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Republicans, out of power and squabbling, are targeting transgender kids to score political points, activists say

Parents of transgender children and others gathered in Austin, Texas, recently to make their voices heard.
Parents of transgender children and others gathered in Austin, Texas, recently to make their voices heard.Eric Gay/Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — What does a wave of legislation targeting transgender children in state houses across the country have in common with the recent furor among Republicans over “cancel culture” and Dr. Seuss?

More than you might think — at least according to LGBTQ rights’ advocates, who are working to fend off the bills.

They argue that Republicans are targeting transgender youth now as a way to score political points with a segment of their base at a time when the party is out of power at the federal level and squabbling over some of the fundamental policies that used to unite them — from fiscal conservatism to cozying up to big business.

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“When you have nothing to say, when you have no case, what you do is you throw everything at the wall,” said US Representative Marie Newman, a Democrat from Illinois who is also an advocate for LGBTQ issues. “You throw all the spaghetti at the wall and you see what sticks.”

More than 30 states are considering legislation that limits transgender rights, with many of those bills focusing on barring transgender children from participating in school sports or on restricting the medical care they can receive.

The onslaught of legislation is new in its focus on children, and in its volume.

“We have seen more bills introduced just since January in state legislatures across the states attacking transgender youth than we’ve seen in the previous five years before,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU in Massachusetts.

The proponents often frame the bills as civil rights legislation protecting women, arguing that transgender girls will have an unfair advantage in girls’ sports.

“Over 30 states have considered or passed civil rights legislation to protect female athletes — and that’s just one among other important goals states have pursued,” Meridian Baldacci, a spokeswoman at the Family Policy Alliance, a conservative Christian organization that is pushing for the legislation, said in a statement.

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But activists cite several reasons they suspect that these bills are more about firing up the GOP base with culture war issues than addressing an actual policy problem in their states.

Most of the sponsors of the legislation targeting transgender children in sports could not name any examples where a transgender student athlete was competing in their state or region when asked to do so by the Associated Press. The bills, which their proponents are framing as about women’s rights, are also not accompanied by broader support for women’s sports or other women’s issues.

“They’re not introducing bills that support funding for women’s sports in their states,” pointed out Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-LGBTQ organization. “They’re not introducing bills that champion pay equity for women.”

The bills also come during a time of transition for the Republican Party nationally, as it struggles to define itself after Donald Trump’s election loss. The former president shattered the party’s consensus on economic issues by embracing more government spending and taking populist positions on trade, while uniting Republicans through fierce fights with liberals and by targeting immigrants. Those culture war issues papered over the cracks in the coalition.

“They didn’t even have a platform,” Rose pointed out, referencing the Republicans’ decision to not try to write a party platform in 2020. The party instead released a document saying their platform was Trump’s “America First” agenda.

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In recent months, as President Biden passed a COVID relief bill and now turns to infrastructure legislation, both measures that poll well among conservatives, Republicans have sought to divert attention by raising concerns about “cancel culture” and censorship as they attempt to claw back power in the midterms. (Cancel culture generally refers to efforts, often online, to ostracize someone for expressing views that are deemed offensive.)

Representative Jim Banks, the chair of the House Republican Study Committee, argued in a recent memo that Republicans should make fighting “wokeness” a core campaign message. (Wokeness can refer to anything from supporting the Black Lives Matter movement to Dr. Seuss’ own estate pulling some of his books that contained racist imagery.) Banks also included under the “wokeness” umbrella legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination, arguing that “efforts to redefine sex” are unpopular among Latino and Black voters.

That’s a message that Republicans like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia appeared to hear loud and clear. After her House office building neighbor, Representative Newman, hung a pink and blue transgender pride flag outside her door, Greene posted a sign outside her own office in retaliation. “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE . . . Trust The Science!” it read. (Newman’s daughter is transgender.)

Newman said she hopes to invalidate the state bills by passing federal legislation that ensures transgender rights. “We need to put together legislation that makes these state bills completely moot,” she said.

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Congress, which is narrowly under Democratic control, is not considering any bills similar to those targeting transgender people that are being debated on the state level, and LGBTQ rights’ advocates have scored some key victories at the federal level recently.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that federal civil rights laws that protect individuals from being discriminated against on the basis of their sex in the workplace also protect transgender people. (A Trump nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote the opinion.) And Biden reversed Trump’s executive order banning transgender people from serving in the military and appointed the first transgender American to be confirmed to an administration position by the Senate.

Jennifer Pizer, law and policy director of the LGBTQ legal organization Lambda Legal, said the coalition of groups that are pushing for these laws were also often the drivers of past attempts to ban same-sex marriage.

“As it became more obvious in opinion research that the general public was no longer worried about married same-sex couples — we just weren’t scary anymore showing up at the PTA, shopping for groceries — the attention shifted to transgender people,” Pizer said. “It was chosen as a political tool to be used in the same way same-sex couples had been used.”

While some polls show more Americans are skeptical of transgender rights than of gay rights, it still doesn’t appear that targeting transgender people is a winning political issue. A new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that roughly two-thirds of Americans say they oppose bills limiting transgender rights, including a majority of people who identify as conservative. More than half of Americans say they personally know a transgender person — up from less than one-third of people who said the same five years ago.

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Bills targeting transgender people are not new. In 2015 there was a wave of “bathroom bills” that were mainly aimed at excluding transgender women from using women’s restrooms. Bills that make it difficult to obtain a new ID with the correct gender on it after transitioning also proliferated. But the focus on children gives this push a different feel — with different consequences.

“Being one of the most high profile social issues of the day is not one any high schooler wants,” said Casey Pick, a senior fellow at the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention. “It is showing up in what we’re hearing from our LGBTQ youth on our crisis hotlines.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.