The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new wedge: States rush to block transgender athletes

A proposed ban on transgender athletes playing female school sports in Utah would affect transgender girls such as this 12-year-old swimmer seen at a pool in Utah last month. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

When President George W. Bush ran for reelection in November 2004, he was joined on the ballot in about a dozen states by proposed constitutional amendments aimed at making same-sex marriage illegal. It was seen as a savvy political tactic, however cynical: spur increased turnout among political conservatives by throwing a large chunk of red meat in front of them.

This was long enough ago that one might be forgiven for forgetting the political climate. Gallup polling that May found that only about 42 percent of the country supported legal recognition for same-sex marriage, while 55 percent opposed the idea. Even among Democrats, only half of respondents said that same-sex marriage should be legally recognized.

That same year, a plurality of Americans said any same-sex relationship should be illegal.

The rights of gay Americans therefore served as a potent political target. Bush himself supported the idea of a national ban on same-sex marriage, saying in February 2004 that “the voice of the people must be heard.” In 11 states, it was; the proposed amendments passed.

But the national trend continued toward increased support for legal recognition of same-sex marriage. In 2011, a majority of Americans first expressed support for the idea. In Gallup’s most recent poll, taken last year, even half of Republicans — well, almost half — indicated that the practice should be legal.

There’s strong evidence that the 2004 ballot initiatives didn’t actually help Bush’s reelection, including from former Bush campaign staffers. But it’s clearly the case that attempting to use same-sex marriage as “a wedge issue to divide the American people” — as Bush’s 2004 opponent, John F. Kerry, phrased it — no longer has any viability at all.

Instead, it seems, the focus is now on the transgender community. Or, more specifically: the ability of trans youths to participate in sports programs designed for the gender with which they identify.

The idea that women’s and girls’ sports were being undermined by trans athletes first emerged a few years ago. Donald Trump Jr. was an early adopter of the idea, repeatedly tweeting about the issue. At times he couched his complaints with a broader message of acceptance for the transgender community. At others, he took another approach.

In January, Trump Jr. gave a speech in which he disparaged transgender athletes, a comment that didn’t attract much attention given that it was followed by his father’s speech encouraging his supporters to march to the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

But the senior Trump picked up the torch when speaking before the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.

“Young girls and women are incensed that they are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males. It’s not good for women. It’s not good for women’s sports, which worked so long and so hard to get to where they are,” former president Donald Trump told the crowd. “ … If this is not changed women’s sports as we know it will die. They’ll end, it’ll end. … We must protect the integrity of women’s sports. So important. Have to.”

“And I don’t even know: Is that controversial?” he continued. “Somebody said, ‘Well, that’s going to be very controversial.’ I said, ‘That’s okay.’ ”

Republicans have fared particularly poorly with women in recent elections and have tried previously to cast transgender individuals as a threat. A few years ago, that was presented as a literal danger, with laws focused on barring use of women’s restrooms by transgender women. Such a law in North Carolina generated fierce blowback, and Republicans didn’t seem to gain any significant political benefit from the effort. Even after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tried to attack Trump for being soft on the subject, it didn’t help his 2016 presidential candidacy.

For Republican strategists, a central aim of the focus on those bathrooms was the wedge to which Kerry referred. It isn’t simply about boosting turnout among conservatives, but also about driving women for whom the issue might be resonant away from Democrats. Many Republicans — the former president likely included — clearly seem to now think that the sports angle will be more effective. It’s not about personal safety but, as commonly formulated, about fair treatment for their children.

The American Civil Liberties Union collects data on legislation affecting the rights of LGBTQ Americans, as Axios reported Monday. The ACLU’s analysis finds that there are more legislative proposals now aimed at transgender individuals than in the prior three years — most of them focused on participation in youth sports.

Fully half of the states have seen such legislation introduced or carried over into this year.

Some or most of this push likely stems from legitimately held concerns. But some of it, too, undoubtedly derives from an effort to boost energy for the political right. The best indicator of that, of course, is Donald Trump’s embrace of it as an issue.

What’s interesting about this focus is that views of the issue look somewhat different from the landscape for same-sex marriage in 2004. A January PRRI poll asked Americans to evaluate how much discrimination various groups faced in the United States.

No group was seen by Americans overall as facing a lot of discrimination more than the transgender community. That was also the view of a majority of Republicans and White evangelical Protestants. In fact, the only group that evangelicals were more likely to say faced a lot of discrimination was Christians.

There isn’t a robust record of polling on trans issues, given how recently the community has emerged in the political conversation. But the data above might also be a reason for the new focus on youth sports: It is much easier to portray such competition as an issue of fairness than as one of discrimination.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t cynicism at play, of course. Perhaps the 2004 ballot initiatives were not the cause of Bush’s reelection, and it was certainly the case that many Americans agreed with the sentiment. But embracing the proposed amendments was nonetheless seen as a political opportunity for the right, one that quickly faded.

The focus on transgender kids participating in school sports may be part of a similar calculus — and be similarly short-lived.