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Republicans ramp up attacks on transgender people, in statehouses and on the campaign trail

<i>Mike Clark/Reuters</i><br/>Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr leaves the House chamber at the state Capitol in Helena on April 26
Mike Clark/Reuters
Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr leaves the House chamber at the state Capitol in Helena on April 26

By Eric Bradner, Steve Contorno and Kate Sullivan, CNN

From statehouses to the presidential campaign trail, Republicans are escalating their political attacks on transgender people — a reflection of what they see as a cultural fight their base is eager to wage.

Despite a poorer-than-expected showing in last fall’s midterm elections when various GOP candidates campaigned on anti-transgender rhetoric, many conservatives have only amplified their attacks this year.

And in recent days, those attacks have turned into new forms of mockery and political retribution, as Republicans seek to turn transgender rights into a flashpoint by seizing on social media controversies and exercising their rule-making power in statehouses where they hold large majorities.

In New Hampshire during a town hall last week, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley mocked and misgendered Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman who received conservative backlash after she posted videos promoting Bud Light, Olay and Nike. Haley referred to Mulvaney as “a guy dressing up like a girl making fun of women.”

The next day, in the same state, former President Donald Trump referred to gender-affirming surgery for minors as “child sexual mutilation” and said he would seek to make such surgeries illegal if he returned to the White House.

A super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ potential 2024 bid posted a video last week on social media mocking Disney, using clips of employees talking about their work to ensure LGBTQ character representation across the entertainment giant’s media offerings.

The attacks from presidential contenders came as transgender or nonbinary lawmakers were targeted in statehouses in Montana and Oklahoma — with GOP majorities there advancing a slew of bills that opponents described as harmful to transgender people.

“It creates a terrifying environment for trans people and for LGBTQ people at large,” said Erin Reed, a transgender legislative analyst and researcher who has been monitoring anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures and said she is tracking 515 anti-trans bills this year.

“A lot of young trans people are worried that their medication is going to get pulled,” she said of legislation targeting health insurance coverage for gender-affirming care.

The recent red-state pushes to limit the rights of transgender people began with efforts to ban transgender girls from girls’ sports and have expanded in recent years to include efforts to restrict drag shows, prohibit gender-affirming care for minors, limit what teachers can discuss and ban certain books from school libraries.

“They’re attacking our art forms, our history, our books — they’re banning our books with us in them,” Reed said. “It does seem like they’re trying to eradicate us.”

In Montana, Democratic state Rep. Zooey Zephyr — the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, and Reed’s partner — was targeted for disciplinary action after she told supermajority House Republicans that they would have “blood” on their hands over a bill that would ban gender-affirming care. House Republicans voted to ban Zephyr from the chamber for the remainder of this year’s legislative session after she refused House Speaker Matt Regier’s demands that she apologize and after GOP state lawmakers had blamed her for protests in the House gallery that resulted in seven people being arrested last week.

The vote came minutes after a defiant Zephyr had defended her comments as “not hyperbolic.” She said she’d heard from the family of a transgender teenager who attempted suicide after watching an online stream of a legislative committee meeting this year in which transgender people were referred to as pedophiles and groomers.

“When the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed,” she said. “He’s asking me to be complicit in this legislature’s eradication of our community, and I refuse to do so, and I will always refuse to do so.”

Members of the Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative state legislators, repeatedly misgendered Zephyr in statements, referring to her as a man.

Zephyr, banned from the House floor, on Thursday and Friday worked from a bench just outside the chamber.

In Oklahoma, on a party-line vote, state House Republicans last month censured Democratic state Rep. Mauree Turner, who is nonbinary, after Turner was accused of impeding state troopers who sought to question an activist in the lawmaker’s office who had thrown water at a Republican House member after a vote on a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors and to eliminate that care from medical insurance coverage for people of any age.

“People do not feel represented or protected by the people within this body. They come to find refuge in my office,” Turner said at the time, the Tulsa World reported.

DeSantis vs. Disney

The right’s recent fixation on transgender issues traces back to Florida, where DeSantis is readying a likely campaign for president that intends to capitalize on the cultural clashes that he set off nationwide with his fight with Disney over a law that restricts certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The law, called the Parental Rights in Education Act by the state, was dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents, and Disney vowed to help overturn it.

DeSantis has defended the state’s actions against Disney, which include taking over the company’s special taxing district, in the face of Republican criticism that he is using state power to punish one of the state’s largest businesses for speaking out. Disney has since sued DeSantis amid the fight.

“A corporatist would say that you have to give Disney everything at once. Well, in reality, Disney was enjoying unprecedented privileges and subsidies. They controlled their own government in Central Florida,” DeSantis said. “That’s not good government. That’s not free enterprise, but it’s certainly even worse when a company takes all those privileges that have been bestowed over many, many decades, and uses that to wage war on state policy regarding families and children.”

