Ads targeting transgender kids flood swing states

A deluge of radio spots and mailers targeting transgender children is hitting swing-state voters as part of a broad ad campaign directed by prominent Trump administration alums.

Polling rarely registers transgender-related issues as a top priority for voters, with other topics like the economy and public safety taking the lead in this midterm cycle. But America First Legal, launched by longtime Donald Trump aide Stephen Miller, has plastered airwaves and mailboxes with the issue ahead of the election — all without mentioning candidates currently running for office, as both groups are registered nonprofits.

Ads targeting transgender children have spread in at least 25 states across the political spectrum — from Texas to Illinois to Michigan — in the last month, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

America First Legal has made more than $4 million in radio buys across Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit — cities in competitive states with significant Black populations. The radio ad features a man speaking over ominous music, claiming that children have been pushed to take puberty blockers and get gender-affirming surgery.

“The Biden administration is pushing radical gender experiments on children,” the narrator says in the original radio spot. “Tell Joe Biden and left-wing leaders across America, ‘Hands off our kids.’”

NAACP president Derrick Johnson said the organization sent letters to radio stations asking them not to run the ad, which he called “the worst I’ve seen” on the issue this cycle.

“This is playing to the lowest common denominator of hate and otherizing, targeting the LGBT community,” Johnson said. “When you create this type of negative reaction to individuals who [don’t] present any societal grief, you only create space for people to feel justified for attacking them physically and through public policy.”

Geoff Wetrosky, the Human Rights Campaign’s national campaign director, said the ads are an effort to suppress turnout.

“If they were looking to motivate voters to get to the polls and support particular candidates, I don't think it would be using the particular language and messaging that they're using,” he said. “It's meant to fly under the radar as much as possible. Voter suppression efforts are typically done at the last minute and behind the scenes.”

America First Legal vice president and general counsel Gene Hamilton defended the radio ad. “The Biden Administration and its allies are advancing a radical agenda that denies biology, denies reality, and denies that they are threatening children,” he said in a statement. “We believe in biology and we believe that confused children should not be harmed permanently by individuals with radical agendas.”

America First Legal has also sent mailers to Black and Hispanic households in states including Georgia, Texas and Nevada, according to advertisements collected as part of POLITICO’s Political Mailers Project. Citizens for Sanity, another group formed by Trump administration alumni which has spent tens of millions on late advertising, also made TV buys on the issue a week ahead of Election Day in battleground states including Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

In Spanish and English-language mailers, America First Legal similarly warned against “radical and irreversible gender experiments," including anecdotes from unnamed people who regretted “destroying their lives” with gender-affirming care and surgery. Another ad more specifically goes after Biden, surrounding a picture of the president with anti-transgender headlines related to schools from Fox News and the Daily Wire.

Medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, support gender-affirming care for adolescents. But medical experts said gender-affirming care for children rarely, if ever, includes surgery. Instead, doctors are more likely to recommend counseling, social transitioning and hormone replacement therapy.

LGBTQ people of color, especially Black people, face heightened levels of discrimination leading to high unemployment rates and homelessness, according to a recent report from the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Wetrosky noted that organizations made similar efforts to create divisions between LGBTQ individuals and Black and Latino voters when campaigning against marriage equality a decade ago.

“This is not a new playbook. It's just a new chapter and an unfortunate playbook that we think is outdated. And it didn't work for marriage,” he said.

America First Legal also stoked claims of “anti-white bigotry” in another radio ad spread earlier in October and has sent political mailers claiming the president has engaged in racial discrimination against white and Asian Americans.

Miller launched America First Legal to be a “conservative version of the American Civil Liberties Union.” It has taken part in lawsuits and other legal action concerning instruction about racism in public schools, voting, LGBTQ and immigration policies, as well as claiming Biden’s administration is “anti-white.”

Advertising focused on transgender children has popped up in several states this year, though America First Legal and Citizens for Sanity have been by far the biggest actors on the issue. In Kansas, the Republican Governors Association has gone after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on youth sports policy.

“Laura Kelly says she’s middle of the road,” a spot from earlier this month says (the rest of the ad focuses on her crime policies). “But she’s not middle of the road on the transgender agenda.”

The criticism stems from Kelly’s veto of two bills that would block transgender athletes from playing on public schools’ athletic teams designated for girls or women. Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt has indicated that he would pass such legislation should he become governor. But most of his broadcast ads primarily pushed messaging about inflation.

Another RGA ad featured Riley Gaines — a former University of Kentucky swimmer who has spoken out against former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a transgender athlete on the school’s women’s team, after they competed in the NCAA championship earlier this year. In the ad, Gaines criticized Kelly’s veto, saying, “If Laura Kelly can’t protect women, she shouldn’t be governor of Kansas.”

Kelly responded with her own spot, saying, “You may have seen my opponent's attacks, so let me just say it. Of course men should not play girls sports. Okay, we all agree there. Now, here's where Derek Schmidt and I disagree.”

Transgender-focused ads have cropped up in other races on TV, although the volume pales in comparison to spots about economy and crime. Since Labor Day, there have been just around 90 TV ads that contain references to LGBTQ issues, according to ad tracker AdImpact, over half which came from Republicans. Many of these ads are running in local races. The bulk also do not focus solely on anti-transgender messaging, but rather fold it in with other issues.

A number of Citizens for Sanity spots, by contrast, have continued to make it a focal point.

“Left-wing leaders are pushing radical ideas in school,” a spot from Citizens for Sanity that started airing Friday says, halfway through a one-minute spot that also hits on inflation and immigration. “They tell children that boys are girls and girls are boys. They promote drugs to stop puberty, even surgery to remove body parts. These are not Latino values.”