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Apr 25, 2023, 5:55pm EDT
politics

The Republican race to the right on transgender issues is speeding up

Scott Olsen/Getty Images
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The Scene

CLIVE, Iowa – Donald Trump promised them he’d “defeat the cult of gender ideology” and ban federal “promotion of sex and gender transition at any age.” Mike Pence hailed “the battle against radical gender ideology.” And the thousand conservatives attending the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s spring meeting celebrated how the GOP legislature in Des Moines had banned “gender identity” talk in schools and gender-affirming treatments for minors.

“Protecting kids from irreversible, life-altering surgery and hormone therapy came with a cost,” said Jeff Pitts, the group’s chief lobbyist in Des Moines, as the crowd dined on Chick-fil-A. “After achieving these milestones, our bravest servants endure an onslaught, daily, of hate, vitriol, and scorn — being called Nazi-like, bullies, or worse.”

Unmoved by protests, Republicans are advancing hundreds of bills targeting transgender-related issues. They’ve been egged on by news organizations, like The Daily Wire, and social conservative groups, like the American Principles Project, that have long criticized transgender acceptance in public life, but have now gained more influence and are actively driving policy.

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Along the way, prominent Republicans have grown more comfortable mocking transgender people, or portraying them as mentally ill, dangerous, or a religious affront.

“Any show of respect to a transgender person is seen as an endorsement of the supposedly-radical ideology they’re demonizing,” said Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist for the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV project. “If you’re willing to be the most vile, and the most disgusting, and show as little respect for their humanity as you can, you’re going to get the most respect in the media sphere they’re playing to.”

Trump’s promise to define “transgenderism” out of existence, summed up in his applause line “God created two genders,” set the bar early in the race. The rest of the 2024 Republican field is playing catch up with activists, commentators, and state legislators who got there on their own.

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The most recent turning point: Bud Light’s collaboration with Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender TikTok influencer who chronicled a transition into “girlhood,” and fueled a weeks-long backlash, joined by many Republican presidential hopefuls. Six months after Mulvaney recorded a video with President Joe Biden about transgender rights, the Bud Light partnership was condemned by most of the GOP field.

“You have this man, who dresses up like a girl, and clearly makes a mockery of women — it’s just not right,” Nikki Haley told RealClearPolitics last week.

There were no direct policy stakes at play in the Anheuser-Busch conflict. The question asked and answered by the company’s critics was whether transgender people should be accepted — and marketed to — as just another ordinary group of Americans.

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“Why would you want to drink Bud Light?” Ron DeSantis asked in an interview with Turning Point USA host Benny Johnson. “Honestly, that’s like them rubbing our faces in it.”

At a Sunday pancake breakfast in Des Moines, Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign gave out “Bud Right” koozies with the candidate’s face and the slogan “truth over relativism.”

“It is not compassionate to affirm someone’s confusion about their gender. It’s cruelty,” Ramaswamy told Semafor, “I think customers holding them accountable for it is perfectly legitimate.”

Hours later, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders began selling “Real Women of Politics” koozies, joking that “some big companies can’t tell the difference between real and fake anymore.”

At the state level, the conversation is even more blunt. In Montana, some Republicans refused to call a transgender legislator, currently prevented from speaking on the state House floor, by her preferred pronouns. In North Carolina, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who previously denounced the “transgender movement” as “demonic” and “full of spirit of the antichrist,” just announced a 2024 campaign for governor. In Florida, a legislator compared transgender people to “mutants living among us on Planet Earth.”

The response in every state, and from Democrats in general, is to cite major medical associations, which do not classify gender dysphoria as mental illness, and their endorsements of gender-affirming medicine. Families and individuals have even said — and testified — that they feel compelled to move, for fear they may be denied ongoing hormone treatments, risk child services investigations, or face penalties even for dressing in clothing that runs afoul of “drag bans” and their interpretation by authorities.

But Republicans see no obvious downside to rebuffing professional medical groups, LGBT rights organizations, or media style guides about gendered language and pronouns.

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David’s view

Trump’s “gender critical” turn did set the tone, but the current GOP confidence about these politics started with Ron DeSantis. His war against Disney, over the company’s opposition to a bill that restricted classroom discussions of gender and sexuality, eased GOP worries about fights with the private sector. Some prominent Republicans (Chris Sununu, Chris Christie) have criticized the tactic, but activists see picking fights with companies — as in the Bud Light protests — as a political plus.

In 2016, Trump criticized the North Carolina legislature for a “bathroom ban” that alienated businesses and prompted the NBA to move its All-Star game, saying the legislation addressed an issue that generated “very few complaints” in the first place. The year before, then-Indiana Governor Pence signed fixes to a “religious freedom” law the same year in response to a similar brush with boycotts after critics claimed it would enable discrimination.

For a while, it looked like the same factors might hold states back this time. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who rarely lets anyone get to her right, vetoed a transgender sports ban in 2021 in part because she worried the N.C.A.A. would sue them over its further-reaching provisions.Tucker Carlson brought Noem on air to ask why she’d “caved” to liberal pressure. Eleven months later, she signed a sports bill.

Pence, too, sounds less concerned about pushback this time around. “We need to protect our kids,” he told Semafor. “I’m going to continue to support efforts around the country to reject this radical gender ideology.”

There’s also less fear of electoral backlash — for now. In swing states, “gender critical” politics haven’t moved many votes for Republicans, and didn’t deliver what activists wanted in 2022. But they don’t believe they moved many votes against them, either — look at Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott announced that gender-affirming medicine for minors would be treated like “child abuse,” and won comfortably.

In Iowa, where Republicans surfed a red wave that missed much of the country last year, Attorney Gen. Brenna Bird unseated the longest-serving Democratic AG in America, in part, with ads about a male sex offender who was released from prison after identifying as female. “Democrats were choosing liberalism over what was best for kids,” Bird told Semafor in Clive.

The social media environment has also become more favorable to the right. Last week, Twitter ended its five-year old policy against “misgendering or dead-naming” transgender people, referring to them by the gender they no longer identify with, or the name they no longer use; unsurprising under a CEO who once tweeted that “pronouns suck.”

Republican candidates already agreed with that, and feel less encumbered now in saying what they think online: That biological sex is immutable, the idea of a separate “gender identity” is bunk, and, as former Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said in Clive, that Democrats are crazy if they think “anybody can become a woman if you believe you’re a woman.”

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Room for Disagreement

While the current slate of LGBT legislation and rhetoric is mostly untested politically, there are some on the right worried about overreaching.

“My prescription to the GOP would be: Tread very lightly on these issues, particularly as it deals with outreach to women,” Charles Maron, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, told Roll Call. “Women … don’t want to see people in society being picked on or marginalized, but, at the same time, if you come after their kids, they’re going to turn into mama bears.”

While polling has shown support for some individual Republican bills, including on sports and education, surveys have also found voters support banning transgender discrimination in the workplace, and oppose banning books from libraries. A 2022 Pew poll found only 38% of Americans thought society had gone “too far” in accepting transgender people, versus 54% who said it had gone the right amount or not far enough.

There’s also the possibility this issue does not break out of the conservative bubble. According to the ACLU’s Branstetter, its polling and focus groups found voters alienated and confused by some messaging, like a DeSantis riff on Floridians being “targeted by a radical ideology” that threatened to “mutilate” children.

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Notable

  • Missouri’s Attorney General Andrew Bailey moved to block treatments for transgender adults via emergency rules this week, a major escalation from laws and executive orders that more often target care for minors and younger residents in other states. Transgender residents say they could be forcibly detransitioned as a result, losing access to hormone therapy that they’ve long relied on.
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