You’d be forgiven if you missed Donald Trump’s new plan to stop “left-wing gender insanity.” Other Republicans had talked like this for years, and far more media attention went to, say, Ron Desantis getting the College Board to take left-wing voices out of an African American Studies course.
But to both LGBT advocates and social conservatives, Trump’s policy rollout was a watershed moment, one that signaled a hard right turn from debates focused on transitioning youth to a broader attack on the very concept of transgender identity itself.
Trump had already supported efforts by red states to ban gender-affirming care for minors, discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, and transgender student athletes. Now, Trump was promising a gag order on federal promotion of gender transition “at any age” and a law “establishing that the only genders recognized by the United States government are male and female, and they are assigned at birth.”
“The biggest thing here is the pivot away from transgender youth to all transgender people,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “This year is the first time we’ve seen actions, in states, going after adults. That is brand new for Trump.”
Trump’s early emphasis on gender identity in this campaign has also surprised some conservatives, who are delighted that the 2024 presidential race is shaping up into a race to the right on the issue. Trump is currently in an invisible primary with DeSantis, whose own strategy for blocking Medicaid from funding gender-affirming treatment — appointing a medical board that issued an official policy change — was applauded by social conservatives.
“President Trump recognizes that the tide may be turning politically on this issue,” said Jay W. Richards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who researches “gender ideology” and its impact on federal law. “I honestly think that he’s trying to get out in front of other likely candidates for the Republican nomination.”
The View From Transgender Advocates
To some transgender advocates, Trump’s moves confirmed what they had already long warned was the case: Many conservatives do not want them to exist, full stop, and they are pushing for policy to achieve that goal.
“Trans people would regard this as an existential threat,” Gillian Branstetter, a strategist working on gender justice issues at the ACLU, told Semafor. “It would make the United States one of the most unsafe places to be trans in the world, among wealthy countries.”
Giselle Donnelly, a transgender national security expert at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, has criticized “radicalism” among LGBT advocates. But she reached the same conclusion about Trump’s plan: This was war.
“Gone is the we’re-just-trying-to-protect-kids-and-save-women’s-sports façade, replaced by naked efforts to prevent transition for all, regardless of age,” Donnelly wrote in The Bulwark.
Proposals like Trump’s, advocates warn, would effectively try to prevent as many people as possible from learning about or accessing medical care for transitions when young, while also trying to force existing transgender people to detransition by denying them treatment and turning communities against them. They have warned similar policies and rhetoric would lead to personal attacks, physical and mental health crises, and ultimately suicides.
Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat who gained national attention when she attacked Republicans for calling pro-LGBT politicians “groomers,” called the Trump plan “dystopian” and “bizarre.”
Trump had won Michigan in 2016 without much focus on “culture wars,” she said. Last year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer steamrolled a GOP challenger who mocked trans-inclusive language like “birthing parent,” and promised to bring DeSantis-style restrictions on LGBT issues in elementary schools to Michigan.
“Our election was largely a rebuke of this kind of politics — trying to demonize the LGBTQ community, specifically the trans community,” said McMorrow.
LGBT advocates also predicted a legal and regulatory slog for Trump or any other president who took office and tried to implement this agenda. It had taken years for the original Obama-era gender identity changes to be adopted; Medicare did not cover gender medicine until 2014.
And in any coming fight, they noted, the Trump position would be rejected by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, all of which have endorsed gender-affirming treatments.
The View From Social Conservatives
Trump staking out this position, this early, was thrilling to social conservatives.
While many Republicans have embraced aspects of their proposals that receive more respectful hearings in The New York Times or The Atlantic — transgender health specialists do debate the proper treatment plan for teens, for example, even if they strongly oppose bans — Trump’s plan was more aligned with their own conversations, where transgenderism is described as a mental illness, a religious affront, and a growing threat to impressionable youth.
To them, the party’s leading presidential candidate had sketched out how the administrative state could unwind a decade of pro-LGBT policymaking.
“Even if you do it the right way, it takes a long time to change,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council. “That was part of the Trump administration’s problem. They didn’t really understand that, and they were a year in before they really figured out what the process was.”
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told Semafor’s Kadia Goba that she was “so happy that President Trump has taken this issue up,” and wanted to learn more about his position on adult treatments. She has proposed her own legislation that would, among other items, block colleges and universities from teaching how to administer gender-affirming care.
“I personally can’t understand why anybody would mutilate their body,” Greene said. “I’d like to talk to President Trump because I want to know where he stands with that.”
Terry Schilling, the president of the American Principles Project, said that any other Republican candidate for the presidency would need “to meet or beat Trump” on gender. Beyond the policy promises, Trump had promised to investigate “whether Big Pharma or others have illegally marketed hormones and puberty blockers,” and whether hospitals had “covered up horrific long term side effects of sex transitions in order to get rich,” questions that the APP had urged Republicans to ask.
“Government shouldn’t be in the business of funding sex changes,” Schilling told Semafor. “That’s just good policy; it’s smart and it’s popular. We pay a lot of money in taxes, as Americans and we don’t want our money to go to this stuff. You want a sex change? Pay for it yourself.”
Trump, to put it mildly, did not emerge from the religious right wing of the GOP and his recent push into LGBT issues marks a broader return to the topic on the right.
The former president, whose appointees attempted to restore a “biological” binary definition of gender in federal policy, talked little about the issue in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. In fact, he was best known in 2016 for publicly moderating the party’s faith-infused stance on LGBT issues, including opposing North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” and inviting Caitlyn Jenner to use whichever facilities she preferred when on Trump properties. After the Pulse nightclub shooting, he promised to “fight for” the LGBT community better than Hillary Clinton by keeping out Muslim immigrants who harbored anti-gay beliefs.
Trump doesn’t talk like that anymore. As Semafor’s Shelby Talcott has reported, he’s focused more on this topic because he’s seen how much it revs up conservative voters. His video came days after he told a cheering South Carolina audience he would “reaffirm that God created two genders, called men and women.”