Republicans are increasingly backing measures to ban transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ sports teams, seizing on a social issue that resonates with conservatives but that civil rights groups and the LGBTQ community say is discriminatory and harmful. 

The GOP support for the ban was on full display Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the House-passed Equality Act, which included two possible 2024 presidential hopefuls.

“You know who has run faster than FloJo? Seventy-six high school boys in America in 2019 alone,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said at the hearing, invoking the fastest female track and field athlete in history, Florence Griffith Joyner. 

“Why is it that women’s sports, women’s opportunities in athletics, the opportunities of young girls to compete on a fair and equal basis will be so severely impacted by this law?” asked Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

Republican lawmakers in 20 states have introduced legislation that would regulate transgender athletes’ participation in women’s and girls’ sports, even as President Biden and Democrats seek to boost protections for the LGBTQ community, including signing an executive order his first day in office prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in schools and other venues.

Former President Trump gave the issue an even bigger platform when he spent several minutes during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month musing about how many women’s records had recently been broken — even though none of the record-breakers were transgender women — and saying Republicans “must protect the integrity of women’s sports.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), another potential 2024 contender, tweeted last week she was “excited” to sign such a bill after it passed the state legislature, and that “In South Dakota, we’re celebrating #InternationalWomensDay by defending women’s sports!” She later said she was still considering whether to sign the legislation.

Republican leaders say their goal is to protect women and girls. But leaders in the LGBTQ community say the measures are harmful, political and based on misinformation.

“What this is is the latest iteration of Republicans trying to figure out how to exploit the lack of information on trans people for their political benefit, political benefit of Republicans on the ballot,” transgender writer and activist Charlotte Clymer told The Hill. 

“We live in an era of disinformation,” she continued. “Although elections are the central component of that whole story, it’s marginalized communities who are affected by this era of disinformation, especially trans people.” 

“Even though trans people enjoy overwhelming support in public polling, there’s still a widespread misunderstanding on trans health care and trans identity in general,” Clymer added. 

At a time when Republicans are mulling how to turn out Trump supporters without the former president on the ballot — and how to push back against a broadly popular Democratic coronavirus relief package — polling shows the majority of Trump’s supporters share his attitude on the issue. 

A Politico/Morning Consult survey released last week showed that 63 percent of voters who voted for Trump in 2020 said they would “strongly support” a ban on transgender athletes in women’s sports, while another 13 percent of his 2020 backers said they would “somewhat support” a ban. 

Among evangelical Christians, a key part of Trump’s base, 50 percent said they “strongly supported” such a ban, while 17 percent said they “somewhat supported” it. 

The survey also showed relatively broad support for the bans among Americans. Fifty-nine percent of men and 46 percent of women polled said they supported the ban. Along party lines, 74 percent of Republicans said they supported a ban, while 40 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of independents agreed. 

“This is an issue that drives Republicans to the polls, but it’s also an issue that allows people to expand our audience,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “It’s not just our base that is not thrilled at the direction that this is going in, it’s a lot of people who are in the middle.” 

After years of working and ultimately failing to push back against the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S., cultural conservatives say they believe banning transgender athletes from women’s sports could be a winning issue for them. 

“There’s been a breakthrough on this issue that we haven’t seen on other social issues like gay marriage and religious freedom,” said Terry Schilling, the executive director of the conservative group American Principles Project. 

Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), called the conservative push on the issue “a well-coordinated effort by national anti-LGBTQ groups that have been looking for a wedge issue.” 

“They are looking to essentially create a culture war,” David told The Hill. 

Polling released on Wednesday from HRC showed that 38 percent of respondents said they believed transgender youth should be able to participate in sports consistent with their gender identity, while 34 percent said they should participate in sports consistent with the gender they were assigned at birth. 

However, when asked if they agreed transgender youth should be “allowed opportunities to participate in a way that is safe and comfortable for them,” 41 percent said they “strongly agree” and 32 percent said they “somewhat agree.” 

There is historical precedent for conservatives’ recent attempt to bring a wedge cultural issue to the forefront. Republicans did the same in the early and mid-90s with LGBTQ issues, a move than benefited them politically throughout that decade, though the policies they railed against are now well-established in American life.

LGBTQ activists also point to North Carolina House Bill 2, or “the bathroom bill,” which aimed to ban transgender people from bathrooms that matched their gender identity, arguing that the current efforts to ban transgender athletes from women’s teams could backfire. The legislation arguably played a role in Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s victory over then-Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016. 

“Just because this is something that looks like it’s a good idea in this moment doesn’t mean it’s going to look like a good idea six months from now,” HRC’s legislative director and legal counsel Cathryn Oakley told The Hill. 

Like cultural conservative groups, LGBTQ organizations are planning to jump onto the campaign trail in full force in response to the issue. 

“When we prepared for this past election, we mobilized and we organized like we never have before and as we go into the midterms, we are going to do the same thing,” David said. 

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Josh Hawley Kristi Noem Tom Cotton
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