina Kotek has gone on record saying that she will not send the Oregon State Police after the absent senators like her predecessor Kate Brown, citing “public safety issues across the state” opting instead to simply “call the Republican leader when I get a second and ask ‘what’s going on?’”
Remember that the next time someone scolds you for distrusting the Democratic party–reproductive health and transgender rights are only worth a phone call in the governor’s spare time.
This is an ongoing story that may be updated.