Cletus Abate said the issue of transgender people in bathrooms will lead her to vote for Ted Cruz rather than Donald Trump, whom she supported for months, in Pennsylvania's primary on Tuesday. (Katie Zezima/The Washington Post)

Cletus Abate was aghast after learning last week that the Pennsylvania legislature is considering a bill that would extend protections to transgender people, including allowing them to use the bathrooms they choose.

So she took a petition and packets outlining what opponents see as threats from the legislation to a Ted Cruz rally, handing them out to anyone who would listen, including the candidate himself.

“I’m here because Donald Trump came out on the news and said he doesn’t have a problem with transgender bathrooms,” Abate said.

Transgender rights have become an unlikely and heated issue in the presidential campaign after North Carolina enacted a law that, among other things, mandated that people use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate.

Allowing transgender people to use the restrooms of their choice has split Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and even drawn attention from President Obama in recent days. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Cruz has seized on Trump’s assertion that the North Carolina law, which also rolled back other protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people, was unnecessary and bad for business — corporations including PayPal and Deutsche Bank scrapped plans to create jobs in the state after the legislation was enacted. Trump said there has been “little trouble” with allowing people to use the restroom they want, though he later said that states should have the power to enact their own laws. Trump also said he would let transgender reality-television star Caitlyn Jenner use the women’s restroom at his properties.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he probably wouldn’t have signed the North Carolina law, while both Democratic candidates have condemned it.

“There’s been a significant amount of conversation about it on the presidential level,” said Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, who said 50 anti-transgender bills have been filed nationwide this year. “In terms of it being new territory, the answer is yes.”

Cruz’s argument centers on the idea that allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms would lead to deviants dressing up as women and preying on young girls. His campaign released an ad accusing Trump of capitulating to the “PC police” and asking viewers whether a grown man pretending to be a woman should use a restroom with your daughter or wife.

“Donald Trump thinks so,” the ad reads.

Cruz has woven his support of North Carolina’s law into his stump speech. There has been some backlash: A woman holding a “Trans lives matter” sign protested outside of a stop Cruz made in Allentown, Pa., on Friday.

Don Uber of Apollo, Pa., says he fears that allowing transgender women into ladies’ rooms could put girls using the restrooms at risk. (Katie Zezima/The Washington Post)

“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,” Cruz said at a rally here, drawing loud applause from the crowd.

He called Trump’s views on transgender people “political correctness on steroids.”

“Evil!” a woman in the crowd yelled.

President Obama weighed in on the issue Friday from Britain, which issued a travel advisory warning residents about the North Carolina law and another enacted in Mississippi that allows businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds.

“I want everybody here in the United Kingdom to know that the people of North Carolina and Mississippi are wonderful people,” said Obama, who also took a question from a person who claims no gender. “I also think that the laws that have been passed there are wrong and should be overturned.”

Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have forcefully condemned the laws, and Sanders said he would overturn them if elected president.

Here in Pennsylvania, the battle over transgender rights has been brewing for years. It is the only Northeastern state that does not extend anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender people, which some members of the Republican-controlled legislature have attempted to change in session after session. They have found an ally in Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who this month issued executive orders barring gender-based discrimination against employees and job applicants in state government and its contractors. Pennsylvania’s physician general is a transgender woman.

The governor has called for passage of the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, which would provide protections to gay and bisexual people in housing, employment and public accommodations — including public restrooms. An employer does not need to construct new facilities to comply. The bill is stalled in the legislature because of a contentious battle over the budget.

Opponents here have seized on the national controversy over transgender rights, labeling it the “bathroom bill,” as many did in North Carolina.

Sally Keaveney, chief of staff to state Sen. Larry Farnese (D), who sponsored the legislation, said this is the first time opponents have used the specter of transgender people in bathrooms to fight a statewide anti-discrimination bill. A number of conservative groups have launched a website dedicated to defeating the bill. It urges Pennsylvanians to call their elected officials, highlights that the bill will affect the commonwealth’s public schools and claims such legislation will lead to an increase in sexual assault, something organizations who work with assault victims call a myth.

More than 30 municipalities in Pennsylvania, including Allentown and Scranton, both of which Cruz visited Friday, have passed transgender protections, according to Adrian Shanker, executive director of the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown.

“We are facing one of the most significant threats to religious liberty and privacy rights in the history of the Commonwealth,” reads the handout that Abate brought here, which she got from one of the organizations opposing the measure.

At least 18 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws barring discrimination against transgender people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and at least 200 cities and counties prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

Cruz has defended religious-liberty legislation in both North Carolina and Indiana, which has a primary May 3 and where controversy erupted last year after Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a law that many viewed as anti-gay.

Campaigning in Indiana over the weekend, Cruz said people have the right to do whatever they want, including if a man wishes to dress as a woman and use her home bathroom. Cruz said that he is fine with transgender people using a public unisex bathroom but that people do not have the right to impose their lifestyles on others.

Cruz said that if the law allows for a man to enter “a little girl’s restroom, and stay there and he cannot be removed because he simply says at that moment he feels like a woman, you’re opening the door for predators.”

Don Uber, a 69-year-old accountant from Apollo, Pa., agrees with Cruz. Uber, who has a 2-year-old granddaughter, said he is more concerned about male sexual predators dressing up as women and going into women’s restrooms with girls than he is about predators using men’s rooms near boys.

“They’re going to have other men in there that can protect the boys,” Uber said. “It’s our duty as men to be protectors, and opening up [women’s] bathrooms to men is failing our responsibilities.”

Uber said he believes the law will just allow men to walk into women’s rooms.

“You don’t even have to cross-dress. You can go in in a business suit and say, ‘I define myself as a female,’ and they’re okay with that,” he said.

Lizabeth Kleintop, a transgender woman and Moravian College professor from Bethlehem, Pa., said she uses women’s restrooms not because it is a choice, but rather because she identifies as a woman.

“Our interest in going to the restroom is to pee,” Kleintop said.

Cruz does have at least one transgender fan: Jenner, who has said she supports Cruz and would like to be his transgender ambassador. In the latest episode of her show, “I Am Cait,” Jenner was informed that Cruz supported a group of pastors that worked to defeat a Houston anti-discrimination ordinance. Jenner called Cruz “totally misinformed” about transgender people but said he can “take care of the big issues.”

A representative for Jenner declined to comment when asked about Cruz’s stance on the North Carolina law.

Abate said she’s willing to fight as long as it takes to defeat the bill. She insists that she is not bigoted and has gay and lesbian friends and family members but says she believes such legislation violates the rights of people, businesses and places of worship that don’t want transgender people in single-sex bathrooms.

Abate’s newly enacted crusade is now driving her political choices. For months she has supported Trump’s candidacy, but his transgender comments have made her reevaluate, just days before Pennsylvania’s Republican primary on Tuesday.

“I guess that I am going to be pulling the lever for Cruz,” she said.