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The big myth about the supposed 'anti-trans' backlash

Chalking it up to just culture war ‘messaging’ misses the real story.

Three new polls provide evidence that a coordinated, deliberate assault on trans rights — in state legislatures, in the courts and through the media — has increased the anti-trans views of white evangelicals and Republicans in just two years. Yet, too many observers — from media outlets to the pollsters themselves — are mistaking this shift for a broader, more organic anti-trans backlash.

A recent poll from Gallup, for example, ran under the headline, “Social Conservatism in U.S. Highest in About a Decade,” with the firm reporting it found more Americans identify as socially conservative now than just two years ago. But Gallup’s own numbers show these changes are overwhelmingly among Republicans. While in 2021, 60% of Republicans identified as conservative or very conservative on social issues, today 74% do. But there was virtually no change among Democrats and just a 5% increase among independents, from 24% to 29%.

Chalking it up to just culture war “messaging” misses the real story.

Gallup also asked whether respondents believe changing one’s gender is “morally wrong,” finding a 4% increase since 2021, to 55% today, who believe this. Setting aside whether it is morally wrong to craft a polling question that asks whether someone’s existence is “morally wrong,” the most significant change in views came among Republicans, with an 8 point increase from 76% in 2021 to 84% this year.

An NPR/Marist College poll published this week similarly found a 16 point uptick in the number of respondents saying “the only way to define male and female in society is by the sex listed on a person’s original birth certificate.” NPR recognized a “huge political divide” on this question, concluding. “Conservatives continue to use gender-identity politics as a culture-war issue, and they have appeared to make inroads with their messaging, the survey found.”

But chalking it up to just culture war “messaging” misses the real story. Marist’s demographic breakdown finds an equal swing between 2022 and 2023 from independents and Republicans. And the latter group remains disproportionately almost 30% more likely to offer the more conservative view.

Aside from Republicans, the NPR/Marist poll found that the most anti-trans demographic group was white evangelicals. This echoes a poll published earlier this month by the Public Religion Research Institute. That survey found that white evangelicals are “notably less likely than other religious groups to report that they would be comfortable” to learn that a friend is transgender (only 22%) and are “less likely than nearly all other religious groups to say they would be comfortable with a friend telling them that they use gender-neutral pronouns (20%) or pronouns that might not match their perceived gender appearance (18%).” The poll found that 92% of white evangelicals believe there are only two genders, a 6% increase since 2021.

This rightward trajectory in recent months occurred as Christian right interest groups and political operatives pushed an unprecedented number of bills through state legislatures to deprive trans kids of their rights and health care and place them at the center of a right-wing assault on supposed “wokeness” and “indoctrination” in public education.

Too often, media coverage fails to dig deeper into the religious ideology driving the activists behind this anti-trans crusade.

In February 2021, Focus on the Family’s policy arm, the Family Policy Alliance, along with Alliance Defending Freedom and Heritage Foundation, launched the “Promise to America’s Children,” which claimed to be “a national movement of parents and lawmakers to oppose legislation that harms children” and “to create and support laws that will protect children’s health, safety, and families.” Dr. Michelle Cretella, CEO of the American College of Pediatricians, a religious right group that purports to advance medical evidence against gender affirming care, spoke at a Heritage Foundation event in 2021 launching the Promise to America’s Children. She falsely called gender affirming care “institutionalized child abuse … reinforcing their gender sexual confusion and then experimenting on them with toxic drugs and mutilating surgeries.”

A month later, the first ban on gender-affirming care for minors, the “Save Adolescents from Experimentation,” or SAFE Act, became law in Arkansas. The state Family Policy Alliance affiliate, and an alumna of a Family Policy Alliance training program for Christian lawmakers, Republican Rep. Robin Lundstrum, worked together to craft the bill and shepherd it through. As intended by the Family Policy Alliance, Republican lawmakers introduced copycat bills in other state legislatures.

According to The Washington Post, “a tsunami” of more than 400 anti-trans bills, including sports bans, health care bans and other restrictions, have been introduced in state legislatures this year, more than the previous four years combined. Gallup seems to suggest instead that bills like these emerged out of an increasingly conservative citizenry’s demand for them. Its report states, “Greater social conservatism may be fostering an environment more favorable to passing conservative-leaning social legislation, especially in Republican-dominated states.” Gallup pointed to, among other things, new laws that have “limited choices for transgender youth in sports participation and healthcare, and placed prohibitions on what topics can be discussed in classroom settings.”

This analysis reverses cause and effect. This wide-ranging campaign was conceived by interest groups who sought to persuade not just conservative voters, but also the broader public. These polls show that in the wake of this nationwide campaign, Republicans and conservative Christians have taken cues from their leaders and have become more anti-trans than they were just two years ago. 

Too often media coverage fails to dig deeper into the religious ideology driving the activists behind this anti-trans crusade. As Graph Massara wrote in a recent analysis of news coverage of trans issues in the Columbia Journalism Review, news outlets have published a disproportionate amount of coverage of “an incredibly small population of young ‘detransitioners,’” thereby doing a disservice to readers by making the phenomenon appear more common than it actually is. This coverage then raises doubts about gender-affirming care among a poorly informed readership, and further provides fodder to anti-trans activists and legislators, who showcase these individuals in conservative media and legislative hearings. A 2022 piece in The New York Times amplified right-wing efforts to stoke doubts about the safety and efficacy of gender-affirming care, and failed to mention the key role the Christian right has played in pushing for bans on this care.

Fortunately, not everyone has been fooled. This week, a federal judge in Arkansas ruled the SAFE Act unconstitutional, finding it violated trans children's rights to due process and equal protection of the law, and the free speech rights of health care providers. Judge James Moody found, based on hearing eight days of testimony and evidence, that “transgender care is not experimental care.”

Under federal rules governing expert testimony, he declined to give weight to some of the state’s purported expert witnesses in favor of the SAFE Act because they lacked necessary qualifications or supporting proof. He further found that they had been recruited by Alliance Defending Freedom to testify to state legislatures in favor of bans on gender affirming care. ADF, Moody wrote, “is not a scientific organization, but a Christian-based legal advocacy group.”

Moody’s opinion painstakingly lays out how the SAFE Act was the product of a concerted, unscientific and religiously motivated campaign to cut trans kids off from their essential health care. Other lawmakers, judges and outside observers should take heed of his prudence, and bring similar scrutiny to all attempts to smear trans Americans or limit their rights. Americans are not spontaneously becoming more anti-trans. These changes are part of a plan about which Americans need to be much better informed.