The Future of Trans Rights Is on the Ballot

Across the country, politicians are running on anti-trans platforms, promising to restrict the rights of transgender youth and adults if elected.
On the left, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference on September 13, 2022 in Houston, Texas. ​On the right, Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to supporters during a campaign rally on August 24, 2022 in Humble, Texa
On the left, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference on September 13, 2022 in Houston, Texas. On the right, Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to supporters during a campaign rally on August 24, 2022 in Humble, Texas. (Photos by Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Republican candidates across the United States are campaigning on anti-transgender policies to rile up their base, turning the 2022 midterm election season into what at times feels like a nonstop deluge of anti-trans messaging. Ultimately, there’s a lot on the line for trans rights ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

This election cycle has taken anti-trans rhetoric to unprecedented levels, and the danger won’t end when the election does: Across the country, anti-trans politicians are on the ballot, promising to restrict the rights of transgender youth and adults if elected. This midterm election could determine whether the Republican Party will expand its ability to use the power of the government to marginalize and mistreat transgender people in the U.S.

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In campaign advertisements from Republican candidates, attacks on trans people have been relentless. In one TV spot, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio warns voters that “the radical left will destroy America, if we don’t stop them. They indoctrinate children and try to turn boys into girls.” Nevada Attorney General hopeful Sigal Chattah tweeted that the world needs fewer “pronoun badges” and transgender people. In Iowa, incumbent Gov. Kim Reynolds states in an ad, “Here in Iowa, we still know right from wrong, boys from girls, and liberty from tyranny… We may get up early, but we’re not woke.” Republicans have spent tens of millions of dollars on anti-trans TV spots and mailers in at least 25 states.

These campaign ads are seemingly inspired by political policy: According to a national trans legislation tracker, a record 171 bills targeting trans rights were introduced across the U.S. this year alone, with 26 passing, 20 failing, and 125 still active. Conservative school boards and states across the country have already imposed or attempted to impose restrictive bathroom policies that force transgender students into bathrooms that match the gender they were assigned at birth, bans on trans girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, and bans on critical gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy. 

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But, the issues these laws are based on aren’t factual. Children aren’t being forced to transition. Gender-affirming care for youth is safe and effective, and has been endorsed by several major governing medical bodies, because it improves mental health outcomes for trans youth into adulthood. These realities aren’t stopping Republican candidates, and their supporters with big pockets, from spreading falsehoods anyway. 

“Before the midterms, the closing message of the right-wing media during a nationwide shortage of teachers and healthcare workers is that doctors or teachers are going to turn your child trans,” Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ program director for progressive media watchdog Media Matters, told VICE News. “This focus, to me, is false, disgusting, and a sense that they’ve completely lost touch with reality.”

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And in the upcoming elections, it's not looking good for trans rights. Within states that have already passed anti-trans legislation, from sports bans to gender-affirming care bans for youth, including Texas, Alabama, Arizona, and Idaho, anti-trans candidates are positioned to claim or stay in power. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem was the first in 2022 to sign anti-trans legislation into law, banning trans kids from playing for sports teams that match their gender. 

Earlier this year, in one of the most disruptive anti-trans policies in the U.S. to date, Texas incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott, with the support of Attorney General Ken Paxton, instructed the state to launch child abuse investigations into families supporting their trans children’s transition. Both Abbott and Paxton are up for re-election, and Abbott is polling nine points ahead of Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, according to FiveThirtyEight.

O’Rourke’s press secretary Tori Larned told VICE News in an email that O’Rourke, if elected, plans to introduce a “comprehensive nondiscrimination law” that would include support for trans kids and “ensure that every person in this state can live freely as themselves.” 

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Earlier in his campaign, O’Rourke spoke with Teen Vogue and encouraged people to vote, saying, “If the real majority in Texas were voting, you would not have the most extreme abortion ban in America… You wouldn't have transgender kids and their parents hounded by the sitting governor of the state.”

Alaska’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara told VICE News, “I’ve been concerned the whole campaign and increasingly concerned as people try to get votes off of possibly the lives of youth.”

“We should support our trans youth and our gay youth and our bi youth as equal citizens and uplift them instead of what politicians are doing right now, which is trying to drag them down to get votes,” Gara said. 

And at the same time, more trans and nonbinary people are running for office: LGBTQ rights group the Victory Fund found that general election ballots will feature a record number of 66 trans or nonbinary candidates.

But the razor-thin Democrat majority in the House is also at stake, with FiveThirtyEight giving Republicans a less than two-point lead on Democrats in the generic congressional ballot. House Republicans, led by Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, just introduced the “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act,” which would severely restrict the rights of trans people.  The bill, which specifically calls out drag queen shows and puts gender transition into the same category as porn and “sexual acts,” aims to “prohibit the use of federal funds to develop, implement, facilitate, or fund any sexually-oriented program, event, or literature for children under the age of 10, and for other purposes." 

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Tuesday’s elections will determine future such legislation at the state and federal level. 

This election could have a far-reaching impact on state and national policy, and on the culture more broadly: “The ways that they’re going after gender-affirming healthcare are the same ways that they’re going to go after birth control if given the option,” Drennen told VICE News.

Drennen also said that though voting in the midterms matters, defending trans people requires showing up at the ballot box every time; anti-trans policy takes place at the most local levels, including via school boards that have been at the helm of a right-wing effort to target schools and libraries. 

“Voting is very important—not just in the midterm elections, not just in the presidential elections, but for every single local office,” Drennen said. “It’s so important for people to make their voices heard there, and for people to make it clear that they stand for a society that is tolerant and open and accepting, where people are able to be themselves without fear of violent repercussions.”

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.