Former President Donald Trump recently likened teaching kids about gender and pronouns to “child abuse.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accused his critics of supporting “sexualizing kids in kindergarten.”
And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem debuted an ad that brags, “In South Dakota, only girls play girls’ sports.”
As they gear up for midterm elections, Republicans nationwide are intently focused on passing new restrictions on the LGBTQ community and, in particular, transgender kids. They have passed measures banning school instruction about queer people, outlawing gender-affirming care for those under age 18 and barring transgender children from participating in youth sports.
In many cases the efforts are targeted at transgender youths, a tiny fraction of kids in the US, and LGBTQ advocates and health care professionals have said the types of bills Republicans are pushing are likely to further ostracize transgender kids who already struggle with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
The GOP-driven efforts are gaining traction by drawing together a constituency of religious conservatives, parents who want sway over classroom curriculum and families concerned that their daughters will be at a disadvantage in their athletic pursuits. Now, a movement that began in red states in starting to spill over into battlegrounds, picking up steam with more prominent national figures – and more moderate audiences.
“This is not cultural,” one Republican strategist said. “This is a parent revolution.”
Already in 2022, more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills are pending across state legislatures, according to the pro-LGBTQ Human Rights Campaign. At least six states have banned transgender women and girls from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender. Arizona, Alabama and Texas have all moved to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth this year, with Alabama making it a felony for doctors to provide such care to minors. Others are following Florida’s lead – which passed a bill critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” – and are eyeing restrictions on teaching LGBTQ topics in schools.
“This year is, I think, a really big wakeup call,” said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, noting that allies need to step up their fight against these efforts.
An opportunity for GOP culture warriors, at the expense of trans kids
For conservative culture warriors, this is a moment.
When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage under the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015, it was a stinging defeat for many Republicans. They were stunned at how quickly the culture had shifted in support of gay marriage and were left to regroup. Now, they see an opportunity to build momentum for broader restrictions on LGBTQ Americans. Conservative organizations have provided suggested legislative text to state lawmakers and fired up outside spending groups, a number of them told CNN.
“I feel like the whole gay marriage debate was a sham,” Terry Schilling, president of the right-wing American Principles Project, said in an interview with CNN.
“When we were debating gay marriage as a country, the opponents of gay marriage were essentially saying this is going to lead to the sexualization of children. It’s not going to stop with just two consenting adults in a loving relationship,” Schilling said. “Essentially we went from Obergefell and gay marriage to now sex changes for gay minors, hormone treatments, puberty blockers.”
Despite the GOP talking points, LGBTQ advocates and medical providers have noted that most gender-affirming care for kids involves changing their clothing, pronouns, preferred bathrooms and perhaps using puberty blockers, which are reversible. Surgery is rarely ever performed on children.
Available data show that Republicans are also targeting a relatively small number of children – not all of whom seek medical interventions. The Williams Institute, which researches public policy, sexual orientation and gender identity law, estimated there were about 150,000 transgender youths between the ages of 13 and 17 as of 2017.
Major health care organizations – from the American Medical Association to the American Psychiatric Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics – have all concluded that gender-affirming care is appropriate for young people and can even be life-saving in some cases.
Republicans “lied, and they misrepresented, and they made people afraid, and they got traction for that reason,” Oakley said. “I do think that now as people are starting to understand what really is the situation for a 10-year-old trans kids, that they’re understanding that they’ve been lied to.”
The American Principles Project has been cheerleading new restrictions on transgender youth and the broader LGBTQ community through its related spending groups, a 501(c)4 that advocates and lobbies at the state and federal level and a super PAC to support candidates who align with the group’s agenda and assail those who do not.
“The women’s sports issue was really the beginning point in helping expose all this because what it did was, it got opponents of the LGBT movement comfortable with talking about transgender issues,” Schilling said. Transgender women competing on female sports teams “was inherently unfair, obviously unfair to not just politicians but Americans,” Schilling said.
Schilling said his organization was particularly interested in targeting Florida and Texas – both of which banned transgender girls from playing on athletic teams consistent with their gender last year – because they are large, pro-business states that would be difficult for companies to boycott. The organization has continued to advise legislators in other states as well.
Oakley, of the Human Rights Campaign, said the activism from right-wing groups, cast as support for women and parents, has little to do with either.
