Anti-trans bills could be one key Republicans use to rally their base ahead of midterms. Will it work?

  • Republicans are pushing anti-trans legislation that they say will protect children.
  • Transgender advocates said anti-trans laws are discriminatory and will harm their community.
  • Laws banning trans people from sports may help Republicans in the midterms.

College swimmer Lia Thomas won a national title this year, but Republicans across the country had different ideas. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, signed a resolution declaring the runner-up – Florida-born Emma Weyant – to be the "real" winner of the women's 500-yard freestyle race, which took place in Atlanta.

The Republican-led Pennsylvania House of Representatives responded by passing a proposed bill that would ban transgender women from competing on women's sports teams, including University of Pennsylvania student Thomas. (The Democratic governor has vowed to veto the bill if it gets through the GOP-run state Senate.)

More than ten other Republican-leaning states have passed similar bans on trans women athletes, from Florida to Texas to South Dakota.

From executive actions by governors to new laws from state legislatures, Republicans are pushing a record number of anti-trans bills, an issue GOP candidates are using in their 2022 campaigns and that opponents say are designed to divide the electorate and harm the transgender community.

Some research studies show these anti-trans bills are making headway with the Republican base, which is less racially diverse compared to the Democratic Party and has more voters age 50 and above.

But transgender people and advocates slammed these moves for erasing trans people from public life and rolling back recent gains the community has made. 

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Rep. Stephanie Byers, a retired teacher and the first openly transgender member of the Kansas legislature, said there are members of the Republican Party who simply do not accept transgender people.

"They want to push people back into the closet," said Byers, a Democrat.

Supporters of these bills and executive actions said they are worried about transgender women invading women's sports. They also claim children are harmed by learning about transgender people at an early age. 

"It is an issue that American parents and American women are really focused on," said Penny Nance, CEO and president of the conservative organization Concerned Women for America, citing political polls. 

Annise Parker, president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund, an organization dedicated to electing openly LGBTQ people to public office, said bans against transgender youth in sports and "Don't say gay" bills are not based on factual arguments.

"It's not about science. It's not about facts. It's not about what's right. It is short-term gain. Let's scapegoat somebody because we don't have anything else to talk about," Parker, a Democrat and a former mayor of Houston, said.

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Republican voters support anti-trans bills 

Many of the high-profile anti-trans proposals deal with sports and health care. 

Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, ordered state health agencies to investigate parents for child abuse if they provide gender-affirming medical care for their transgender children. (Gender-affirming care refers to treatments or support that help transgender people in their gender transition. This can include both nonsurgical and surgical care.)  

Dozens of states have similar proposals.

Why? Many Republican activists and voters oppose the very idea of trans rights, a big issue in GOP primaries.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is pushing an agenda for GOP candidates that says "no doctor will be allowed to perform irreversible surgical or gender-altering procedures on any minor child," and that "we will protect women's sports by banning biological males from competing."

Former President Donald Trump, who is endorsing a number of Republican midterm candidates, has also picked up on trans issues. During an April 23 rally in Ohio, Trump mocked trans athletes and also said that "no teacher should ever be allowed to teach transgender – transgender – to our children without parental consent ... Isn't it amazing how that's become such a big subject?"

Nance, of Concerned Women for America, and others cite a Gallup Poll in April 2021 showing that 62% of Americans "say trans athletes should only be allowed to play on sports teams that correspond with their birth gender, while 34% say they should be able to play on teams that match their gender identity."  

On other hand, that Gallup survey says two-thirds of Americans – 66% – still support "allowing openly transgender men and women to serve in the U.S. military" – though that number is down from the 71% mark registered in 2019.

Meanwhile, a new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll in April said that "two-thirds of Americans are against laws that would limit transgender rights."

Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said that even to suggest gender is a fluid concept triggers many men politically, including men of color who might otherwise vote Democratic.

He cited a study showing that even asking a two-part question about gender identity – implying it could change after birth –  made people 3.5 percentage points more likely to identify as Republicans (and less likely to identify as Democrats). 

The GOP "creates more Republicans by talking about these issues," he said. "It's actually very good politics for them. Even bringing that idea up makes men more Republican." 

Heather L. Ondercin, a specialist in gender and politics at Appalachian State University, said men – particularly conservative men – "are more likely to be primed and motivated by this issue."

This is not a positive development, these analysts said: Many of these political proposals are designed to appeal to prejudice and are actually dangerous for the young people who are targeted.

The harm to the trans community 

At least 216 pieces of anti-trans legislation in 26 states were introduced or rolled over this year, according to Freedom for All Americans, a bipartisan LGBTQ advocacy organization.

The group's executive director, Brandie Balken, said the bills especially single out trans children for harassment.

"They send a really clear message to our young people that they're unworthy of inclusion or respect or dignity or visibility," Balken said. "They signal to non-LGBT youth that intolerance is acceptable.”

Other experts were blunter. 

"These laws and their messages are actually hurting children," said Melissa Michelson, a researcher and professor of political science at Menlo College in California. "Children will die."

