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Goes Around

Republicans’ Anti-Trans Assault Has an Achilles Heel

By cruelly targeting minorities, the GOP could accidentally create a new constituency.

Transgender rights activists march through the University of Montana campus in Missoula
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Transgender rights activists hold signs as they march through the University of Montana campus on May 3 to protest the censure of transgender Montana state Representative Zooey Zephyr by House Republicans.

The banners stretched across the steps of the Montana state Capitol on April 24 read “Democracy Dies Here.” Inside, Representative Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat representing Missoula, tried to speak against an anti-trans bill up for debate. The Republican speaker refused to recognize her, continuing a pattern of silencing the only trans woman elected to the state’s legislature. Democrats objected, as they had in prior weeks, demanding a vote on the speaker’s decision. This time, one protester broke the silence as Republicans voted to back the speaker’s decision. “Bullshit!” the protester called down at the legislators, according to the Montana Free Press. The gallery packed with one hundred people filled with similar chants—“Let her speak!”—and law enforcement, some in riot gear, swarmed in to make arrests.

The far-right Republican Freedom Caucus declared that Zephyr had “encouraged Capitol violence.” They called it an “insurrection.”

The silencing of Representative Zephyr was by then a national news story, part of a pattern of young Democratic legislators—some Black, some trans and nonbinary—who have been disciplined by their Republican colleagues for their participation in or mere proximity to protest against those Republicans’ agenda. As in Tennessee weeks before, when Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled from the legislature over participation in a peaceful protest, the Montana House of Representatives voted to censure Zephyr merely for standing in silent support of her protesting constituents. The Freedom Caucus Twitter account has since shared reports of what its director deemed a “Montana Transurrection.”

It’s not subtle, what this far-right caucus is doing, with the support of its fellow Republicans: trying to conflate opposition to their anti-trans bills with political violence. “Folks want to characterize trans advocates as being motivated by some violent desire to overthrow the United States government,” said Paul Kim, one of Zephyr’s constituents who was arrested that day. “But the facts don’t exactly line up like that.”

That night, Representative Zephyr and Representative Jones appeared together on MSNBC. They knew, Jones said, that if the Tennessee legislature could do it, “this attempt to silence dissent with the most extreme measures, it would set a precedent.” But, he said, “that means we are going to stand together in solidarity, as a multiracial, multigenerational movement, to say that we will not allow fascism to happen without a challenge, that we care more about democracy than decorum.” Zephyr said she has already seen that solidarity in action: It was Indigenous groups, she said, who were the first standing with the trans community, “pointing out that our state has a long history of targeting marginalized communities, with policies that lead to separation and death.”

When far-right voices in the Republican Party (increasingly synonymous with the entire party) call this and other acts of protest an “insurrection,” it obviously reeks of hypocrisy. But it also reveals how easily intimidated they really are by the slightest act of resistance. However unwittingly, in defining what threatens them in such outrageous terms, they have also highlighted what it will take to defeat them: this rising constituency, drawing power from all those who are under attack in this moment, and using that power to confront those who seek to silence them all. “We know,” Zephyr said the day she was censured, “if we are going to succeed, one community is not enough to shift the tides of history here.”

The bill that kicked this all off—Senate Bill 99, which bans gender-affirming care for minors—previously failed. Montana state Senator John Fuller first introduced a version of this bill while serving in the state’s House of Representatives in 2021, in the days after the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. That earlier version of the bill, House Bill 113, was defeated, as were many similar bills in 2020 and 2021.* Its success last week is the result of several years in which the right came to deploy anti-trans hatred and anti-democratic measures as mutually reinforcing tactics to consolidate Republican political power.

As Republicans largely failed to pass these bills, it appeared to some political analyists that transphobia was a losing proposition: Some polling suggested that the majority of Republican voters didn’t perceive existing societal acceptance of trans people as threatening: 57 percent of Republicans said acceptance of trans people had gone “too far” in 2017, and only 30 percent said that in 2020. In this context, perhaps Fuller’s 2021 gender-affirming care bill was merely premature. It failed when five Republicans broke ranks to oppose his proposed ban. Legislators who made such decisions, Fuller said, lacked “moral courage to hold the line.”

Some Republicans in power, perhaps in response to how unpopular these bills were, began to turn to distinctly anti-democratic practices. When the Texas state legislature refused to redefine “child abuse” to include gender-affirming care, Governor Greg Abbott ordered Child Protective Services to investigate the parents of trans kids as potential abusers if they affirmed their children. They stacked administrative committees with political appointees who would make sweeping changes for them, as Governor Ron DeSantis did in Florida, when the Florida Board of Medicine barred providers from offering gender-affirming care to minors. 

