Defeated on same-sex marriage, the religious right went searching for an issue that would re-energize supporters and donors. The campaign that followed has stunned political leaders across the spectrum.
By Adam Nagourney and Jeremy W. Peters
Published April 16, 2023 = Podcast June 1, 2023.
Published April 16, 2023 = Podcast June 1, 2023.
MY Note: The NY Times ran this information as "Daily" this past week. It delved into the "Why" of this super mean social movement. Understanding the why will help us to stand up and defeat these bullies. Stand up for our rights. Be visible. Be an activist.
This is an important point to understand. How "fund raising" tops any person's medical and mental welfare is astonishing cruelty. Do Read the NY Times Daily Transcript: "How the G.O.P. Picked Trans Kids as a Rallying Cry" or Listen to the Podcast here.
When the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage nearly eight years ago, social conservatives were set adrift.
The ruling stripped them of an issue they had used to galvanize rank-and-file supporters and big donors. And it left them searching for a cause that — like opposing gay marriage — would rally the base and raise the movement’s profile on the national stage.
“We knew we needed to find an issue that the candidates were comfortable talking about,” said Terry Schilling, the president of American Principles Project, a social conservative advocacy group. “And we threw everything at the wall.”
What has stuck, somewhat unexpectedly, is the issue of transgender identity, particularly among young people. Today, the effort to restrict transgender rights has supplanted same-sex marriage as an animating issue for social conservatives at a pace that has stunned political leaders across the spectrum. It has reinvigorated a network of conservative groups, increased fund-raising and set the agenda in school boards and state legislatures.
The campaign has been both organic and deliberate, and has even gained speed since Donald J. Trump, an ideological ally, left the White House. Since then, at least 20 states, all controlled by Republicans, have enacted laws that reach well beyond the initial debates over access to bathrooms and into medical treatments, participation in sports and policies on discussing gender in schools.
About 1.3 million adults and 300,000 children in the United States identify as transgender. These efforts have thrust them, at a moment of increased visibility and vulnerability, into the center of the nation’s latest battle over cultural issues.
“It’s a strange world to live in,” said Ari Drennen, the L.G.B.T.Q. program director for Media Matters, a liberal media monitoring group that tracks the legislation. As a transgender woman, she said, she feels unwelcome in whole swaths of the country where states have attacked her right “just to exist in public.”
The effort started with a smattering of Republican lawmakers advancing legislation focused on transgender girls’ participation in school sports. And it was accelerated by a few influential Republican governors who seized on the issue early.
But it was also the result of careful planning by national conservative organizations to harness the emotion around gender politics. With gender norms shifting and a sharp rise in the number of young people identifying as transgender, conservative groups spotted an opening in a debate that was gaining attention.
“It’s a sense of urgency,” said Matt Sharp, the senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that has provided strategic and legal counsel to state lawmakers as they push through legislation on transgender rights. The issue, he argued, is “what can we do to protect the children?”
Mr. Schilling said the issue had driven in thousands of new donors to the American Principles Project, most of them making small contributions.
The appeal played on the same resentments and cultural schisms that have animated Mr. Trump’s political movement: invocations against so-called “wokeness,” skepticism about science, parental discontent with public schools after the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns and anti-elitism.
Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida, a group that fights discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people, said there was a direct line from the right’s focus on transgender children to other issues it has seized on in the name of “parents’ rights” — such as banning books and curriculums that teach about racism.
“In many ways, the trans sports ban was the test balloon in terms of how they can frame these things,” she said. “Once they opened that parents’ rights frame, they began to use it everywhere.”
For now, the legislation has advanced almost exclusively in Republican-controlled states: Those same policies have drawn strong opposition from Democrats who have applauded the increased visibility of transgender people — in government, corporations and Hollywood — and policies protecting transgender youths.
The focus on perceived threats to impressionable children has a long history in American sexual politics. It has its roots in the “Save Our Children” campaign championed in 1977 by Anita Bryant, the singer known for her orange juice commercials, to repeal a local ordinance in Miami-Dade County that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, a historic setback for the modern gay rights movements.
The initial efforts by the conservative movement to deploy transgender issues did not go well. In 2016, North Carolina legislators voted to bar transgender people from using the bathroom of their preference. It created a backlash so harsh — from corporations, sports teams and even Bruce Springsteen — that lawmakers eventually rescinded the bill.