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Utah governor calls gender-affirming care ‘genital mutilation’ at political discourse event

Arwen Clemans | Photographer
Throughout the rest of the event, from left to right, columnist Jonah Goldberg, professor Frank Sesno, journalist Michel Martin and Gov. Spencer Cox (R-Utah) discussed civil discourse, climate change, transgender rights and misinformation at an event Wednesday.

Editor’s note: This post contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know has experienced suicidal ideation, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or reach the Student Health Center at (202)994-5300 and ask to speak to a counselor.

Gov. Spencer Cox (R-Utah) called gender-affirming health care “genital-mutilation surgeries” at a School of Media & Public Affairs event on Wednesday about how to “Disagree Better.”

In a discussion moderated by SMPA professor Frank Sesno, Cox told Sesno he had invited transgender youth and their families to the governor’s mansion to discuss state measures that pertain to transgender people, a conversation that he said led to legislative change. But a first-year civil engineering student challenged the governor’s approval of bills that ban gender-affirming care for minors and asked whether conversations would “become pointless” if a transgender youth died by suicide. 

“Do you think the parents of that kid would care that you had a conversation at the governor’s mansion about legislation before he passed?” the student asked.

Cox responded that “no one” in Utah has taken their life because of a lack of access to gender-affirming care and said the question assumed “bad faith.” He said there are reasons to be concerned about young people in the country due to an “explosion” in youth seeking gender-affirming care.

“I care deeply about these kids. I love these kids. I want these kids to thrive. I want these kids to be successful,” Cox said. “I think there’s a better way to do that than by having genital-mutilation surgeries before they’re 18 and old enough to have a rational decision, to actually make a decision for themselves. And so we can disagree with that.”

Sesno pushed back on Cox’s response, saying even if the governor thinks the question was in “bad faith,” it’s still “a real concern.”

“In your model of ‘Disagree Better’ they need to be able to raise that concern and present you with that question when you’re saying it’s in bad faith,” Sesno said.

Cox chairs the National Governors Association, where he leads an initiative about how to “Disagree Better,” an effort to remedy polarization. Over the past year, he has sat down with governors from states, including Colorado and New Hampshire, to discuss partisanship and finding a middle ground in politics.

GW officials advertised the event, the second installment of the Sesno Series, as educational programming in their plan to navigate conflict on campus after the beginning of the war in the Gaza Strip.

“Our job is to continue to model robust and productive civil discourse throughout all of these activities,” University President Ellen Granberg said while introducing Sesno on Wednesday. “And this event is an important part of that process.”

Time Magazine anointed Cox in August 2022 as a Republican governor who is unafraid to be “woke” due to his support of diversity, equity and inclusion policies and open use of his pronouns. In March 2022, Cox vetoed a bill that banned transgender students from playing girls’ sports, citing high suicide rates. The Utah Legislature overrode his veto shortly after.

In January 2023, Cox signed a bill that banned gender-affirming health care for minors, including barring youth from receiving gender-affirming surgeries and put an indefinite pause on access to puberty blockers and hormone therapy. This January, he signed a bill to limit access to restrooms and locker rooms for transgender people.

A report from the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ suicide prevention organization, found that 22 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth in Utah attempted suicide in 2022.

Throughout the rest of the event, Sesno, Cox and journalists Michel Martin and Jonah Goldberg discussed civil discourse, climate change and misinformation. 

The student’s question was the only one directed at Cox from the audience. After the exchange with the student, Cox left the stage and continued talking with the student before he left campus to attend a scheduled discussion with Gov. Wes Moore (D-Md.) about coming together and learning how to “Disagree Better.”

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