Meanwhile, Fuller and other future Freedom Caucus members were talking up the need for so-called “election integrity.” He signed onto an unsuccessful effort demanding the legislature form a special committee to investigate “election security,” in a letter that claimed there was a “continuing and widespread belief, among a significant majority of Montana voters, that sufficient irregularities in election security create serious doubt as to the integrity of elections in our state.” Some of the other signatories—though not Fuller—had been traveling throughout Montana to spread conspiracy theories about “fraud” and the 2020 election. Speaking in support of a 2021 bill to end same-day voter registration, though, Fuller echoed the letter, stating that such legislation was necessary because the “country was almost divided and torn apart by the idea that elections might be or were being stolen … regardless of whether that is the case.” He failed to state the truth—that there was no stolen election.

Perhaps the apex of this now-commonplace mythmaking was when Fuller marked the first anniversary of January 6, the insurrection that failed to steal an election but entrenched the Republican embrace of conspiracy theorists. On his podcast, Fuller dismissed those who called January 6 an insurrection: “Those of us that study history and know history know that no such thing actually happened,” he said. “It was a relatively minor disturbance, with one or two exceptions, all those people that the worst crime they committed was trespassing.” For Fuller, January 6 was about protesters being unfairly smeared as insurrectionists. He cited “two Montana brothers,” Jerod and Joshua Hughes, who “were maybe guilty of trespassing.” According to a January 2021 court filing, these two were among the very first to enter the Capitol, through a window broken open with a police riot shield, stolen by one of the Proud Boys recently convicted on multiple charges. Once inside, Jerod Hughes kicked open a door, allowing others to enter. The brothers were in the small group led by a rioter in a QAnon T-shirt, chasing Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, who had been attempting to divert them so that members of Congress could escape. (The brothers were later sentenced to nearly four years and just over three years in prison, respectively.) There was ample video and social media evidence to support the government’s claims about Jerod and Joshua Hughes. Fuller mischaracterized it as “facial recognition” leading to their arrest—when in truth, the brothers turned themselves in, reportedly after seeing themselves on the news.

“January 6, 2022, is an anniversary of momentous importance,” Fuller concluded, because it represented a government willing to do “anything” to its people. “And I don’t know about you, but I would rather be afraid of my fellow citizens than be afraid of my government.”

Such increasingly anti-democratic rhetoric from lawmakers came alongside escalating anti-queer and anti-trans harassment and violence. In 2022, far-right groups threatened Pride and drag events across the country, sometimes while armed, menacing people who attended. Social media accounts aggregating videos of these confrontations made the leap to cable news. The “groomer” slur took off across the right, from DeSantis’s own staff to members of Congress, resurrecting old tropes about queer people as sexual predators. They aimed the slur at trans people and anyone who appeared to support them, from librarians and educators to health care providers and elected officials. Conspiracy theories reminiscent of Pizzagate propagated in any town where a far-right group could find a queer or trans event to accuse of “grooming” children. Open neo-Nazi and Christofascist groups took up the same cause, chose the same enemies, as Republican legislators had.

The Montana Freedom Caucus launched officially this year on the anniversary of January 6, just over one year after Fuller’s podcast. “The radical left is trying to destroy our families, they’re trying to keep us from practicing our faith, and they’re trying to brainwash our children,” said U.S. Representative Matt Rosendale at the launch in Helena. “And it is really those three things that can encapsulate what we are all fighting.”

Fuller, now serving in the state Senate, reintroduced his ban on gender-affirming care for minors, this time as S.B. 99. When the bill was debated in the House Judiciary Committee and its supporters likened gender-affirming care to “slicing up children” and “mutilation,” Zephyr was there to object to their rhetoric. “There are members on this committee who have had procedures that are being described here,” she countered. This was a rare moment—when these bills come up in almost every other state legislature, no trans legislator is there to contest their claims. Still, the rhetoric demonizing gender-affirming care was permitted by the Republican committee chair (who is also the House speaker’s mother). Claims of “mutilation” were acceptable because it was, she said, “some people’s opinion as to what’s happening.” When Zephyr later said to the supporters of Fuller’s bill, “I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” the Freedom Caucus tellingly called this not just “hateful rhetoric” but “unmistakable evidence of a desire for some to engage in violence over political beliefs.” On April 28, two days after Zephyr was censured, Governor Gianforte signed S.B. 99 into law. 

