CLIVE, Iowa ― Nearly every 2024 GOP presidential contender or likely candidate that spoke at a major evangelical gathering in Iowa over the weekend vowed to fight against “woke” transgender policies.
The fact that not a single person on stage mentioned same-sex marriage, the banning of which was once a top priority for social conservatives, put a punctuation mark on the new rallying cry on the right.
The GOP’s shift on social issues is the result of quickly changing public attitudes ― including within their own party ― toward the acceptance of gay marriage, as well as polls that show some Americans’ unease with the pace of change on trans issues.
“We might not like it, but you only get one life. Make yourself happy,” Renee, a retired county treasurer from Harrison County, Iowa, said of same-sex marriage at a Saturday event hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a leading organization of social conservatives.
Over a thousand people flocked here to see most of the declared and prospective GOP presidential candidates make their pitch to voters, the first such event of the 2024 presidential caucus cycle.
Former Vice President Mike Pence received a warm reception from the crowd after he framed the fight over trans issues as one based on religious freedom. He also praised Iowa for passing legislation that banned gender-affirming medical care for minors.
“The battle against radial gender ideology is a battle for religious freedom, and it’s a battle we must fight,” Pence said, drawing a round of applause.
Former President Donald Trump did not attend the event, but he addressed the crowd with a recorded message, touting his administration’s actions restricting abortion rights. He, too, spoke on the subject of trans issues, going even further than other candidates by vowing to restrict the federal government’s support for gender transition at all ages.
Trump said that if elected he would sign an executive order instructing federal agencies “to cease the promotion of sex and gender transition at any age” and to ask Congress to send him a bill banning “child sexual mutilation.”
“God created two genders ― male and female,” Trump said.
It was a totally different Trump from the one who once promised to stand up for LGBTQ people. During the 2016 presidential campaign, for example, Trump defended the right of Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, to use the bathroom that aligns with her gender identity, and he criticized bills banning transgender people from doing so in schools and in government buildings. But none of those promises came to fruition during his administration, and Jenner later recanted her support of Trump.
Tulsi Gabbard, the former Hawaii Democratic congresswoman, also attended Saturday’s GOP confab. She said that one of her main reasons for leaving the Democratic Party was its acceptance of transgender people, saying that transgender women are trying to “erase” the existence of cisgender women. The audience showered her with applause.
Even former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a relatively soft-spoken Republican that will announce his 2024 bid this week, made sure to drop a reference to his efforts resisting Department of Education trans guidance under former President Barack Obama. Hutchison noted that he urged Arkansas schools to ignore Obama administration rules that directed public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.
“In Arkansas, we still think being woke is when you can’t sleep at night,” Hutchinson quipped on Saturday.
Targeting trans rights isn’t just campaign fodder, either.
Last week, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives approved legislation on a party-line vote banning transgender athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth was male from competing on girls or women’s sports teams at federally supported schools and colleges. The bill has no chance of passage with a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House, but it’s yet another sign of how the issue is resonating within the GOP.
Already this year, almost 500 anti-trans bills have been introduced in nearly every state in the country, including some that would require genital inspections. And while national Republicans have sought to target trans healthcare for minors, GOP-led states like Missouri are moving forward with measures that would severely curtail access to transgender healthcare writ large.
Top conservatives, meanwhile, have waged a weeks-long cancel campaign against Budweiser after its beer brand Bud Light launched a marketing campaign that teamed up with a transgender influencer. People have protested against the company’s decision by pouring cans of Bud Light beer down the train; musician Kid Rock even posted a video of himself shooting cans of Bud Light with a rifle.
Former GOP Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who is also weighing a run for president, told HuffPost that although he agreed with some restrictions on trans rights, he believed that Republicans should approach the issue with more compassion.
“Don’t alter somebody’s body until they’re 18 years old. You shouldn’t have men playing in women’s sports,” Hurd said on Saturday. “But also, we should allow people to be who they want to be and not hold it against them. That’s where we all should be.”
He added: “A lot of these young kids, they’re afraid to go to the bathroom. They don’t drink water all day long because of the concern of doing that. And we should be able to handle this at the local level.”
But Democrats argue that the GOP’s anti-trans rhetoric and nationwide crackdown on trans rights threatens the safety of the trans community.
“Just as we warned about Roe [v. Wade], we are warning about the very real risks. And we’re already seeing the attacks on trans Americans. We are seeing the attacks on LGBT Americans,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in a Sunday interview with Jen Psaki on MSNBC.
“These are our civil rights and our civil liberties, and we have to resist. We must resist these attempts to roll back the basic human rights of certain communities of Americans based on identity,” she added.