Opinion | Sorry, Republicans, Your Trans Panic Won’t Help You Win

In the homestretch of the epic Wisconsin Supreme Court race that ended last week with a blowout victory for liberals, voters’ cellphones pinged incessantly with text message ads.

“Woke trans activists have their candidate,” one text message said, according to Wisconsin Watch, a local nonprofit news site. “Schools across Wisconsin are stripping away parental rights and trans kids behind parents backs. There’s only one candidate for the Supreme Court who will put an end to this. Vote for Judge Daniel Kelly by April 4 and protect your children from trans madness.”

For a judicial race that centered on two big issues the Wisconsin Supreme Court is likely to consider soon, abortion and voting, it might seem odd that these ads in support of the conservative candidate chose to focus on an issue nowhere near the top of the agenda on the court’s upcoming docket.

For reasons that are now obvious, conservative groups supporting Kelly largely avoided touting his opposition to abortion. That’s a sure loser, as the G.O.P. is rapidly learning. It probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to run on preserving the right-wing gerrymander that gives conservatives a total lock on Wisconsin’s Legislature and congressional delegation either. So some supporters reached for the wedge issue du jour: transphobia.

An article of faith has emerged among hard-right conservatives — and has been worried over by some centrist pundits — that parental concerns about health care and social support for transgender children make for a potent as a wedge issue. After all, it has all the hallmarks of an effective culture war hot button: It involves strange new social and medical practices and unfamiliar ways of life, and children are sometimes concerned. But it’s not working the way conservatives expected.

The end of Roe has reversed the tides of the culture war. The right has now lost it by winning the biggest victory of all. State legislatures across the country are enacting draconian abortion bans that are producing predictably tragic outcomes. Americans don’t have to imagine what the right will do with its power over women’s lives because we see it in every headline about women risking death because a doctor is too scared of running afoul of an anti-abortion law to provide a necessary medical procedure. It has become blindingly obvious what happens when Republicans legislate what Americans do with their sex organs. And voters, understandably, don’t like what they see.

For years even before the fall of Roe, conservatives have used hard-edge anti-trans messaging in both red and swing state races, only to come up short. They tried it in North Carolina’s 2016 governor’s race, in the aftermath of a controversial bill requiring people to use the bathroom associated with their sex assigned at birth. The Democrat, Roy Cooper, won despite a hail of anti-trans ads. They tried it against Andy Beshear, the Democratic candidate for governor in deep-red Kentucky in 2019, and failed. In 2022, G.O.P. candidates tried to use L.G.B.T. issues as a wedge in races in swing states from the Midwest to the Sunbelt to New England. The data suggest that opposition to trans rights cannot overcome — or possibly even make a dent in — the advantage that comes to Democrats in swing states for supporting abortion rights. It’s not even close.

“Transphobia was, and is, the dog that couldn’t hunt,” wrote the anonymous but eerily prescient polling analyst who writes a Substack newsletter under the name Ettingermentum.

Wisconsin was the most recent example of this failure. The American Principles Project, a Virginia organization that is a driving force behind the harsh anti-transgender laws sweeping red states, spent almost $800,000 on ads supporting Kelly in the State Supreme Court race, according to Wisconsin Watch. A video paid for by the organization’s PAC accompanied text messages that described his liberal opponent, Judge Janet Protasiewicz, as “endorsed by all the woke activists that are stripping parents of their rights in Wisconsin schools and forcing transgenderism down our throats,” Wisconsin Watch reported.

In one mendacious video advertisement the narrator claims that a 12-year-old was medically transitioned without parental consent. The video shows images of surgical scarring and implies that this child underwent surgery at the behest of school officials. This is absolutely false. The child in question merely changed their name and pronouns.

But any hopes that this messaging would drive swing voters seems to have fallen flat. Indeed, the margin of victory in Wisconsin exceeded predictions. Joe Biden won the state by just 20,000 votes in 2020. Protasiewicz won by 200,000.

