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Trans Rights Take Center Stage at Contentious Republican Debate

Republican candidates at debate
Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

There were false assertions about gender-affirming care, a dig at Dylan Mulvaney, and one candidate calling trans identity a disorder.

Transphobia ran rampant at the Republican presidential debate, with candidates competing to see who could be most anti-trans, denouncing gender-affirming health care and restroom access, one even saying that being trans “is a mental health disorder” (it’s not), and getting a dig in at Dylan Mulvaney's Bud Light campaign.

The debate, held at the University of Alabama and aired by NewsNation, opened with moderator Megyn Kelly asking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, trailing Donald Trump by a huge margin in polls, if voters are telling him “not now.”

DeSantis, who was reelected governor last year after enacting much anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, discounted the polls and said Republicaaans have to “stand up and fight back against what the left is doing to this country.”

He said he has delivered results, while a close competitor, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, has “caved.” He continued, “I did a bill in Florida that stopped the gender mutilation of minors. It’s child abuse and it’s wrong. She opposes that bill. She thinks it’s fine and the law shouldn’t get involved with this.”

Haley responded that she criticized Florida’s “don’t say gay” law because she thought it didn’t go far enough, banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity only through third grade (it’s since been expanded through high school), and DeSantis pointed out that was a different piece of legislation.

“We’re talking about sex change operations on minors,” he said. “They’re doing puberty blockers, which are irreversible.” Actually, doctors do not recommend genital surgery for minors, although a few young people undergo top surgery. Also, puberty blockers are not irreversible but cease having any effect when the patient stops taking them, and doctors and other medical professionals consider gender-affirming care not “abuse” but a lifesaver.

Haley contended that she never said the law shouldn’t get involved. “I said that if you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, you should have to be 18 to have anything done to change your gender.”

Kelly cut the two off after that and promised to return to the topic later — which she certainly did. She said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie opposed banning gender-affirming care for minors, which she claimed involves “cutting off body parts at a time when these kids cannot even smoke a cigarette.” She also said cross-sex hormones put young people at high risk of infertility — but they don’t necessarily. “Aren’t you too out of step on this issue to be the Republican nominee?” she said.

Christie responded that he believes this is an issue of parental rights. “Republicans believe in less government, not more,” he said. He said he doesn’t believe minors should undergo these procedures, but it’s up to parents to decide.

Kelly then said, speaking of parental rights, that Christie signed a bill into law allowing schools to recognize students’ gender identity changes without notifying parents. “How is any of that pro-parental rights?” she said.

Christie said that’s not true, that the policy went into effect in 2018, when he was no longer governor. The truth is somewhere in the middle: Christie did sign a bill in 2017 that required the New Jersey education commissioner to develop guidelines for treatment of trans students, but the guidelines weren’t issued until the following year. And as many activists have pointed out, mandating parental notification puts young people at risk if they don’t have supportive families.

Christie went on to say parents make decisions others disagree with, but it’s a slippery slope if rights start being taken away. DeSantis then jumped in, saying, “You do not have the right to abuse your kids. This is cutting off their genitals. This is mutilating these minors. These are irreversible procedures.” (Again, inaccurate.) He claimed some European countries, such as Sweden, have ended gender-affirming care for minors; that’s also inaccurate, although Sweden has adopted some restrictions.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been even more outrageous than the other Republican hopefuls, quickly interjected his opinion: “I think the north star here is transgenderism is a mental health disorder.” He proposed making 21 the minimum age nationwide for “genital mutilation” or “chemical castration.”

That came as DeSantis was haggling with Haley oaer trans youth’ss’ access to school restrooms matching their gender identity. He said she killed an anti-trans “bathroom bill” in South Carolina, while she responded that it wasn’t an issue for government involvement. At the time, she said, she took the stance that “boys go into boys’ bathrooms, girls go into girls’ bathrooms, and if anyone else has an issue, they use a private bathroom.” She said DeSantis once said bathroom bills weren’t a good use of his time as governor, but he responded that he signed one into law.

Haley then repeated one of her more infamous statements on trans issues: “Biological boys [meaning trans females] shouldn’t be playing in girls’ sports, and I will do all that I can to stop that, because it’s the women’s issue of our time.”

Another moderator, Eliana Johnson, editor in chief of TheWashington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, noted that Ramaswamy has made note of the fact that Haley, who like him is of Indian heritage, has converted to Christianity from the Sikh faith and changed her name (Ramaswamy is Hindu). “Are you questioning Nikki Haley’s Christian convictions?” Johnson asked.

“I don’t question her faith, but I do question her authenticity,” he said. He claimed she is practicing “identity politics,” which he called “a cancer in American life … this new religion that says your gender, your race, your sexuality is your identity.” He’s objected to it when the left practices identity politics but considers it even worse when Republicans do it, he said.

“Nikki Haley’s campaign launch video sounded like a woke Dylan Mulvaney Bud Light ad,” he said, referring to the trans influencer’s marketing efforts for the beer, which enraged many on the right. He contended that she used identity politics more effectively than Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black person in that post. Haley said his comments didn't merit a response.

Other “highlights” of the evening included Christie calling Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America” and Ramaswamy telling Christie to leave the stage and get a good meal. There was also much anti-immigrant rhetoric, such as DeSantis sticking to his promise to have the military shoot anyone even suspected of carrying the drug fentanyl across the U.S.-Mexico border and asserting that he would finish the border wall started by Trump and have Mexico pay for it. Another theme was criticism of Haley accepting substantial corporate donations and saying she was too cozy with China, with DeSantis saying “liberal” Wall Street interests support China — as if Wall Street is known for liberalism.

Christie at one point said he’s the only candidate willing to criticize Trump, who again skipped the debate; he’s unfit for office, Christie said. Oh, and Ramaswamy asserted that the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job,” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen just as Trump has said, and that the “great replacement theory” isn’t just a right-wing conspiracy theory. That racist theory claims that liberals are flooding the nation with nonwhite immigrants to “replace” white voters.

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Trudy Ring