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How did trans people become a GOP target? Experts say it’s all about keeping evangelicals voting

The recent blitz of anti-trans bills may not align with what many Republicans believe, but party lawmakers pursue them on behalf of their most important interest group.

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(jaefrench/Pixabay) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

This story was originally published by The 19th

When it came down to it, Rick Colby called on his spirituality in deciding how to support his transgender child, Ashton.

It wasn’t a guarantee. Colby had dedicated his life to Republican politics, starting in 1984 on the field campaign to reelect Ronald Reagan. Reagan and the Republican Party with him and in the decades following would push anti-LGBTQ+ policies. But Colby’s Methodist church by comparison preached inclusivity and empathy, a message that conflicted with what he was hearing from Republicans. 

Colby went with Ashton to his first endocrinologist appointment. He held Ashton’s hand the following year as Ashton awoke from gender-affirming top surgery.

 “You know, as a parent, you want to protect your child from the nastiness of the world,” Colby said. “I was so relieved as a parent that he was being accepted. And it was just wonderful.” 

Survey after survey show that Americans support LGBTQ+ equality, and Republicans are no exception. Still, Republican-dominated states have seen a blitz of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation since 2020, particularly anti-transgender bills. That dissonance — between the reality of the electorate and the priorities of Republican lawmakers — may seem counterintuitive to many. 

Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth professor who was raised evangelical, has spent much of his career researching those kinds of contradictions. His book, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of Religious Right traces the rise of the evangelical voting bloc from nonexistent in the 1960s to the single most important interest group for any Republican candidate in the 1980s. In a conversation with The 19th, Balmer said that rise was driving Republican support for anti-trans legislation now. 

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“They have an interest in keeping the base riled up about one thing or another, and when one issue fades, as with same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage, they’ve got to find something else,” Balmer said. “It’s almost frantic.” 

Bob Jones University sign at entrance on Wade Hampton Boulevard, Greenville, South Carolina, United States. (John Foxe/Wikimedia) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

While many people believe that abortion was the issue that first galvanized evangelicals to the polls in the 1980s, Balmer points to a different issue. Paul Weyrich, an evangelical Christian who helped initially organize the “religious right,” had been testing out issues that would drive other evangelicals to the polls in the 1970s, Balmer says. Weyrich found it in Bob Jones University, a religious institution that was facing the loss of its tax-exempt status for refusing to racially integrate. 

Weyrich’s strategy worked. In 1980, evangelicals – a group of denominations separate from mainline churches like Colby’s –  flocked to the polls to back what had been billed as the freedom of a religious school to operate without government interference. Reagan backed Bob Jones University, with two-thirds of the evangelical vote, denied President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and an evangelical himself, a second term. It cemented White evangelicals as the key ingredient to Republican wins. 

Any Republican who wanted to cross the finish line would have to kneel at the feet of the evangelical base, Balmer says. Decades later, Donald Trump would initially campaign on welcoming LGBTQ+ people into his Republican platform, only to later adopt the ideology of the far-right evangelical base he needed to win. 

While Trump appeared to start out a social moderate, far-right evangelical policies increasingly dominated his agenda. On the campaign trail, Trump briefly vowed to be an ally to queer Americans. In office, his administration made so many policy moves against LGBTQ+ Americans that advocacy organizations branded his leadership “The Discrimination Administration.” 

The religious right’s fixation on “social issues” — abortion, religious-based education, LGBTQ+ rights — served two purposes. In addition to keeping evangelicals a cohesive voting unit, they also formed an ideological bedrock for the religious right. Before Weyrich died, he argued that conservatives should be fighting to return to family structures of the 1950s, a goal that has been picked up by leaders after him. 

In his book The Next Conservatism, Weyrich wrote that the goal was to weed out “cultural Marxism,” and “restore a non-ideological American republic, which is what we had up until the wretched 1960s,” when women and Black and LGBTQ+ Americans pushed for and won greater rights.

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 After Reagan’s 1980 victory, Weyrich would continue to test issue after issue to keep evangelicals voting, including abortion. This idealized rewind to 1950s America would systematically challenge the basic rights gained by Black Americans, LGBTQ+ people and those with disabilities.

