GOP debate explodes in transphobia: The 4 most harmful things the candidates said and why it matters

Dec. 6, 2023, GOP debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The 4th GOP debate saw candidates fiercely attacking transgender people and gender-affirming care, raising concerns about the party's growing hostility towards LGBTQ+ rights and potential consequences in the election. (Getty Images)Getty Images

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More than 10 minutes of the about 90 total minutes of question and response of Wednesday night’s 4th and last GOP debate focused on questions about gender-affirming care and transgender people in America, according to analysis of the debate by Reckon. Each candidate took aim at transgender people and existing gender-affirming care, seemingly pushing an agenda that they should not exist in the US.

The conversations featured fiery exchanges from front-runner Donald Trump’s opponents, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The GOP has made it clear even before last night’s debate that it is not the party that is welcoming to transgender people and has actively worked against gender-affirming care through bans on healthcare and other basic resources for the LGBTQ community.

This stance could have significant consequences for the GOP, as polls suggest it may alienate both women and LGBTQ+ voters. Charles Maron, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, warned the party in an article on RollCall in March. to “tread very lightly” on these issues, noting that women are fiercely protective of their children and will not tolerate discrimination.

“My prescription to the GOP would be: Tread very lightly on these issues, particularly as it deals with outreach to women,” Maron said. “Women … don’t want to see people in society being picked on or marginalized, but, at the same time, if you come after their kids, they’re going to turn into mama bears,” Charles Maron, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization focused on promoting the rights of LGBTQ+ conservatives in Republican politics.

Despite the potential risks, the GOP candidates remained undeterred, each offering their own perspective on transgender individuals and policies. Here’s a breakdown of their comments:

“I get to make the decisions about my children, not anybody else.” - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Let’s start with Christie and the debate question, which addressed his stance on gender-affirming care for minors. The New Jersey governor has said, and reiterated the point on the debate stage, that he will not support a ban on gender-affirming care for minors if he were elected president. Here’s part of his response to the debate question:

“We should empower parents to be teaching the values that they believe in without the government telling them what those values should be. I get to make the decisions about my children, not anybody else. And every parent out there who’s watching tonight, you start to turn over just a little bit of this authority, the authority they’re going to take from you next, you’re not gonna like. I’ll stand up for parents each and every time,” Christie said.

Why it matters:

Christie is taking the parent’s rights approach to gender-affirming care. The Republican Party has increasingly woven “parents’ rights” into the fabric of its platform, making it a central tenet of their educational and social agendas. This approach, while seemingly straightforward, ignites fierce debate over the balance between parental authority and government responsibility.

In the past, Christie has praised the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which limits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools.

One conservative group gaining momentum is the conservative Moms for Liberty, which plays a significant role in the US parental rights movement by advocating against LGBTQ+ and racially inclusive school curriculum and seeking school board control.. Earlier this year, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called Moms for Liberty a “Christian Nationalist Front Group.”

The group, made up of mostly conservative, mostly white moms,are taking on local school boards to limit sex education and human rights education in K-12 classrooms in the name of parent’s rights.

“You do not have the right to abuse your kids. This is mutilating these minors.” - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

DeSantis piped in quickly with his view on gender affirming care for trans kids as Christie finished answering the debate question. He made it clear how he will handle the topic of a gender-affirming care ban for minors if elected.

“You do not have the right to abuse your kids,” he said in response to Christie. “This is mutilating these minors, these are irreversible procedures. I signed legislation in Florida, banning the mutilation of miners because it is wrong. We cannot allow this to happen in this country.”

Critics of gender-affirming care for minors have referred to some gender-affirming procedures as “mutilation” or “abuse” – two terms DeSantis used in his unprovoked response to Christie.

He continued, telling Christie he believes the New Jersey governor’s stance on a gender-affirming care ban should disqualify him as a GOP presidential candidate.

Why it matters:

Describing gender-affirming care as “mutilation” and “abuse” does not align with major medical organization’s views on such care, especially when it comes to children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly expressed its support for adolescents to have access to gender-affirming care, and “opposes any laws or regulations that discriminate against transgender and gender-diverse individuals, or that interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.”

Other major medical organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization, all support gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

Earlier in the debate, DeSantis invoked the name of activist Chloe Cole, who lived as a boy for a few years before detransitioning. Her story of regretting the gender-affirming care she received as a child has been key for many opponents of trans rights.

This type of rhetoric fuels discrimination and violence against transgender people. It creates an environment where transgender youth are more likely to be bullied, harassed, and even assaulted, according to the Trevor Project.

The Trevor Project also found that schools that affirmed LGBTQ students were associated with significantly lower odds of a suicide attempt by an LGBTQ student in the past year.

