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Republicans Hate “Transgenderism”—but Is That All They Hate?

They insist they see a distinction between the -ism and the human beings. But the legislative attack on trans rights continues apace.

Senator Josh Hawley
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Senator Josh Hawley

The right-wing obsession with trans and queer Americans took another dark turn last week when shock jock Michael Knowles called for the eradication of “transgenderism” during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Maryland.

“For the good of society … transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely—the whole preposterous ideology, at every level,” Knowles said from the main stage, addressing a small crowd in a giant ballroom.

This immediately set off a firestorm of accusations that he wanted to eradicate transgender people. But on the right, they insist that that isn’t what he meant.

“By transgenderism, I assume he means the ideology of suggesting to kids who are suffering anxiety, depression, or what have you that there’s something fundamentally wrong with their bodies and they need to change their gender,” said Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican. “We’re having that debate in Missouri right now about whether we should push kids toward gender reassignment surgery. I think no, no, no, no, no, no.” The New Republic asked Hawley unequivocally if he believes transgender people should be eradicated. “Of course not,” he said.

But advocates aren’t so sure. “They are one and the same, and there’s no separation between them,” civil rights activist Erin Reed told Rolling Stone of the faux-distinction between “transgenderism” and transgender people. “If you try to separate us from all the things that allow people to experience the world … that does amount to banning transgender people’s existence.”

Senator Ted Cruz wouldn’t say if there’s a distinction between the terms, instead blaming the press. “Your question is false,” said the junior senator from Texas, before ranting about “the press playing silly gotcha games.” Asked last year if he knew any transgender people, Cruz said he knows Caitlyn Jenner, who had offered to be his “trans ambassador” in 2016. “I think he’s very conservative,” Jenner said of Cruz at the time, in an interview with The Advocate, “and a great constitutionalist, and a very articulate man.” It’s unclear if Cruz took Jenner up on her offer.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Senator Catherine Cortez Masto when asked about Knowles’s comment. “I think we’ve got to stop the hate and discrimination and treat people with a little respect here.”

Other senators were less willing to weigh in on Knowles’s remark. “I don’t have any comment on that,” said John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. Senator Mark Warner echoed Cornyn. “I’m not gonna comment on that,” said the Virginia Democrat.

Whether one sees Knowles’s distinction or not, the fact is that Republican lawmakers have begun the slow, steady policy march to undermine transgender rights in the United States. In February, Hawley introduced the Protect Our Kids From Child Abuse Act, which would make medical practitioners liable to “any individual who suffers bodily injury or harm to mental health (including any physical, psychological, emotional, or physiological harm) that is attributable, in whole or in part, to a gender-transition procedure performed on the individual when the individual was a minor.”

Asked specifically if he had a problem with adults receiving gender-reaffirming care, the Missouri Republican waffled, saying that the parents of children seeking treatments who feel they were “victimized … lied to … not informed” should have the right to sue medical providers. “I think that’s the right way to do it. Give them their day in court. That’s what I would do,” said Hawley of his bill.

On the House side, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has yet to reintroduce the Protect Children’s Innocence Act from the last Congress, a bill that was eventually co-sponsored by 47 of her House GOP colleagues. In stark contrast to its seemingly innocuous name, the bill would prohibit any government facility or physician employed by the government from administering gender-affirming care to anyone, regardless of age. It would also prohibit Congress from authorizing any funds for gender-affirming care, even in the health care plans of government employees, while making it illegal to teach gender-affirming care in U.S. medical schools.

“Let adults do what they want to do, and leave our kids alone,” said Representative Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, when asked by The New Republic in January to define her policy aims regarding transgender Americans, implying that Republicans will disguise their radically anti-trans agenda as protecting child safety.

“The targeting of LGBT and trans communities specifically has been extremely concerning,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the time. “It’s something we’re going to have to figure out and use every opportunity that we have in order to defend these folks.” In 2021, the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among queer folk, found that over half of transgender youth had considered suicide in the previous year.

For some members, the issues of trans justice hit close to home. “My beautiful now-22-year-old child told me last year that they were gender nonconforming,” Representative Pramila Jayapal said as she fought back tears in a 2019 speech. “From a mother’s perspective I came to understand … their newfound freedom to wear a dress, to rid themselves of some conformist stereotype of who they are, to be able to express who they truly are at their real core.”

Last June, Democratic Representatives Jayapal, David Cicilline, Marie Newman, Mark Takano, and Ritchie Torres led a House resolution they called the “Trans Bill of Rights” to protect nonbinary and transgender Americans from discrimination and persecution in the workplace and housing market for their identity and expression. It would also expand access to gender-affirming health care and strengthen the Justice Department’s ability to enforce trans civil rights.

“They can’t do it alone,” said Representative Maxwell Frost about defending trans people. “It has to be all of us. Like with any marginalized community, you can’t just leave it up to that community. It has to be every single one of us pushing back every single day.”