At this very moment, there is a man sitting in a room deploying a strategy to re-elect the current president based on the belief that it is unacceptable for me, a transgender woman in middle America, to exist. According to this man, the extension of basic human rights to transgender people — specifically transgender children and youth — is so self-evidently repugnant, that posing the question of our humanity will swing voters away from Joe Biden and towards Donald Trump.
This isn’t hyperbole or conjecture. This man’s name is Terry Schilling. He runs the American Principles Project in Virginia. He’s already been profiled in a Politico feature that centers on this very strategy. Schilling, the piece reports, is in the process of rolling out a campaign, starting in Michigan, targeting Biden and Democrats for supporting transgender youth.
Schilling and his supporters want to make transgender rights a “kitchen table issue” in this election. He believes that opposition to transgender rights for young people “should define the Republican Party going forward.”
Harmful, cruel and inaccurate
We heard Cissie Graham Lynch deploy this strategy at the Republican National Convention. Graham Lynch misgendered transgender students, falsely claimed that Democrats pressured schools to change their policies and argued that trans youth were a risk to schools and students, despite no evidence to support such a claim.
This is very scary, I’ll admit. As Schilling moves forward with his national strategy, voters are going to hear a lot of anti-transgender messages that are harmful, cruel, and just factually inaccurate.
The facts on transgender youth are known and accepted by medical and psychological experts: Gender affirming health care for transgender and non-binary youth saves lives. Full stop. Familial acceptance and transitional health care are the foundational building blocks of a happy and fulfilling future. Transgender affirming care harms no one. It saves lives. These are not opinions. These are facts.
Also true: transgender people, especially transgender women and girls of color, are among the most vulnerable populations in the United States. The country has lost at least 28 transgender people (that we know about) to violence so far this year — already surpassing last year's horrific record of violence. The Trump administration has spent the last four years weaponizing the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Housing and Education against transgender people seeking to serve their country, requesting health care and a safe place to sleep and go to school.
Politically exploiting transgender youth for electoral purposes makes it more dangerous to be transgender. Ad campaigns designed to demonize us encourage violence and puts transgender lives at greater risk. Unfortunately, there are many people in this nation (like, our president and his family) that appear more than willing to make us casualties in their war for more power.
Culture war fights based on LGBTQ+ rights are not new in a presidential campaign, of course. It does feel like the stakes this time seem higher than ever (I am trans, after all), but campaigns based on weaponizing the fear of queer people have a pretty recent history, and we can all learn from that history as we embark on the next two very awful months.
History of campaigns fighting against LGBTQ+ rights
In 2004, President George W. Bush narrowly defeated Sen. John Kerry in part by embracing a strategy of fear-mongering about the dire consequences of marriage equality. Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage, and conservatives in 13 states put such bans on their November ballots.
The idea was to help boost turnout by so-called family values voters. And it worked. Sort of.
All 13 ballot initiatives passed, it’s true. And Bush did squeak out another term. But ask yourself: Was that second term for George Bush really worth it? Are the voters who were persuaded by the threat of marriage equality better off because of the failed leadership of the Bush administration and all the calamitous results he brought us, including the worst economic recession since the Great Depression? Oh, and before you answer, don’t forget Republicans actually lost that culture war a decade later when marriage was legalized nationwide and none those dire consequences actually happened.
The anti-campaign we are seeing is making the same bet in 2020. Terry Schilling and his ilk are using the same scare tactics to exploit vulnerable lives in an attempt to re-elect — I can’t believe I have to write this — another failed president who led us into the new worst recession since the Great Depression.
Making a wedge issue out of our lives ignores the real lesson of 2004, which is that the Republican Party can’t stop human empathy, no matter how hard they try. In 2004, 31% of Americans supported marriage equality, and their culture war campaign worked. Today, only 31% of Americans oppose marriage equality. It is the majority opinion in the United States that the Republican Party was wrong in 2004. Transgender rights are following in the wake of the marriage equality fight. No matter how hard you wedge us into your campaign, you’re wrong, and whether it’s this year, or next, Americans will realize it.
Campaigning against the rights of transgender people — especially transgender children and youth — should be seen for what it is: hateful, bigoted, and wrong. Don’t fall for it.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republican transgender scare tactics: History, empathy show they'll fail