Nikki Haley recently invited Disney to move its iconic Orlando-area theme park to her state of South Carolina, where she once served as governor. Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis’ political aspirations, responded by posting the video that tied Haley to clips of Disney employees talking about their work on LGBTQ character representation. That footage has been seized on by some conservatives as evidence that Disney is pushing an agenda on its young audience.

DeSantis’ allies have taken steps in recent months that LGTBQ advocates say further target transgender people. The state board of medicine, which is heavy on DeSantis appointees, banned gender-affirming care for minors and prohibited Medicaid dollars from going toward those treatments for adults. DeSantis has likened such care to “chemical castration.”

Meanwhile, awaiting DeSantis’ signature is a bill that would prohibit teachers from using their preferred pronouns in front of students and ban schools from requiring that students be called by a sex that differs from what is on their birth certificates. The GOP-controlled state legislature also voted to give the DeSantis administration the power to take away licenses from establishments if they allow children into an “adult live performance,” widely interpreted as a crackdown on drag shows.

During a committee hearing of another bill that would prevent transgender men and women from using bathrooms different from their assigned sex at birth, Republican state Rep. Webster Barnaby called transgender people objecting to the bill “demons” and “imps.”

“We have people that live among us today on planet Earth that are happy to display themselves as if they were mutants from another planet,” he said. Webster did not face punishment from his party for his words.

The steps taken by Florida have faced condemnation from across the country, including from the White House. Equality Florida, a leading state LGBTQ civil rights group, recently issued a travel advisory, warning of “the risks posed to the health, safety, and freedom of those considering short or long term travel, or relocation to the state.” Meanwhile, Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade recently said he left Florida because he was afraid his family “would not be accepted.” The retired NBA star’s 15-year-old daughter came out as transgender in 2020.

‘A guy dressing up like a girl’

Since announcing her presidential campaign, Haley has repeatedly said that transgender women should not participate in women’s and girls’ sports, going as far as to call it “the women’s rights issue of our time.” The line has received enthusiastic applause on the campaign trail in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where Haley has been focusing her energy on courting voters.

Haley first attacked Dylan Mulvaney by name at a “Women for Nikki” campaign event in Iowa earlier this month, calling the social media star a “man dressed up like a girl making fun of women.”

In a sign these anti-transgender attacks could become a fixture of her stump speech, Haley repeated the comments at an event in New Hampshire on Wednesday, falsely declaring that Mulvaney was not actually transgender.

“Let me tell you something: I know that there are transgender people out there. That is not a transgender person,” Haley said of Mulvaney as the crowd nodded. Mulvaney addressed the vitriol in a recent TikTok video, saying she has been struggling with “the need to dehumanize and to be cruel.”

In another sign of how deeply the issue has seeped into national politics, Trump spoke at length at a Thursday rally in New Hampshire about transgender women participating in sporting events.

“I will keep men out of women’s sports,” the former president declared to thunderous applause. “It is so stupid. It is so unfair.”

Trump in New Hampshire also said that if elected, he would push to enact a law “prohibiting child sexual mutilation in all 50 states,” referring to gender-affirming surgery. At a conservative event in Iowa earlier this month, he said in a video appearance, “The left-wing gender lunacy being pushed on our children is an act of child abuse, and it will stop immediately.”

‘There’s spiritual warfare’

Republican efforts in legislatures across the country have largely focused on banning gender-affirming care for minors, as well as prohibiting insurance coverage for such care. GOP-controlled legislatures have also sought to prohibit teachers from discussing LGBTQ people or issues and restricted some books from libraries. And they have sought to impose restrictions on which bathrooms transgender people are allowed to use and whether they can change their gender information on government-issued IDs and records. The GOP-led US House passed legislation last week that would ban transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ sports at federally funded schools and educational institutions.

Likely Republican voters are now bringing up those issues on the campaign trail.

Ahead of Trump’s rally in New Hampshire last week, several attendees, in conversations with CNN, pointed to Bud Light’s partnership with Mulvaney, who had posted a video on Instagram featuring commemorative Bud Light cans with her face, celebrating her “365 days of girlhood” series.

“This person, Dylan Mulvaney, portrays himself as a teenage girl. I think it’s harmful, and I think it can confuse kids at a point in their life where it’s already confusing,” Wendy Richardson, 49, said.

Michael Matthews, 72, said he found the Bud Light promotion “particularly offensive, especially to women.”

Julie Santaniello-Brox, 60, repeated a debunked claim that children are being told they can identify as cats and are being allowed to use litter boxes to urinate in schools.

“I think there’s spiritual warfare within this country that’s undermining our families, and I think the strength of our country is our families,” Santaniello-Brox said.

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