“As they were searching for different issues, I think they understood that any issue that had some sort of connection to sexuality or sexual behavior was going to work for them,” Balmer told The 19th. 

The first issue was “sodomy laws,” which aimed to make gay sex illegal. The Supreme Court overruled the last of them in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas. Next came marriage equality, which was granted nationwide by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling in 2015. Still, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, evangelical Protestants were the only major religious group as of 2020 that opposed same-sex marriage: just 34 percent of those surveyed support marriage equality.

The country, however, moved on.  

“It’s staggering how quickly [marriage] disappeared as an issue,” Balmer said “And so, they almost frantically began looking for something else. And of course, the trans thing was the next thing on the horizon.” 

Today, nearly 8 in 10 Americans back nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, according to a poll from the nonpartisan ​​Public Religion Research Institute. That includes 65 percent of Republicans. A 2021 poll by PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that two-thirds of Americans opposed bills limiting the rights of transgender people. 

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Still, since 2020, 15 states have passed laws barring transgender kids from playing sports in their lived genders. Three have put laws on the books to prevent trans kids from accessing care for gender dysphoria recommended by major medical associations. Two have outlawed mention of LGBTQ+ history or people for young kids in public schools. 

Maps of states that have passed laws that would ban abortion if the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade almost mirror those that have passed anti-trans bans. Eleven of the 15 states with a sports participation ban for trans youth have also moved to curtail abortion rights. 

Zein Murib, assistant political professor at Fordham University, says that overlap is no mistake. 

“They’re saying, ‘Forget about rights. This is about bodies,’” Murib said. “This is about these bodies being in places where they again presumably do not belong. … You see them deploying scare tactics like, ‘men disguised as women in girls’ restrooms’ or ‘boys in girls’ locker rooms.’”

As 19th News found in an investigation in 2021, the vast majority of anti-transgender bills never use the word “transgender” at all. Lawmakers instead pitch the bills as critical to securing rights for women in sports and larger society. Those arguments fail to acknowledge transgender women, and advocates say they are increasingly out of touch with the general electorate. 

Chris Bull is the editorial director of queer media firm Q.Digital and the author of the 2001 book  Perfect Enemies: The Battle Between the Religious Right and the Gay Movement. Bull argues that Republican lawmakers have abandoned 80 percent of their voters to cater to a sliver of their voters. 

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“I think that the cliche of American politics is not holding anymore,” he said. “They’re really running base campaigns, that 20 percent of the electorate.” 

Still, political scientists warn that the strategy to attack trans rights could backfire and cost them support among an increasingly diverse electorate. More Americans, like Colby, know transgender people than ever before. More than that, evangelicals are statistically shrinking as a voting block, while the number who support LGBTQ+ people continues to rapidly grow. 

In the 2018 midterms, the Human Rights Campaign, with polling firm Catalyst, found that people they dubbed “equality voters,” those whose support for LGBTQ+ rights strongly influenced their voting choices, made up 29 percent of the electorate. White evangelicals made up 26 percent of the vote.

The 19th is an independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting at the intersection of gender, politics and policy.

Kate Sosin is The 19th's LGBTQ+ reporter, focusing on transgender rights, incarceration, politics and public policy. Kate has conducted deep-dive investigations into transgender prison abuse and homicides for NBC News. They previously worked at Logo TV, INTO and Windy City Times.

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Kelley Robinson to be first Black, queer woman to lead Human Rights Campaign

Robinson, who comes to the LGBTQ+ civil rights organization from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said her identities shape how she will approach the job.

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This story was originally published by The 19th

Kelley Robinson will be the new president of the Human Rights Campaign and the first Black, queer woman to lead the group, the organization announced Tuesday.

Robinson is a veteran organizer in progressive politics who comes to the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, where she worked for three years as executive director. She takes the helm in the wake of the end of federal protections for abortion access and as states are considering and passing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

In an interview with The 19th ahead of the HRC’s announcement of her role, Robinson said that her many identities — as Black, queer, a woman, a mother and wife — shape how she will approach the job.