The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people, sponsored a poll showing that "two-thirds of LGBTQ youth report that the recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people has impacted their mental health negatively."

"It really breaks my heart thinking that there are that many people that hate me or want to erase my existence," said Eva Patton, 24, a trans woman from Worcester, Massachusetts. "And it makes me scared to go out in public because it's like any one of them could agree with those laws." 

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Medical experts have stressed that health care for transgender youth is beneficial. 

When state legislatures were introducing bans against medical care for trans youth last year, the American Medical Association issued a statement opposing restrictions on gender-affirming care.

"The AMA opposes the dangerous intrusion of government into the practice of medicine and the criminalization of health care decision-making,” said AMA board member  Michael Suk. "Gender-affirming care is medically necessary, evidence-based care that improves the physical and mental health of transgender and gender-diverse people."

Three Republican governors – Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Spencer Cox of Utah – have vetoed sports bills that would forbid competition by transgender women on women's sports teams.

In his veto message, Cox said "rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don't understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live."

The Utah legislature overrode Cox's veto.

A continuation of LGBTQ backlash 

Transgender advocates told USA TODAY the bills Republicans are introducing are connected to a long history of anti-LGBTQ organizing, including North Carolina’s "bathroom bill" in 2016, which prohibited trans people from using restrooms that matched their gender identity.

"This is not necessarily new when it comes to trans communities being kind of a central focus of conservative consternation," said Z Nicolazzo, associate professor of trans studies in education at the University of Arizona. "These bills that we're seeing particularly about trans girls and sports and trans-affirming medical care are really extensions of the bathroom bills we saw a number of years ago." 

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the backlash against the transgender community is to be expected given the progress in recent years.

Biden nominated Dr. Rachel Levine to be the U.S. assistant secretary for health for the Department of Health and Human Services. When she was confirmed last year, she became the highest-ranking openly-trans official in the nation. Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympian, unsuccessfully ran for governor in California last year. "Pose" star Michaela Jaé "Mj" Rodriguez became the first transgender woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Lead Actress this year. 

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"I think that progress always comes with backlash, that is part of American history. It's not unique to transgender people or even LGBTQ people more broadly. It's a familiar pattern," said Heng-Lehtinen.

He pointed to the fight over marriage equality as an example of how backlash can later lead to progress. In 2004 there was a tidal wave of anti-same-sex marriage laws in state legislatures. The Supreme Court ultimately struck them down with its 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which legalized gay marriage.

"A lot of people are now going to learn about people like me and they're going to see that we live everywhere," Heng-Lehtinen said. "Over the long run, I think public support is going to keep growing. This is just a bump in an otherwise road to victory."

LGBTQ community wants more action

Transgender advocates say they are grateful for President Joe Biden's support of their community. 

The administration recognized Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31, as "an annual celebration of the resilience, achievements, and joy of transgender people in the United States and around the world."

That same day the Department of Justice issued a letter to all state attorneys general reminding them of their federal duty to protect transgender youth from discrimination. In November of last year, Biden released a statement to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual day honoring the lives of transgender people lost to violence

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Charlotte Clymer, a trans activist and former Human Rights Campaign press secretary, said she is grateful for the Biden administration's support but more allyship is also needed.  

"The cultural leadership that President Biden is demonstrating right now is currently missing among most congressional Democrats," Clymer said.

Benjamin Carollo, a content creator on Twitch and a contributor to the Young Turks, a progressive YouTube news show, said it’s "infuriating" that Democrats aren't coming to the aid of the transgender community beyond lip service. 

"A lot of Democrats in state legislatures across the country will say that they're supportive. They'll put out tweets and things like that," said Carollo, who is a trans woman. "But when it really comes down to it … it really does seem like trans issues are always getting sort of shrugged off or lost in the compromise."

Some members of the trans community said they want to see Biden use executive action to protect their rights. 

"We should be challenging these laws on the federal level," said Aki McCullough, a freelance recording engineer and musician who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Without more action, McCullough, who is a trans woman, said Democrats will likely lose control of Congress this year and the White House in 2024. 

"That's what happens when people aren't satisfied with how the government's addressing issues that are getting worse," she said. "The lack of (Democratic) support so far makes it feel like it's very possible that they will sell us out and that it might become difficult to live anywhere in the U.S. before 2024." 

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'They're not alone'

Members of the transgender community say conservatives are exaggerating the numbers of transgender women involved in athletics.

The notion that transgender women are dominating competitors is also not true, they said. Thomas, for example, finished 5th and 8th in other races during National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships.

More:Conservatives want to ban transgender athletes from girls sports. Their evidence is shaky.

The NCAA requires athletes who are transitioning to female to be on testosterone suppression treatment before they can compete in women’s athletics. Some states have similar policies, while others have no barriers.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated posted in March, Thomas said she wants to be the best swimmer she can be.

"I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they're not alone," Thomas said. "They don't have to choose between who they are and the sport they love."