The failure of anti-trans messaging as a wedge issue may seem surprising because the Democratic Party really does seem to have a problem when it comes to parents and schools. Resentment over Democrats’ support for school closures during the pandemic has become a liability for the party among educated suburbanites, as the 2021 governor’s race in Virginia demonstrated.

But Republicans seem to be making the grave error of assuming that someone angry about school closures in the fall of 2021 is a potential conscript in their war today against drag queens and trans people. So far there appears to be little appetite among swing-state voters for laws that could — if our worst fears are realized — allow school officials to demand inspections of their child’s genitals before soccer matches and swim meets. Besides, there’s a far more urgent issue when it comes to students’ safety: In a country where child shooting deaths went up 50 percent from 2019 to 2021, who would trust their children to the political party that opposes gun regulation?

There is no doubt that attitudes about gender are changing quickly, and changing especially quickly among young people. But it’s hard to draw firm conclusions about how Americans really feel about this. In a Pew poll last June, a large majority of respondents said they favor legal protections for trans people from discrimination in jobs, housing and public spaces. Other findings suggest unease: 43 percent said gender identity norms were changing too quickly. Majorities support requiring athletes to compete as their sex assigned at birth. Depressingly, 46 percent said they supported criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors.

But one finding from that same poll stood out to me: 68 percent of respondents aren’t paying close attention to the trans bills popping up across the country, and three-quarters of self-identified moderates said they weren’t following the issue closely. But that doesn’t mean they are interested in restrictive or repressive laws, much less willing to vote on the basis of support for such policies.

Of course, this lack of attention can cut both ways. Voters who aren’t paying attention to the issue are unlikely to be drawn to the polls to vote against a transgender care ban, either. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, presumed to be a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, has been able to defy post-Roe gravity and increase his support despite prosecuting an aggressive culture war campaign against queer people. It remains to be seen how this would play out in a presidential election, which would run smack into swing states that have recently rejected in statewide elections both anti-abortion and anti-trans candidates.

Democrats — and all Americans — should support the rights of all queer people, not just for electoral advantage but as a matter of principle. There is a clear line from the fight over bodily autonomy in reproductive rights to the fight for access to medical care for trans people. It’s a matter of dignity, too. Trans rights, much like abortion, present a profound challenge to the gender binary, which upholds the world’s oldest and most persistent hierarchy. People who don’t want to or cannot fit within their traditionally prescribed roles — mother, father, woman, man, boy, girl — increasingly have the freedom to live their lives beyond those circumscribed identities.

The right has responded to this flowering of freedom with a barrage of repression. In states where Republicans have an ironclad grip on power, they have been incredibly successful. There are hundreds of bills passed or pending that vary in their intrusion on personal liberty but share the goal of giving right-wing politicians the power to control the bodies of citizens through law. On Thursday, this frenzy reached cruel new heights when the attorney general of Missouri issued new emergency rules that put up steep barriers to transgender care, not just for children but also for adults. These barriers could amount to a virtual ban on gender-affirming care for most transgender people in the state.

In the face of this onslaught, some centrists seem determined to keep flirting with trans skepticism. It is easy to see why trans issues have become the place for certain centrists to try to perform their moderation — queer people have served this purpose for decades. While other forms of open bigotry became taboo, homophobia and the view that queer people’s rights were a marginal concern has persisted. It has happened before. Bill Clinton heavily courted the gay vote to win the presidency in 1992, only to turn around and sign into law two odious policies: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. Clinton has since rent his garments over his regrets, but the fact remains that he enshrined discrimination against queer people into federal law.

Republicans like to say they are the party of common sense. But what they seem to have forgotten is the commonest sense of all: Most people do not want the government making personal decisions for them. People want to control their own bodies. People want the freedom to decide when and how to form families. Suddenly, after years of pointing fingers at the left for so-called cultural totalitarianism, Republicans have now decisively revealed themselves to be the “jackbooted thugs” wanting details on your teenage daughter’s menstrual cycle. It’s hard to imagine a less appealing message to swing voters than that.

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