“These are not people who care about women’s sports,” Oakley said. “They are 100% people who are trying to turn back the clock on LGBTQ equality, whether that’s legal equality or acceptance. They don’t care how; they just care that it happens.”
As for Schilling, he said his group wasn’t involved in DeSantis’ effort to limit discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools, although he cheered them along.
“This movement’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” Schilling said. “We showed politicians the threat that the transgender issue poses to our kids and our families and the benefits of running on it and protecting these kids and now they’re taking it and just running with it.”
Schilling cited concerns that children would transition and later regret it, even though surgical transitions for children are rare. He added that transgender men might later regret that they are unable to bear children. And more broadly, he cited concerns about “extinction at a very basic level” as more Americans identify as LGBTQ.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, another conservative group, has provided legislative text to some state legislators. It is often “invited to draw upon our constitutional expertise to provide input into forthcoming bills,” Matt Sharp, a senior counsel at ADF, said in a statement to CNN.
The efforts have not sailed through without pushback. LGBTQ families and allies have challenged many of the laws in court, temporarily blocking a 2021 Arkansas bill that would block gender-affirming care for transgender youths and a West Virginia law that would ban transgender girls from participating in public school sports. A Texas appeals court also paused investigations into families of transgender youth in Texas, as a court fight plays out over Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s determination that gender-affirming care for transgender youths amounts to “child abuse.” Similarly, Florida is facing a lawsuit over its law – called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics – that restricts instruction related to certain LGBTQ topics.
“These bills are all circling around the same idea, which is kicking out these social supports for trans kids one at a time and isolating them until their universe of support gets smaller and smaller and smaller,” Oakley said. “And that is discriminatory and unfathomably cruel.”
Sunshine State becomes culture war battleground
The pushback against LGBTQ rights has been percolating in Republican-dominated states in the West and South. But this year, more prominent Republicans – many of whom are eyeing 2024 presidential bids – have adopted the cause. And the fight has spread beyond GOP strongholds and into more battleground states.
“I think they’re noticing that these anxieties about shifting gender norms are actually fairly bipartisan and spanning across the country,” Nikita Shepard, a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University who has looked at histories of gender, sexuality and social movements, said of Republicans introducing a wave of anti-LGBTQ bills. “I think it’s going to be a big deal in the midterm elections, and I think it’s probably still going to be a big deal in 2024.”
Much of the recent polling, particularly on transgender issues, has shown conflicting results that are swayed depending on how pollsters framed the issue. For instance, a 2021 Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans believed transgender athletes should only compete on sports teams that match their birth gender. But a 2021 NBC/PBS/Marist poll showed that most Americans were not supportive of legislation that banned transgender athletes from joining sports teams matching their gender identity.
Still, Republican lawmakers, strategists and activists insist that they’ve attracted supporters from beyond the GOP base. They said their conversations have drawn in parents who have concerns about racial or gendered elements in their children’s curriculum after the Covid-19 shutdowns and Americans who have taken notice of prominent transgender women competing on women’s athletic teams and come away with concerns that cisgender women could find themselves at a disadvantage.
Perhaps what most captures the anxieties Republicans are hoping to capitalize on is the 50% of parents who believe they have too little influence over curriculum in public schools, according to a University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
In Florida, state Rep. Joe Harding was one of the GOP sponsors of the bill that DeSantis recently signed into law restricting certain instruction on LGBTQ topics in schools.
“The Democrats absolutely misjudged this,” Harding said.
Harding noted that he is a millennial who grew up with gay friends and attended college in Miami, adding, “It’s not like I’m this narrow-minded right-winger.”
He said what most concerned him were the transition guides that were available in some Florida schools to children who wanted to change their gender identities. Some of the guides noted that parents did not need to be notified about a different name or pronoun their child was using in school, noting the physical and psychological safety of the child.
Harding also rejected the notion that his legislation was an affront to LGBTQ Americans broadly.
“We don’t need to be instructing kids in the classroom about gender, and all different types of gender and the orientation that they may have or may be. That is not age appropriate for little kids,” Harding said. “By saying something is not age appropriate, it’s not an attack on a community.”
Still, he added: “The gay community honestly has done a disservice by being lumped in with this trans and gender movement because it’s not their fight.”
Oakley, of the Human Rights Campaign, said bills like the one in Florida aren’t just about children, but rather about finding new ways to marginalize LGBTQ Americans.
