Bias Watch

The religious right is crowing they won the Virginia governor’s race by sowing fear of trans people

Religious right activists turned out to storm a school board meeting to protest calling students by their name and demand pupils not be taught something that isn't offered in the district.
Religious right activists turned out to storm a school board meeting to protest calling students by their name and demand pupils not be taught something that isn't offered in the district. Photo: Screenshot

Religious right organizations and evangelical leaders are bragging that they are responsible for Republican Glenn Youngkin’s election in this week’s Virginia gubernatorial race.

Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a campaign that centered around opposition to transgender civil rights and ginned up outrage over “critical race theory,” a school of legal thought about systemic racism not taught in Virginia grade schools.

Related: The religious right is running a boot camp for candidates trying to take over school boards

Youngkin used the dog whistle of Critical Race Theory to make racism an issue in the campaign. He pledged to ban abortion. He came out against marriage equality. 

But most of all, Youngkin made schools the main theme of his campaign. It wasn’t just Critical Race Theory, which Youngkin pledged to remove from schools, even though it’s not taught in any public schools. Youngkin also ran his campaign on the backs of transgender students, unsurprising for a man who called trans girls “biological males.”

Youngkin explicitly appealed to the right wing and the transphobia that it has displayed in school board battles. It’s not by chance that some of the most vicious attacks on trans students have come in Virginia, particularly at the Loudon County school board. Youngkin seized upon these attacks as his ticket to the governor’s mansion.

Youngkin dressed the issue up as a matter of parental control. Youngkin was really appealing to the same base instincts that led to vicious verbal attacks on trans students at school board meetings over federal requirements that transgender students be treated equally and with respect.

Now evangelical leaders are crowing that their smear attacks and appeals to racism and transphobia worked so well. While many in the media blame President Joe Biden’s low approval rating and lack of movement of Democratic priority legislation, the religious right knows bigotry was what won the race.

“Christian conservatives committed to handing control of education back to parents cruised to victory in a full sweep for the first time in over 10 years,” My Faith Votes CEO Jason Yates told supporters.

Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition bragged about the money and resources they put into the race while Brian Burch of the conservative Catholic Vote gave a warning on what’s coming next.

“The campaign to take back Congress starts now,” he told supporters.

The religious right has used school board elections as stepping stones into bigger offices for decades and fanning the culture wars in local communities. From bans on LGBTQ books to mask mandates, Christian conservatives have made it a priority to use the local authorities to advance their own agendas.

And the screaming matches and violent outbursts at school board meetings in Virginia have ensued when evangelicals didn’t control the school boards. The fear and anger behind the protesters – from mask mandates to transgender pre-teens playing school sports – have been driven by the religious right and hate groups.

“To allow a boy to pretend he is a girl, then use the girls’ bathroom and locker room and play on girls’ sports teams is insanity,” claimed Mark Egger while speaking at a school board meeting in Virginia, “and not only is it insane it’s also evil. A boy who thinks he is a girl is mentally ill and needs treatment for his mental illness.”

The messaging came directly from anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

The meetings have become so volatile that police officers are now a common sight. Another school board meeting in  Ashburn, Virginia, degenerated into chaos during a discussion about the rights of trans students, leading to cops arresting one audience member, while others heckled them.

The situation has become so bad that many school board members are simply giving up.  Three members of a Wisconsin school board resigned on the same day, complaining that the board had “been dragged into partisan culture wars by some members of the board.”

Of course, that’s the point. Republicans see the culture wars as their ticket to winning more elections, with a little help from their voter suppression efforts.

The resignations only play into the game plan. The Wisconsin school board members resigning left the door wide open for the remaining GOP members to stack the deck, and state Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R), the head of that county’s GOP party, has been actively seeking applicants. Dittrich also led the Wisconsin Legislature’s push to ban transgender girls from playing sports.

The religious right has mounted its own campaign seeking to recruit candidates to run for school boards. 

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