“My identities always remind me of that responsibility and help me to open the door for others,” Robinson said. “Just my being here is revolutionary. I also have a lot of privilege. I show up in the world as a cisgender woman. I have to make sure I’m creating space for others whose identity I don’t hold, to make sure they see that this movement for LGBTQ+ people is a space where all of us are seen, where all of us are celebrated, and we’re going to fight like hell to make sure all of us have the freedoms we deserve.”

Robinson is the latest Black woman and queer person tapped to head progressive organizations historically led by White people, including Laphonza Butler at Emily’s List, Alexis McGill Johnson at Planned Parenthood and Fatima Goss Graves at the National Women’s Law Center. 

Robinson’s predecessor, Alphonso David, the organization’s first Black leader in its 40-year history, was one of several advocates who advised former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s team on sexual harassment allegations. The New York attorney general said in a report that David, a longtime aide to Cuomo before joining HRC, was one of several outside advisers who engaged in a “flurry of communication” to protect Cuomo.

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In a span of weeks, the HRC conducted a review of David’s interactions with Cuomo, David and the board disputed the results of that review, and the organization announced its boards had decided to fire David.  

Asked whether she was concerned about these issues being resolved and how much of her new role would require repair and trust-building in the organization, Robinson did not address the issue directly, but said: “The progressive movement is in a space where we are really reckoning with not only ensuring that we are fighting for justice externally but also making sure that within the walls of our organization, staff, volunteers, activists, leaders are also experiencing that same sort of dignity and respect that we’re fighting for externally.”

Robinson said that HRC has done “an incredible job” of nurturing staff and building volunteer leadership to be ready for this moment, adding, “The crisis is so urgent that the only way to look is really forward in terms of what we’ve got to do next.”

A number of states have passed laws restricting the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools, and some have also passed anti-trans bills about participation in athletics. And the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which based a federal right to abortion in a right to privacy guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, has raised some questions about whether a decision for marriage equality, based in that same right, is also vulnerable. The Senate has delayed a vote on a bill that would protect some aspects of marriage equality until after the November midterm elections.

The Human Rights Campaign has a mandate to ensure freedom and liberation for every LGBTQ+ person and to address the intersectional challenges of the moment, Robinson said. That looks like fighting for marriage equality and saving the lives of transgender people who are being murdered, working to ensure access to medical services from abortion to gender-affirming care, and pushing for dignity in workplace regardless of the industry, she said.

“We’ve talked about intersectionality as a theory and now we’re applying it to our movement building work as truly the only way for us to survive,” Robinson said. “Our opposition is intersectional. They will say that they are coming after our ability to marry who we want, and at the same time, coming after our abortion rights, after immigration rights, climate justice and more. So we have got to have a more broad and powerful intersectional response.”

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The 19th is an independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting at the intersection of gender, politics and policy.

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200K+ Transgender Citizens Could Face Barriers to Voting

Voter registration requirements and voter ID laws may present a challenge for transgender people who do not have accurate identification.

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Person dropping paper on box. (Element5 Digital/Pexels)

An estimated 878,300 transgender adults will be eligible to vote in the 2022 midterm elections, according to a new report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. Approximately 203,700 of them could have problems voting at the polls because they do not have an ID that correctly reflects their name and/or gender. Approximately 64,800 of these transgender adults reside in states with the strictest forms of voter ID laws and could potentially be disenfranchised.

In the U.S., 35 states have voter ID laws that require people to provide some form of identification to vote. Eight states with the strictest voter ID laws—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Wisconsin—require people to show a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license, U.S. passport, or military ID to vote using a regular ballot.

“The requirements for updating the name and gender on official IDs vary widely across states, and the process can be complex and costly,” said lead author Kathryn O’Neill, Policy Analyst at the Williams Institute. “Transgender voters who live in states that require an ID to vote may face scrutiny or be turned away at the polls.”

Transgender people of color, young adults, students, people with low incomes, those experiencing homelessness, and people with disabilities are more likely to not have accurate IDs for voting.

“Voter ID laws may create barriers to voting for substantial numbers of voting-eligible transgender people, which is particularly notable in elections that are decided by a few votes,” said co-author Jody L. Herman, Senior Scholar of Public Policy at the Williams Institute. “States should take steps to improve access to voting for transgender people by changing voter ID laws, making the process of obtaining accurate IDs simpler and more affordable, training poll workers, and reducing barriers to voting more broadly.”