“It’s also about adults. It’s also about the idea that just being an LGBTQ+ person makes you an inherently sexualized person,” Oakley said of the Florida law. “That has continued to be a theme on anti-LGBTQ discrimination.”
Activists who long decried gay rights, often assailing them as a threat to conservative family values and procreation, said they’ve found new allies, particularly in their efforts to limit medical care and athletic opportunities for transgender youth.
“We work with, often, women who describe themselves as radical feminists,” said Autumn Leva, vice president of strategy at the conservative Family Policy Alliance, which works with a network of state policy councils to influence state legislators. “They disagree with us on probably every other issue, particularly abortion, as you might expect, but we work very closely on this issue. It’s been a galvanizing force for parents, athletes, women, who really see this as wrong.”
In Utah, state Rep. Kera Birkeland, a Republican, said in 2020 she couldn’t get her colleagues’ attention when she broached the issue of limiting transgender athletes in women’s sports.
By March 2022, the issue had garnered so much support that the state legislature overrode Republican Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto and passed legislation Birkeland co-sponsored to bar young transgender athletes from competing in a handful of women’s sports.
“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox wrote about his veto, noting there were only four transgender kids playing high school sports in Utah and only one playing on a girls’ team.
In an interview with CNN, Birkeland said, “I care deeply about transgender youth and how they might be impacted by this.” But she said she believes the path forward is enhancing activity options for transgender youth rather than allowing them to compete across girls’ teams.
“I’ve worked really hard to stay away from using the term woke or culture war, anything like that. Because to me, it’s not about any of that,” Birkeland said. “To me, this is literally about – as it’s been from day one – preserving the integrity of women’s sports.”
GOP turns to bombastic language to fuel fears
Republicans have made headway on these issues in part by the way they’ve messaged them to Americans. They have cast their legislation as common-sense measures to preserve parents’ rights, save women’s sports and protect children from decisions they may later regret.
Meanwhile, they are smearing their critics with ugly accusations. Opponents of the GOP’s efforts have been accused of wanting to “sexualize” children. They have been denigrated as “groomers,” a word that suggests they are preying on young children. And they have been cast as being in favor of “genital mutilation.”
Historians like Shepard recognize some of the sensationalized and inaccurate language Republicans are using to defend their anti-LGBTQ efforts because they’ve deployed them in earlier civil rights fights.
In the 1950s, White parents argued that their children had to be “protected” from Black children, a racist rallying cry to resist desegregation in schools. In the 1970s, Christian singer and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant launched the “Save Our Children” campaign to fight back against a local Dade County, Florida, ordinance that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing and employment. Among her arguments: “Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit.” And in 2015, activists in Texas successfully overturned an equal rights ordinance allowing transgender residents to use the bathroom consistent with their gender by running an ad depicting a hairy man “claiming to be a woman that day” cornering a schoolgirl in a bathroom stall.
“It’s very hard to oppose because who could be against protecting children, right?” said Shepard. “The term that I would use for a lot of this culture war stuff happening and this trans stuff is political gaslighting.”
While many of these efforts have been cast as efforts to protect children, “I do think that lots of trans kids’ lives are going to made really miserable,” Shepard said.
Some Democratic groups have privately downplayed the notion that the LGBTQ legislation fight is likely to be an issue in the midterms, downplaying it as a battle primarily for the GOP base. But other Democrats and activists opposing LGBTQ and transgender restrictions have been working on sharpening their case for the American public.
Mallory McMorrow, a Democratic state senator in Michigan, offered another roadmap for Democrats when she took to the floor Tuesday and upbraided a Republican senator who had baselessly described McMorrow as someone who wanted to “groom and sexualize kindergarteners” in a fundraising email obtained by a local news organization.
“I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme,” McMorrow said, in a speech that had been viewed nearly 14 million times by Friday morning. “Because you can’t claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say no. So, then what? Then you dehumanize and marginalize me.”
And in an interview with the News Not Noise podcast Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki got choked up as she denounced laws like the one in Florida.
“I’m going to get emotional about this issue because it’s horrible. But it’s kids who are bullied, and all these leaders are taking steps to hurt them, and hurt their lives and hurt their families,” Psaki said. “It is an issue that is a political wedge issue. It’s not a reflection of where the country is.”