Several presidential candidates embraced anti-transgender rhetoric and policies in the second Republican primary debate of the 2024 cycle, seizing upon an issue that has animated much of the GOP voter base and Republican politicians in statehouses across the nation.
In the debate, Fox News host Dana Perino asked businessman Vivek Ramaswamy about the ability of students to change their gender markers and pronouns in school settings without having to notify parents, and whether he’d support a “parental rights” law to require parental notification in those situations.
In response, Ramaswamy veered off-topic to rant about transgender visibility more broadly.
“I have to be very clear about this,” he said. “‘Transgenderism,’ especially in kids, is a mental health disorder. We have to acknowledge the truth of that for what it is.
Perino interjected that she was asking about parental rights, to which Ramaswamy replied, “Parents have the right to know.”
Ramaswamy next lambasted LGBTQ advocates for their “hypocrisy” when they talk about how “outing” LGBTQ students to their parents might increase suicidal ideation.
“The very people who say that this increases the risk of suicide are also the ones saying that parents don’t have the right to know about that increased risk of suicide,” he said. “And I’m sorry, it is not compassionate to affirm a kid’s confusion. That is not compassion. That is cruelty.”
Ramaswamy then mentioned meeting so-called “de-transitioners” — people who have undergone transition-related medical interventions only to later regret their choice — calling the idea of connecting trans-identifying children with medical interventions “barbaric.”
He said he would impose a ban on such treatments as president, calling such interventions a form of “genital mutilation” and “chemical castration.”
Later in the debate, moderator Ilia Calderón, of Univision, asked former Vice President Mike Pence a question about LGBTQ people being nine times more likely to be victims of violent hate crimes, according to the Department of Homeland Security, and how he would protect the community from violent attacks and discrimination.
Pence briefly answered the question with generalities. “I’ll stand up for the safety and the civil liberties of every American, from every background. And I want the American people to know that,” he said.
But Pence then shifted topics mid-answer, turning to the question that had been posed to Ramaswamy.
“When the Linn-Mar Community Schools in Iowa had a policy where you had to have a permission slip from your parents to get a Tylenol, but you could get a gender transition plan without notifying your parents, I weighed in with a foundation — ‘That’s not bad policy, that’s crazy’ — to stand up for the rights of parents,” Pence said.
“And we’re going to pass a federal ban on transgender, chemical or surgical surgery anywhere in the country. We’ve got to protect our kids from this radical gender ideology…. You empower parents and our schools will straighten up and reflect our values and focus on the basics faster than you could possibly imagine.”
The debate moderators asked neither Pence nor Ramaswamy follow-up questions about whether such a ban on gender-affirming care would apply only to minors, or to adults as well.
Other candidates didn’t go as in-depth on such issues, but did use veiled language that echoed right-wing talking points about LGBTQ “indoctrination” in schools.
“We need complete transparency in the classroom,” Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said. “No parent should ever wonder what’s being said or talk to their child in a classroom.” Her comment echoed common criticisms of LGBTQ or race-related content in school curricula or books dealing with such topics in school libraries.
“We’ve got to quit spending time on this DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] and CRT [critical race theory] and instead focus on financial literacy, on digital literacy, and on making sure that our kids know what they need to do to have the jobs of the next generation,” she added.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, known best for his promotion of the “Parental Rights in Education” law — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Law” — that bans LGBTQ content and discussions across all grades, said that the country’s education system is “in decline because it’s focused on indoctrination, denying parents rights.”
Trumpeting Florida as the birthplace of the “revival of American education,” DeSantis bragged about eliminating “critical race theory” — the idea that American history and society are rooted in a system of racism and discrimination — from school classrooms and bringing back lessons on civics and the Constitution.
“Florida is showing how it’s done,” he said. “We’re standing with parents, and our kids are benefiting.”
LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD noted that the bulk of candidates who participated in the debate generally have records considered hostile toward the LGBTQ community. It also criticized the candidates for straying from the questions they were asked to include rants that would play well with Republican voters, and for declining to give detailed answers in response to some LGBTQ issues, such as the question about anti-LGBTQ violence.
“Instead of addressing the critical issue of the safety and rights of all Americans, GOP primary candidates ignored the rise in violence and hateful rhetoric aimed at the LGBTQ community and our allies,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement. “Several chose to continue making false claims about transgender people and their basic human rights to safety, health care, and access to education.
“LGBTQ people and topics continue to be weaponized by politicians looking to score political points, and these false and harmful statements must continue to be challenged by all reporters, and our lives and experiences included in political conversations.”
Ellis noted that “UNIVISION’s Ilia Calderón asked an essential question about our vulnerable community. Voters and reporters must demand answers so all Americans can make informed choices about the candidates and their commitment to the truth as well as the health and safety of every citizen.”
GRACE, a nonprofit advocacy organization for transgender rights, criticized the candidates for seeming to tailor their responses to cater only to parents who object to transgender visibility or gender-nonconformity.
“Parents’ rights to protect their children must include all parents, including the parents of transgender children. Parental rights shouldn’t only be for a specific group of parents and not others,” the organization said in a statement. “Policies that ignore the rights of parents of transgender children undermine the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children. Like all children, transgender children have a right to safety. Like all parents, parents of transgender children want their children to be safe and healthy.”
Several parents affiliated with GRACE criticized Pence and Ramaswamy’s calls for bans on all types of gender-affirming care, which have been passed by lawmakers in 21 states, with the state of Arizona banning only surgical interventions.
“Parents’ rights are like free speech — you can’t just be for them when you agree with what’s being said,” Rick Colby, a parent of a transgender child from Columbus, Ohio, said in a statement. “We parents of transgender children love our children dearly and should continue to be allowed to make decisions about their medical care to do what’s best for our children.”
“Parents, yes ALL parents, should be the ones making these decisions for their children. Having the state step in and deny our child’s right to affirming care is in no way protecting our parental rights,” added Perri Kersh, the parent of a transgender child in North Carolina. “It seems downright un-American to treat the parents of transgender kids as second-class citizens, less deserving of our rights to care for our kids.”
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