Banning transgender girls from school sports was supposed to be a wedge issue to rally the GOP base in 2020 and unite the party for the 2024 elections. Instead, the controversial attacks are splitting the party, possibly ruining one 2024 presidential contender’s chances to get the party’s nod for the White House as several Republican governors have opposed the bans while others vociferously promote them.
“For those who dream about a 2024 future, starting with [South Dakota Gov.] Kristi Noem, you don’t want to be in a position to be against your own party, which all of those governors have done so far,” GOP strategist Bill McCoshen told Politico. “It will help certain voters decide who the conservatives are in the race.”
In the past two years, transgender girls’ participation in school sports went from an issue most Americans had never heard of to the Republican Party’s top priority.
For the past couple of decades, states had various laws on how trans girls could participate in school sports. Some required various forms of proof that a teen is transitioning, like letters from doctors or a statement from parents, while a few had total bans. Others left it up to schools or sports governing bodies to decide.
This was largely a state-level issue that drew little attention until early 2020, when some states started to propose bills with similar language to ban transgender girls from school sports. Only Idaho passed one that was immediately tied up in federal courts, but the others were lost in the bustle of both the presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic.
But Terry Schilling of the American Principles Project (APP) insisted that it could be a wedge issue to unite Republicans. His organization paid to air some ads against Joe Biden to show that attacking trans youth is “a powerful issue that the Republican Party can use to its success.”
This year, Republican lawmakers in dozens of states are trying to pass similar bills, using the same talking points. They’re generally unable to explain how their laws apply to their states, leading many to suspect that national anti-LGBTQ organizations – like the hate group Alliance Defending Freedom – are behind the effort.
Several prominent Republicans have come out against the bills, including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) saying that he would not sign one such bill.
“These kids are- they’re just trying to stay alive,” he said in February. “There’s a reason none of them are playing sports.”
“I just think there’s a better way. And I hope that there will be enough grace in our state to find a better solution.”
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) and Gov. Noem also vetoed trans sports bans, and the fight in Noem’s state turned bitter.
She is one of the top Republicans vying for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination, but lawmakers in her state have criticized her for bungling the issue while national Republican leaders say this may spell the end to her political ambitions.
In March, Noem sent the trans sports ban that the legislature passed back for “style and form changes” and then said that she was “excited” to sign the bill. At the same time, she publicly worried that the NCAA would cancel major sporting events in South Dakota if the bill passed.
She was attacked by Fox News host Tucker Carlson for “caving” on the issue, and her office shot back that she was the victim of “conservative cancel culture.”
Noem later signed two executive orders banning trans girls from participating in school sports but called them a temporary measure and said that she wanted the state legislature to work with her to pass something better this year.
“It’s disappointing that somebody who was so excited to sign something would come back and say that it was poorly written,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Rhonda Milstead (R).
She said that it was like the governor told her “you guys did a bad job, but I can do a better job.”
“’Style and form’ is your punctuation, your grammar, maybe a code change,” Milstead said. “It’s not content. It’s an overreach on the part of the executive branch.”
Even California gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner is getting bogged down by the issue. While her prepared campaign materials indicate that she would much rather be talking about taxes, complaining about COVID-19 restrictions, and telling everyone about her airplane hangar, she has already been pressed by several journalists on the issue.
She supports the bans and it became the first issue she took a stand on. The problem for her, though, is that the issue isn’t “fairness in women’s sports,” as supporters of the bans claim. The bills are just a way for people to express contempt for transgender people, so it’s unlikely her stance will get her any votes while it costs her support from moderates.
“It’s just silly,” said Sean Walsh. He’s a Republican strategist with experience in both the Reagan and the Bush Sr. administrations, part of an older generation of Republicans. “Of the great political issues and great outrages of our time, this one just doesn’t hit the meter, you know?”
“I just don’t see the entire world clamoring over transgender athletes in sports. I just think it’s a lot of time and effort for not really much of an issue.”
Polls on the issue reflect this conflict. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that only 29% of Republicans support bills to ban trans girls from school sports, but that same poll found that only 17% said that they believe trans girls should be allowed to play on sports teams that match their gender identity.
Several states have passed these bans this year, including Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The damage they’ll do to transgender youth will be measured for years to come, as they ostracize an already marginalized minority during their most formative years and send a message to cisgender people that it’s OK to attack trans youth.
And in the end, the Republican Party might not even get all that many votes out of it.