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Some Republicans fear party overreach on LGBT measures

A spate of GOP bills targeting the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity issues has been accompanied by anti-gay rhetoric

Supporters of Florida's Republican-backed bill that bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for many young students rally outside Walt Disney World in Orlando on April 16. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Republican lawmakers around the country are pushing an array of bills that limit the discussion of gay rights in schools under the auspices of parental rights, leading some party strategists to worry that the initiatives may backfire with moderate voters by making the party seem anti-gay.

Legislation includes a recent law passed in Florida that limits what kindergarten to third grade teachers can talk about in the classroom regarding sexual orientation and gender identity — a measure dubbed the “don’t say gay” law by critics. Several other state legislatures, including Alabama, Louisiana and Ohio, are considering or have passed similar bills.

The measures have been accompanied by a push among some Republicans to falsely describe backers of gay rights as “groomers” who are recruiting children to question their own sexuality or gender identity at a young age, torquing up rhetoric that LGBTQ activists say is dangerous. One top Senate Republican also recently criticized the legal underpinnings of a 2015 Supreme Court decision affirming the right to same-sex marriage — a ruling that has broad public support.

Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid who has since left the GOP, said of the recent measures, “I think in the short term, it’s a political winner, and that’s why you see so many other states doing copycat bills on Florida.”

But “I think that there are some big risks for Republicans, though in the medium term,” he added. “There’s a reason that the politics on gay marriage shifted so quickly. … The broad middle of this country does not want to see gay people or trans people be targeted.”

Americans’ views flipped on gay rights. How did minds change so quickly?

Many Republicans argue that their recent legislative efforts are geared toward giving parents more control over their children’s education and are not aimed at marginalizing gay or transgender communities. Rather, they say, the push for legislation is the latest iteration of post-pandemic conservative organizing around public schools and is similar to the move against teaching what conservatives have characterized as “critical race theory.”

Fifty percent of Americans, including 65 percent of Republicans, said parents have “too little” influence on classroom curriculum, according to an AP-NORC poll released in March. But 21 percent of Americans supported prohibiting teachers from teaching about sex and sexuality in schools, including 33 percent of Republicans, the poll showed.

Democrats have been quick to criticize the GOP moves as anti-gay and anti-transgender, and highlight the likely impact of the legislation on children.

“This is a political wedge issue and an attempt to win a culture war,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked during a recent podcast interview about recent GOP legislation. “And they’re doing that in a way that is harsh and cruel to a community of kids.”

“I’m going to get emotional about this issue, because it’s horrible,” Psaki continued. “But it’s like kids who are bullied, and all these leaders are taking steps to hurt them and hurt their lives and hurt their families.”

Charles Moran, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP group that pushes for equality between straight and gay Americans, said he is not opposed to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which he views as being limited in scope.

But his group is scrambling to develop a state legislative strategy to track other parental rights bills that are moving around the country, saying that some of them do pose problems for gay Americans. “Every one of these bills are different in each state, and some of them are truly dangerous,” Moran said. “Some of them are actually bad. Some of them we are going to come out and oppose.”

The wave of new initiatives came as a surprise to Moran. “I was not prepared to do this this year,” he said. “I’m having to rapidly build a legislative analysis team to really go through and identify the states that have these bills.”

In Florida, Moran said that he was able to help kill an amendment to Florida’s law that would have required teachers to report when children questioned their gender identity or sexual orientation while in the classroom. “That was a huge problem,” he said.

Still, he said that he does not view the Florida law as an attack on gay rights. “There are some people who are turning this into an attempt to claw back progress on LGBT issues,” Moran said. “But that is not how I read this. I’m consistently reminding everyone: This is not a gay rights thing. This is a parental rights thing.”

The recent cluster of parental rights legislation stems from the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, some Republicans said.

Republican Glenn Youngkin bested Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe by roughly two percentage points just a year after Joe Biden, a Democrat, won the state by 10 percentage points in his presidential campaign.

Youngkin focused heavily on the public school curriculum and pushed for parents to have more say in their children’s education. The issue let him capitalize on deep-seated frustration among many parents after nearly two years of pandemic-related school disruptions.

“Youngkin invented this, and DeSantis has perfected it,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor who is close with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Eberhart said laws like the one in Florida signal to the base of the party a willingness to take on fights.

But Eberhart said that he thinks DeSantis “may have gone too far” in pushing subsequent legislation that stripped special tax breaks from the Walt Disney Co. after it opposed the parental rights bill. Now, he said, Democrats can paint DeSantis as hurting the economy in central Florida, where Disney employs thousands of workers.

The Republican-led Florida legislature passed a bill on April 21 that would cancel the special tax district of Walt Disney World in the state. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

The resurgence of anti-gay rhetoric is reminiscent of a past era, some observers said. In 2004, for example, Republicans pushed state referendums banning same-sex marriage. But by the time of the Donald Trump administration, GOP antipathy to gay and lesbian rights had in many respects faded.

“On the substance, it’s a departure from Trump-era conservatism,” said Sasha Issenberg, the author of “The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage.”

But Issenberg said the style of discourse around the bills bears the imprint of Trump’s party. “Over-the-top, borderline-libelous online rhetoric clearly feels like the way Trump’s right wing communicates,” Issenberg said.

Trump openly campaigned for LGBT support. At the same time, while president, Trump tried to ban transgender soldiers from the military and moved to restrict access to homeless shelters for transgender people. His administration also erased protections for transgender patients against discrimination by doctors, hospitals and health insurance companies.

Some Republican strategists are concerned enough about the new laws and rhetoric that they are working to launch campaigns against the measures. One group, Conservatives Against Discrimination, released a video on Wednesday that focuses on the struggles of a transgender man and held a roundtable to discuss how gay and transgender issues are being talked about.

“The LGBT advancements was one of those issues that, over time, there was consensus in this country,” Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist, said during the virtual forum. “If you allow for this new spate of ‘we’re going to frame things differently now; we’re going to frame it as protection of children,’ we’re going to create more distrust.”

During the forum, former Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, said he had seen firsthand the effects discriminatory bills can have. He was mayor in 2015 when then-Gov. Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers pushed for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allowed business owners to turn away gay and lesbian customers for religious reasons.

“We became the focus of the nation,” Ballard said. “That was very disturbing to me.”

The CEOs of Apple, Angie’s List, PayPal and other companies called on the state to repeal the law. Leaders at Visit Indy, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau, eventually found that the law cost the state more than $60 million in convention business.

“I believe in freedom. I believe in people’s rights to live their own lives without the pressure of government on them,” Ballard said. “I try to send the message to other Republicans. … I would suggest to you that that was what the conservative movement was supposed to be about.”

Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a leading conservative strategist, said that social conservatives recognize that marriage equality is the law of the land, though he predicted there will still be fights over gay rights.

He wants Republicans to use the energy around parental rights to push for school choice, a longtime conservative priority.

“The wisest strategy is to use the momentum from this to drive parental rights and school choice,” Reed said. “That’s where this is going, and it has the potential to be a game changer.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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