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Anti-Trans Laws Are Not Politically Popular. The GOP Is Passing Them Anyway.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis (Fla.) is prepared to sign a law that says people in government buildings or schools must use the bathroom that matches the gender they were assigned at birth — or they will be committing a misdemeanor. 

It’s just the latest law passed in the United States that targets transgender people. DeSantis, who is widely believed to be launching a bid for the presidency in the coming days, has been on the forefront of anti-LGBTQ laws. It’s part of a pattern being seen across the country as the GOP has made anti-trans policies one of their top priorities.

But as DeSantis looks toward the White House and Republicans look toward the 2024 elections, is the embrace of transphobic policies a political winner, or is it cruelty for cruelty’s sake?

In the state houses controlled by conservatives, proposals that ban gender-affirming care for minors, attempt to bar transgender people from public life under the guise of drag bans and prevent trans people from using the bathroom or playing on sports teams that match their gender identity are at the top of their to-do lists.


But recent polling shows that the majority of voters oppose laws that dictate what kind of health care a trans person can receive — or, at least, that there is no large swell of voters eager for these regressive policies.

A March NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that among adults, 54% of them opposed laws that would criminalize gender-affirming care for minors. A March Data for Progress poll of likely voters found that 64% of respondents thought that the number of anti-trans bills was excessive and amounted to political theater. And in an April Fox News survey of registered voters, 54% said attacks on trans families were more problematic than trans women in sports.

Supporters of LGBTQA+ rights march from Union Station toward Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on March 31.
Supporters of LGBTQA+ rights march from Union Station toward Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on March 31.

Supporters of LGBTQA+ rights march from Union Station toward Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on March 31.

In Florida, DeSantis has packaged the assault on LGBTQ rights as a war on “woke” and posited the state as the place where “woke goes to die.” But a March Ipsos/USA Today poll found that 56% of Americans believed “woke” to be a positive term. Only 39% of Republicans agreed with the negative definition.

“People have this mistaken idea that these bills are to get political wins or votes or red meat for their base, but legislators pass policies they want to see enacted,” John Cluverius, a polling data analyst and a political science professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell, told HuffPost.

Much of the legislation that Republican lawmakers introduced this year targeted trans children. In Tennessee, Oklahoma and Idaho, elected officials introduced laws that banned gender-affirming care for children. 

Focusing on kids has been a tried-and-true way to gin up a moral panic, and it’s certainly how the GOP can make inroads with support for these bills. 

The American Medical Association has said that gender-affirming care for transgender minors, which runs the gamut from social transition to puberty blockers, is an appropriate course of treatment. 

“Americans as a whole have very retrograde attitudes when it comes to how children should be raised,” Cluverius said.

But when states take it even further, that’s where support wanes. In Missouri, the attorney general created an emergency ruling that would essentially ban adults from receiving gender-affirming care. The state is currently being sued. 

“I think they’re overplaying their hand and pushing to the limits,” Cluverius said. “Restricting gender-affirming care for adults, the attempted erasure of trans adults in public life, probably falls flat with the majority of Americans.”

And it’s not just bills. Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender lawmaker in Montana, was punished for saying Republicans would have “blood on their hands” if they passed a gender-affirming care ban. 

In Nebraska, a Democratic lawmaker who opposes anti-trans laws is being investigated for a conflict of interest because she has a trans child. 

There’s a popular assumption that Republicans are only going all-in on transphobia because there’s a political goal at the end. But perhaps all these bills are coming down in red states because eradicating civil rights for trans people is a sincerely held belief. “It’s not just an opportunistic move,” Cluverius said. “Otherwise, they would not be so headstrong on it.”

Abortion is a perfect example of enacting unpopular right-wing laws. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion, in June 2022 several states rushed to make abortion illegal within their jurisdiction. 

In the fall election, Democrats held on to the U.S. Senate, denied the GOP a large majority in the U.S. House, and Republicans were defeated in down-ballot races in swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. Polling shows that the majority of Americans are against laws that restrict abortion care and may have cost them big in the 2022 elections.

But the GOP is still pushing anti-abortion laws. 

The way state legislatures are structured also contributes to the major focus on anti-trans policies that aren’t likely to secure votes. Legislative sessions are short and the pay is dismal, meaning state houses are more likely to attract Republicans who are extreme — and independently wealthy. 

And then there’s the issue of gerrymandering.

“A lot of these legislatures are so politically gerrymandered that there are few swing districts where the Republicans are under threat,” Cluverius said.“If you don’t have political risk, why not run wild on it?”

But while the state houses focus on anti-trans laws, there is already evidence that anti-trans views won’t help Republican lawmakers win elections in 2024. 

Several high-profile candidates ran explicitly far-right campaigns in 2022, attempting to gin up fear about trans people — but still fell flat. “It didn’t matter in 2022,” Cluverius said. “You never know what’s going to drive people off the edge, but I think they’re looking for political points they’re not going to get.”