Read the report 

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These companies publicly oppose anti-LGBTQ+ bills. Some fund lawmakers who sponsor them.

Lawmakers in 6 states with a high number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills received hundreds of thousands from major companies in the 2020 and 2022 election cycles.

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Ohio Valley Pride Parade. (Rosemary Ketchum/Pexels)

This story was originally published by The 19th

After signing a pledge opposing anti-LGBTQ+ state legislation last spring, companies like AT&T, Amazon, Pfizer, and CVS Health gave thousands of dollars to the campaign efforts of lawmakers who had been backing such bills, according to a recent analysis from Data for Progress, a left-leaning polling firm. 

Lawmakers in six states who wrote, signed or sponsored anti-LGBTQ+ legislation received tens of thousands and, in a few cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars, from major U.S. corporations in the 2020 and 2022 election cycles, Data for Progress found. 

Alabama, Florida, Arizona, Tennessee, Idaho and Texas have been prolific in their efforts to bar trans students from school sports, restrict gender-affirming care for minors and ban LGBTQ+ discussions from classrooms over the past few years. 

At least seven companies tracked by Data for Progress continued campaign donations for the 2022 election cycle to politicians backing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation after signing a pledge against such bills from the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom for All Americans. The pledge says the companies “are deeply concerned” about anti-LGBTQ+ bills and that they call for “public leaders to abandon or oppose” the legislation, but it did not explicitly address campaign donations.

Thirty companies that made campaign contributions were also official Pride sponsors in 2021 or 2022 for various cities across the country. Other companies, including General Motors, signed the pledge after making donations for the 2020 campaign cycle but have not given since then, according to the analysis, which goes through May. 

Companies have long engaged in political spending that contradicts their public values while seeking to back other interests, such as favorable and unrelated legislation.  This discrepancy is can be particularly stark during Pride month. While the donations may not have been made with anti-LGBTQ+ bills in mind, the money carries extra weight in the states that Data for Progress studied, since lawmakers there have actually passed anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-trans legislation after introducing bills at a rapid pace, local and national LGBTQ+ advocates said. 

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Among the six states studied by Data for Progress, Alabama had the highest number of anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers receiving corporate campaign contributions. The state recently passed a felony ban on puberty-blocking medication or hormone treatment for transgender youth — one of the strictest bills limiting access to medical care. It was blocked last month by a federal judge.

Dillon Nettles, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Alabama, said the funding from companies that have publicly espoused support for LGBTQ+ rights is “deeply disappointing” — and shows an inconsistent commitment to supporting the community. 

“It seems really risky for companies at this point in time to be willing to backslide on that commitment knowing that this is a moment where the country is being more activated and galvanized by these attacks on trans rights, and even more broadly, LGBTQ+ rights,” he said.

Data for Progress’ analysis is also just a small snapshot of the larger campaign finance contributions that major companies have made to anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers across the country. The newsletter Popular Information has tracked such spending for several years and has found that 25 companies eager to publicly celebrate Pride have donated $13 million since the start of last year to politicians backing anti-LGBTQ+ bills. 

The 19th reached out to 16 companies for comment regarding their campaign contributions to politicians who had backed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. None responded except AT&T, which made the second-most donations of any company tracked by Data for Progress. (Toyota gave the most.)

When taking public positions on government policies, AT&T focuses on areas such as broadband access and expansion, spokesperson Alex Byers said in an emailed statement. 

“Contributions to a particular lawmaker do not mean we support their views or actions on every issue,” he said. “We are mindful of diverse and complex societal issues that affect us, and we most immediately address these issues through direct social programs, philanthropy, employee benefits, and community involvement.”

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None of the lawmakers named in this story returned requests for comment. 

Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director of the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization National Black Justice Coalition, said that as anti-trans rhetoric among Republican lawmakers grows and more bills are actually making it into law, corporations that want to support LGBTQ+ people need to reevaluate their relationships with state politicians. 

