Donald Trump, with his unerring sense of where the Republican Party’s most rabid members are heading, has joined the newly energized anti-trans crusade. Speaking on Friday at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Policy Conference—a major meeting ground for the Republican right—the former president echoed the rhetoric of the current transphobic moral panic that claims public school teachers are grooming children into trans identities. “Pushing woke gender ideology, think of it, on young people, is nothing less than child abuse,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “No teacher should ever be allowed to teach transgender to our children without the parents’ consent, and I don’t think too many people are going to be giving that consent. Not too many.”
Trump is an opportunist, so he’s an important barometer for where the Republican Party is heading. In the past, he tried to have it both ways on LGBTQ issues. On the one hand, Trump would try to present himself as more moderate than earlier Republicans such as George W. Bush (whose 2004 campaign victory owed much to his shameless demagoguery on marriage equality). But Trump has also eagerly courted evangelical supporters with his pick of Mike Pence as vice president and his nomination of far-right judges (who are now on the cusp of extinguishing the constitutional right to reproductive freedom and perhaps ready to roll back marriage equality).
In August 2021, Politico argued that Trump was a moderate who helped pave the way for wide acceptance of LGBTQ: “The real breakthrough, gay Republican operatives say, came with the nomination of Donald Trump. Though evangelicals flocked to his candidacy, conservative gay rights activists also saw an opportunity. A cosmopolitan minded business person, Trump did not prioritize LGBTQ issues during his campaign and, in fact, made overt appeals to gay voters, though not by pledging support for laws to protect them.”
It’s true that in 2016 interview with 60 Minutes Trump said marriage equality was “settled.” As president, he became the first Republican commander in chief to nominate openly gay appointees, notably Richard Grenell as ambassador to Germany. (To be sure, Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama previously appointed openly gay officials, but Trump definitely did better than all previous Republicans). But the degree of tolerance Trump displayed was more than offset by policies like his reversal of Obama’s executive order protecting transgender students.
Ultimately, Trump’s gestures of moderation were nothing more than feints that left little impact on American political culture. Quite to the contrary, the GOP has re-embraced homophobia and given a heightened salience to transphobia. As The Washington Post reported on Friday, “In recent days, right-wing politicians and preachers have openly called for killing LGBTQ people. On a conservative talk show, Mark Burns, a Donald Trump-allied congressional candidate from South Carolina, called ‘LGBT, transgender grooming’ a national security threat and proposed using treason laws as the basis for ‘executing’ parents and teachers who advocate for LGBTQ rights. In Texas last Sunday, a pastor railed against Pride month and said LGBTQ people ‘should be lined up against the wall and shot in the back of the head.’”
On June 11, police in Idaho arrested members of a white nationalist group called Patriot Front who were allegedly planning to attack a Pride parade. A report from HuffPost documented that anti-LTBTQ rhetoric, especially claims about grooming and pedophilia in the schools, helped incite the Patriot Front. On Saturday, Texas Republicans voted to accept a new platform that labeled homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice.”
As the GOP fans the flames of homophobia and transphobia, hard-won rights are at risk. Unfortunately, there’s a school of influential centrist Democrats who are more than eager to surrender on these issues. In an interview with Hillary Clinton, Financial Times columnist Edward Luce wrote, “Democrats seem to be going out of their way to lose elections by elevating activist causes, notably the transgender debate, which are relevant only to a small minority. What sense does it make to depict JK Rowling as a fascist? To my surprise, Clinton shares the premise of my question.”
Clinton’s response suggests she agrees that issues like trans rights might have to be sacrificed for the greater good of defeating Republicans. “We are standing on the precipice of losing our democracy, and everything that everybody else cares about then goes out the window,” Clinton told Luce. “Look, the most important thing is to win the next election. The alternative is so frightening that whatever does not help you win should not be a priority.”
Luce and Clinton are both prime examples of crackpot realism. The simple fact is that LGBTQ rights are popular. Support for marriage equality among virtually all American demographic groups continues to rise and now stands at 70 percent. Two-thirds of Americans also oppose laws to limit trans rights. There are aspects of the issue where the public is more divided: Most Democrats believe trans people should play in sports in the category of their gender, while most Republicans and independents remain opposed. But, as with marriage equality, this number will likely improve in the coming years. The simple truth is that over the last 40 years, LGBTQ issues have been one area where liberals and the left have successfully shifted public opinion. They accomplished this by standing firm on the principle of human rights—not by equivocating. You can’t win unless you’re willing to fight.
The fact that Trump and the GOP are attacking them using vile and groundless demagoguery is a sign of desperation: They need to rile up the shrinking social reactionary majority. To surrender to such demagoguery by refusing to stand up for trans rights would be a major blunder. It would demobilize liberals and the left and only embolden bigots. The very fact that in 2016 and subsequently Trump felt he had to fudge on the issue and make overtures to the LGBTQ community shows that these are wedge issues that can work against Republicans. It would be both bad morality and losing politics to throw LGBTQ people under the bus for the sake of Clintonian pragmatism.