After a series of setbacks in Republican-run states, transgender rights activists won a strange electoral victory. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tried to make the Indiana primary a referendum on their movement. He pummeled Donald Trump for supporting the rights of transgender people to use their adopted gender's bathrooms.
And then he lost in a landslide, and quit the presidential race.
"Ted Cruz has been one of the most extreme anti-LGBT candidates in the presidential primary circus, and his anti-trans statements were rejected in a conservative state," said Jay Brown, the communications director of the LGBT rights group the Human Rights Campaign. "Donald Trump is not any hero on LGBT equality, for sure. But Cruz’s attempts in the last two weeks to demonize trans people backfired."
Those attempts began after Trump's victory in the New York primary, when he sat for a rollicking Today Show interview and ambled through a question about North Carolina's "bathroom bill" -- the latest backlash against city ordinances opening more services to trans people. Trump suggested that transgender people -- with Caitlyn Jenner as an example -- should feel free to use whatever restrooms they felt "appropriate."
Cruz pounced, using the language and imagery that had rolled back transgender rights in his native Houston. "As the father of two young girls, I can tell you it doesn’t make any sense to allow adult grown men, strangers, to be alone in a bathroom with little girls," he said at a rally in Pennsylvania. He went further in Indiana, joking that Trump would not be allowed in a woman's bathroom even if he dressed in drag -- conflating transgenderism with transvestitism. In a TV ad and mailer, he raised the specter of rapists creeping into bathrooms, insisting that they were women, then doing unspeakable things.
In fact, there is no evidence of men using pro-transgender ordinances to get away with rape or molestation. And in Indiana, there was no evidence of the argument taking hold. Trump won evangelical Christians by 5 points, and 41 percent of voters, a plurality, said that Cruz had run the most unfair campaign. On the trail, while plenty of arch-conservative voters agreed with Cruz, some of the anti-Trump voters he was courting wondered why he kept talking about bathrooms.
"How is that supposed to work, making sure that men who identify as women aren't in the bathroom?" asked Michelle DeFrancesco Bythrow, a 48-year-old music teacher at Notre Dame. "Are there going to be monitors outside?"
DeFrancesco Bythrow ended up supporting Cruz, but she was in the minority. More voters heard Cruz sound the alarm about trans rights, and remembered the backlash to Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was passed in a panic about gay marriage opponents being sued for not serving same-sex weddings; it succeeded largely in causing a business backlash, spurring Gov. Mike Pence (R) and his Republicans to amend it, and Pence's poll numbers to tumble.
The appearance of cruelty toward a small group of people, there and during the Indiana primary, seemed to make the difference. "Regardless of one's partisan affiliation, such a blatant attempt to incite animosity toward a particular group is sickening and shameful," said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. "This is a low point even in a campaign season that has seen more than its fair share of low points."
Yet by the end of his Indiana campaign, Cruz quietly dropped the "little girls bathrooms" riff from his stump speech. It still appeared in direct mail, but it was no longer part of a closing argument to the voters crowding his events. In a Sunday interview on "Meet the Press," Cruz argued for the first time that the issue of the bathroom bill was not about transgender people, but about the hypothetical rapists. All of a sudden, and too late, Cruz's campaign had created the conditions for the biggest political victory in the short history of transgender rights.
“Sen. Cruz’s desperate attempt at using transgender people to scare people and drum up support clearly [wasn’t] working," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "And Donald Trump’s position that transgender people using bathrooms is a non-issue obviously isn’t hurting him. Hopefully politicians will leave us out of their rhetoric unless they have something constructive to say.”