“There’s definitely a cognitive dissonance in saying you’re about equality and discrimination protections and for racial justice and LGBTQ+ equity and all of the things, and then to give millions upon millions of dollars to people working to undermine and demolish those protections,” they said. 

In Data for Progress’ analysis, contributions to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaigns account for well over half of the total money spent on anti-LGBTQ politicians across these six states. He received just over $2.2 million, primarily from three companies based in Texas: Toyota, AT&T and Enterprise Products Partners, an oil and gas company, per Data for Progress’ count.  

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, the second-highest-funded politician the organization tracked, received $302,000 for her reelection efforts, the bulk of it coming from Southern Co., which oversees Alabama Power. Several of her recent campaign ads have specifically showcased her support for anti-trans bills. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ranked third in campaign contributions at $192,000, with USAA and Farmers Insurance making the biggest donations.

In Texas, the state legislature held back-to-back special legislative sessions in 2021, with the last two specifically called to discuss anti-trans measures, among other bills. This year, Paxton issued an opinion labeling gender-affirming care as child abuse, and under Abbott’s order the state began investigations into families accessing gender-affirming care for their children. (The ACLU and Lambda Legal have filed another lawsuit to block state probes.)

Following months of those legislative sessions, Toyota, a Pride sponsor for Los Angeles this year, contributed $150,000 to Abbott’s reelection efforts in December, Data for Progress found. AT&T, which signed the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom for All Americans pledge against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation last spring,gave $10,000 to Paxton’s campaign in February this year. 

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To Adri Pérez, a policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, the campaign funds are a clear signal that many corporations will put their own self-interests ahead of standing with LGBTQ+ people. 

While Pérez said companies need to be held accountable, they aren’t sure this is possible unless everyone makes a conscious choice to put that pressure on — including the LGBTQ+ groups platforming businesses that say they support LGBTQ+ rights. 

“Do they have to be held accountable? Yeah. Are they going to change their minds? I don’t know,” they said. 

Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said that making a pledge to oppose anti-LGBTQ+ legislation while funding politicians who back these laws is ultimately meaningless. Advocates need meaningful help to get out of a “continued cycle of horrific moments,” he said, and to him that means going beyond publicly denouncing legislation after the fact. 

Companies need to commit to employ more trans people, to provide benefits for queer families, and to not funding elected officials targeting trans youth, he said — while consumers need to reject a lack of integrity from companies who publicly back LGBTQ+ rights. 

“It’s not going to change overnight,” he said. “And at the end of the day, the people have the power to intervene in this.” 

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Rachael Salisbury, vice president at a political research firm for progressive campaigns, who co-authored the Data for Progress analysis as a fellow for the organization, said she hopes that Pride organizations will use the data to screen companies that want to sponsor their events — and that companies will stop such donations. 

When companies sign pledges against anti-LGBTQ+ bills, including the pledge by HRC and Freedom for All Americans, “those are just pretty words at this point,” she said. 

“I want to give those leaders of those companies the benefit of the doubt, and hopefully they’re not being intentionally duplicitous, but even if it is just carelessness, we can’t tolerate that in our allies anymore,” Salisbury said. 

HRC and Freedom for All Americans said in emailed statements that working with companies on issues like political contributions or private lobbying, respectively, are key parts of their advocacy work for LGBTQ+ rights. 

“We encourage companies not to donate to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians, and to reckon with how damaging and harmful those donations are to the community, including their own LGBTQ+ employees,” HRC press secretary Aryn Fields said in a statement. 

“Companies have a singular ability to gain audience with lawmakers across the political spectrum, and can help share both the human and business reasons that this kind of policymaking is at odds with corporate values, public opinion, and long-term competitiveness,” Freedom for All Americans communications VP Angela Dallara said in an emailed statement. 

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On whether LGBTQ+ groups should ask companies for financial commitments when signing pledges against anti-LGBTQ+ bills, or if something should be done differently on such letters, Freedom for All Americans does not have a position, Dallara said. HRC declined to comment on what changes should be made to such pledges.

Disclosure: Pfizer, CVS Health, the Human Rights Campaign, and the chairman of Enterprise Product Partners, Randa Duncan Williams, have been financial supporters of The 19th. 

The 19th is an independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting at the intersection of gender, politics and policy.

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