In November 2021, Willow Andring was a 14-year-old freshman at Armstrong High School in Pittsburg when she was attacked by a male student who had been verbally harassing her with transphobic slurs. She ended up with a concussion after she was attacked by the student when the verbal harassment turned physical, CBS News Pittsburg reported.

“[Trans women in sports] is the women’s issue of our time.” - U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley

Haley’s stance on gender-affirming care was also brought into question by DeSantis, who brought up questions surrounding South Carolina’s bathroom bill, which died before it hit Haley’s desk in 2016.

Haley did tell schools they needed to handle the issue with parents themselves instead of relying on a bathroom law to address questions about trans students and bathrooms in an appearance on Fox News. On the debate stage, she took a stronger stance on issues related to transgender people in schools.

In her response to DeSantis, Haley called trans women in sports “the women’s issue of our time” and pushed back on DeSantis’ claims that students weren’t using the bathroom that matched their gender at birth.

“What I have always said is boys go into boys bathrooms, girls go into girls bathrooms. I also say that biological boys shouldn’t be playing girls sports, and I will do everything I can to stop that because it’s the women’s issue of our time,” she said on the debate stage.

Why it matters:

While Haley has in the past told the schools to handle the bathroom question on their own and leave other matters to her role as governor, she’s made her stance on trans people in sports clear on the debate stage.

She’s talked about this stance on trans women in women’s sports months before, using the same phrase on the debate stage as she used in a June interview with The Hill’s Jake Tapper.  

Despite her assertions, there is no clear evidence that trans women have a significant competitive advantage over cisgender women in sports. A 2023 review of research by E-Alliance, an organization focused on gender equity in sport, into the perceived competitive advantages of trans women found the data to be inconclusive, especially since much of the data on trans women was collected from sedentary trans women instead of trans women athletes.

E-Alliance called the comparison of sedentary trans women to trans women athletes “inappropriate” and liable to produce “false conclusions” about trans women.

“Trans women are assimilated to the stereotype of the cheater who would enter women’s competitions with the sole aim of exploiting a single-sex space reserved for women – another myth with deep impacts. This fear is unsubstantiated and completely ignores the material living conditions of trans women and the conditions in which women participate in sport,” E-Alliance said in the report.

“Transgenderism is a mental health disorder.” - Entrepreneur and billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy, the bombastic billionaire and youngest GOP candidate on the stage, chimed in during Haley’s response with his perspective on transgender people and gender-affirming care.

He proposed setting an age limit for gender-affirming care and regulating it in a similar way that alcohol and tobacco products are–through age requirements. In the debate, he didn’t clarify exactly what age at which a person should be allowed to decide if they want gender-affirming care or not.

Here’s what he said:

“I think the north star here is that transgenderism is a mental health disorder. The Highway Act set the minimum drinking age at 21. We can do the same thing when it comes to banning genital mutilation, or chemical castration. Transgenderism is a mental health disorder,” he said on the debate stage.

Why it matters:

“Gender dysphoria” is still listed as a mental health disorder in the DSM-5, but people who are transgender are no longer listed as having a mental health disorder, according to the World Health Organization. This change came in 2019, when WHO announced that the United Nations’ health agency approved a resolution to remove “gender identity disorder” from its global manual of diagnoses.

Major medical and mental health organizations, such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association (APA), also do not classify being transgender as a mental health disorder. They recognize gender dysphoria, the distress some transgender individuals experience due to a mismatch between their gender identity and assigned sex at birth, as a mental health condition. However, being transgender itself is not a disorder.

Less than 0.1% of the population, or 1 in 1,000 people, has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, according to the APA.

Ramaswamy’s suggestion of setting an age limit for gender-affirming care and regulating it like alcohol and tobacco products is an infringement on individual autonomy, and is not in line with the opinions of major medical organizations who support gender-affirming care for minors.

Advocates argue that it assumes that transgender individuals are incapable of making informed decisions about their own bodies and healthcare, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a November report. The ACLU described how this plays out today in this example of a transgender minor from Tennessee whose parents were barred from providing the child gender-affirming care even though the parents and doctor agreed the treatment was necessary.

“The Supreme Court has long recognized that parents have certain fundamental rights concerning the care and custody of their minor children. While the rights of parents are importantly not absolute — and transgender youth have rights all their own — Tennessee’s law forces a one-fits-all approach to treatment that overrides the informed judgment of parents, adolescents, and doctors,” the ACLU said in the Nov. 1 report.

In conclusion

The GOP debate exposed a deep divide on LGBTQ+ issues in the country, highlighting the need for further dialogue and understanding. As the country prepares for the upcoming election, it remains to be seen how these public conversations will impact LGBTQ+ rights and the political landscape.

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