Had the rise in anti-trans rhetoric and harassment, part of an ongoing post-2020 radicalization of the Republican Party, really transformed state legislatures so much, in two years? In 2021, 154 anti-LGBTQ bills were proposed across state legislatures; by May 2023, the number would climb to 417. Republicans’ appetite for criminalizing trans people was increasing too—from 55 percent opposing and 38 percent supporting bans on gender-affirming care for minors in April 2021 to 35 percent opposing and 63 percent supporting such bans in 2023. Republicans saying they thought acceptance of trans people had gone “too far” rose to 56 percent in 2022, according to an NBC poll. This April, when NBC polled Republicans again, 79 percent said acceptance of trans people had gone “too far.” This is out of step with the general public, who other polls showed oppose this legislation and largely support anti-discrimination laws to protect trans people.

Montana now joins more than a dozen states that have passed gender-affirming care bans in 2023. Its passage was less an indication of Fuller having won over his party than a sign that he, along with other Montana Republicans, is benefiting from national efforts to demonize trans people—and, specifically, efforts that portray trans acceptance as a sign of democracy’s failure and America’s decline. You can see expression of that in Rosendale’s remarks at the launch of the Montana Freedom Caucus about the “radical left” who want to “destroy our families” and “brainwash our children.” It’s there too in Fuller’s lambasting a local LGBTQ support and rights group for “attributing my efforts to protect children from being spayed, neutered, and mutilated as hatred of the LGBTQ community,” painting such groups as collaborators in the abuse of children. “The Sovereign People now recognize that their children are being indoctrinated with values such as the sexualizing of young people, that marriage between one man and one woman is obsolete, that America was founded by racists and that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document,” Fuller has argued, in an essay parroting all the now-entrenched conservative anti-queer, anti-trans, and anti-Black code words. It’s no coincidence that the essay also included lines like: “Democracy is a methodology of government that has failed as miserably as socialism.” 

But the right’s habit of creating repetitive litanies of its many enemies—Black people, queer people, trans people, and more—also points to an opportunity: namely, a constituency that could actually be as broad as these reactionaries imagine and fearmonger over. The rapid escalation of Republican political and right-wing media attacks has coincided with the right’s broader battle against “wokeism.” The prime architect of such trends, Christopher Rufo, acknowledged that what gave life to his anti–critical race theory and anti-“grooming” propaganda was the “riots” of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, when, as he put it, “left-liberal” media were allegedly “endorsing self-destructive ideas and causes such as ‘defund the police’ and ‘sex changes for kids.’” That is to say, to the extent that trans people could be associated with multiracial, multigenerational protest movements, the Republican Party would find more favor for their anti-trans attacks. The right reawakened their base by stoking fear of young, Black people, many of whom were also queer and trans. They rode that fear through school board meetings and library board elections, and now, here we are.

In this sense, the right not just targeting but attempting to exclude Representative Zephyr in Montana and Representatives Jones and Pearson in Tennessee from their democratically elected offices is the predictable extension of this fight. So too are attacks on Oklahoma state Representative Mauree Turner, the state’s only nonbinary representative, “censured by their own state legislature after allowing someone into their office who had protested the state’s ban on gender-affirming care,” as Teen Vogue reported, several weeks before Jones and Pearson were expelled.  

Turner easily sees the connections: “What we’re seeing right now is the same thing that we saw with the progression of Donald Trump through his campaign into his presidency: It was one community, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next,” they told Teen Vogue in a recent interview. “If we don’t stand together now, we are going to be woefully unprepared for whatever comes next.”

Consider what connects those under attack in Montana. “What we’ve been seeing over this session is that there is such disdain, such animus, such disgust with queer people, Indigenous people, people that don’t fit in within their vision of what Montana is,” ACLU Montana’s Keegan Medrano told The Intercept after Zephyr’s censure—all people who declare their “body sovereignty and autonomy,” as Medrano added. “The Montana Republicans, the Freedom Caucus, they’re all afraid of these people, and so they legislate to extinguish their existence and/or to make their existences not palatable and not a part of what Montana is.” 

What are they scared of, exactly, when they call an elected representative who directly challenges them, or even protesters’ solely verbal support for this representative when she is silenced, “insurrection”? Fuller has already told us what he thinks an insurrection isn’t—white, middle-class people seeking to overturn an election. By claiming to fear the people who support Zephyr, Montana Republicans are trying to convey that their fear is legitimate and hers is not; that their power to retaliate against her is legitimate and that trans resistance is illegitimate.

What the right calls an insurrection is this moment of solidarity, among those people they have targeted. It’s not enough for them to use the force of the law to exclude anyone who offends their social order from American life; they must also silence the offenders when they show up for each other. But in doing this, the right has drawn together the same constituency it claims to fear.

Maybe the fears repeated by these anti-trans lawmakers are not such wild overstatements. Maybe they are correctly forecasting their own defeat.

This article has been updated to reflect the correct numbering of the 2021 bill.