GOP DEBATE: Grown Adults Expected to Continue Punching Down on Queer and Transgender Kids to Make Themselves Look ‘Presidential’ Tonight in Milwaukee

by Aryn Fields

Extremists Fueling the Ongoing State of Emergency for LGBTQ+ People Expected to Double Down on Transphobic and Homophobic Rhetoric at First GOP Debate of 2024 Presidential Election

Tonight, Milwaukee will play host to the first GOP debate of the 2024 presidential election, featuring a “who’s who” of far right, anti-LGBTQ+ extremists whose escalating tirades and transgressions against queer Americans and transgender youth have become perverse political capital amongst the conservative right wing base.

The event comes just two months after HRC officially declared a national State of Emergency for LGBTQ+ people and our allies. Against this backdrop—and just days after the murder of a California store owner who was shot and killed by an anti-LGBTQ+ extremist for hanging a Pride flag in her storefront window—the debate is expected to be a virtual race to the bottom amongst notoriously anti-LGBTQ+ candidates, trying to “out cruel” each other to appeal to the most radical slivers of their base.

“Tonight, at a time when LGBTQ+ allies are being murdered, you will hear from extremist candidates who have no interest in making our communities safer. Voters will learn that the extremists on that stage in Milwaukee are living in a virtual Groundhog Day, amplifying the same hateful, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric that turned their red wave last November into little more than a puddle,” said Kelley Robinson, President of the Human Rights Campaign. “Punching down on queer and trans kids might score you points with the radical right, but it won’t get you to the White House.”

What to Watch For: During & After the GOP Primary Debate

While some news reports indicate moderators may avoid questions on “culture war” issues, analysis of recent actions and rhetoric suggest culture war issues will be proactively platformed by the candidates looking to score political points with the most extreme parts of the GOP primary voting base. Below is a preview of what to watch for, both during and after tonight’s GOP debate in Milwaukee.

➤ Homophobia and transphobia will take center stage as candidates double down on anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.

The GOP primary debate comes amidst an unprecedented spike in anti-LGBTQ+ state legislation, with more than 550 bills introduced in 43 states, and more than 80 signed into law—more than doubling last year, which was previously the worst year on record. The wave of harmful and discriminatory legislation—some of which was engineered and championed by extremist GOP candidates running for president and their allies—and the concurrent spike in anti-transgender rhetoric and violence prompted HRC to declare a state of emergency in June. GOP candidates have rallied in support of these discriminatory laws as a political wedge ahead of the 2024 election cycle.

➤ Candidates will continue punching down on queer and trans kids.

The current crop of GOP candidates include some of the most notorious anti-LGBTQ+ extremists like Ron DeSantis—whose fledgling “war on woke” has obsessively targeted queer and trans young people with assaults like the Don’t Say Gay or Trans law, gender affirming care bans, and anti-LGBTQ+ book bans. DeSantis isn’t the only politician who has prioritized attacking queer and transgender youth to score political points with their radical base:

  • Mike Pence — After costing Hoosier taxpayers more than $60M pushing an anti-LGBTQ+ “license to discriminate” bill, and becoming the most anti-LGBTQ+ vice president who Donald Trump said wanted to hang all gay people, Pence kicked off his 2024 presidential campaign by targeting schools that protect transgender children, and said if he were to become president he would support a federal ban on healthcare for transgender children.
  • Chris Christie — Despite signing into law several bills protecting LGBTQ+ people, Christie has a history of opposing same-sex marriage and twice vetoed bills that would have allowed transgender people to update their birth certificates to match their gender identity.

While anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric might score points with the radical right, it has a more profound backlash effect—energizing Equality Voters.

Candidates are already running the same transphobic and homophobic playbooks many of them and their allies ran in the 2022 midterm elections. But despite efforts by extremist candidates in 2022 to suppress and demoralize millions of LGBTQ+ people, women, and people of color, the midterm elections not only saw LGBTQ+ voters make up more of the American electorate than in any nonpresidential election prior, but also saw pro-equality, pro-democracy, and pro-choice voters drive historic victories—including electing a record-breaking number of LGBTQ+ candidates to public office. Obsessive attacks on LGBTQ+ people drove a wedge between extremist candidates and average voters—particularly the huge number of Equality Voters who made the critical difference up and down the ballot. In the 2022 midterms, Equality Voters (for whom LGBTQ+ equality is a motivating issue) represented 39 percent of the electorate—a number that reflects the growing political strength of this voting bloc, which totals 62 million nationwide and tends to be younger and more racially diverse than the electorate as a whole.

Attacks on gender affirming care and transgender participation in sports are political losers.

Polling released after the 2022 midterm elections found that less than 5 percent of surveyed voters identified gender affirming care for transgender youth or transgender participation in sports as issues motivating them to vote—last on the list of motivating issues. Despite this reality, many of the extremist candidates running for president and their allies have doubled down—not only supporting and actively pushing anti-trans sports bans and gender affirming care bans in states across the country, but also mirroring those efforts at the federal level, where extremist House Republicans recently staged a virtual dress rehearsal for the anti-trans disinformation voters will undoubtedly see more of throughout the 2024 election cycle.

While anti-LGBTQ+ messaging won’t bring candidates closer to the White House, the hateful rhetoric is fueling an unprecedented climate of hostility toward LGBTQ+ people and our allies.

While attacks on LGBTQ+ people are ineffective with the general electorate—and in fact repel swing voters—they still cause harm, including increasing stigma, discrimination, and violence against queer and transgender Americans and our allies. While reports of violence against transgender people are on the rise, allies are also increasingly being targeted, including people like Laura Ann Carleton—the owner of a retail store in San Bernardino, Calif.—who was recently shot and killed by a violent, anti-LGBTQ+ extremist for hanging a Pride flag in her storefront window. According to reports, the shooter (who murdered Carleton after yelling many homophobic slurs) had a well-documented history of attacking LGBTQ+ people on Twitter. This uptick in violence and hostility—fueled by anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policies being pushed by many of the extremist politicians vying for the presidency—is what prompted HRC to officially declare a national state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in June. Following the declaration, HRC President Kelley Robinson said, “The multiplying threats facing millions in our community are not just perceived—they are real, tangible and dangerous. In many cases they are resulting in violence against LGBTQ+ people, forcing families to uproot their lives and flee their homes in search of safer states, and triggering a tidal wave of increased homophobia and transphobia that puts the safety of each and every one of us at risk.”

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