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What voters said about trans rights in the midterms

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to say again that as we are speaking now, authorities in Colorado haven't yet determined what motivated the person connected to the shooting at Club Q, but there is no question that attacks like these on places that members of the LGBTQ community considered safe provoke terror among people who use them. And it is also the case that this attack took place against the backdrop of a wave of anti-gay and anti-trans rhetoric espoused by some candidates and officials in the course of the most recent midterm elections. That strategy turned out to be a mixed bag. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who championed what critics call the state's "Don't Say Gay" bill, won reelection by nearly 20 points, while Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, one of the candidates who used some of the harshest rhetoric against the transgender community, lost the race for governor by sweeping margins. But there are signs that this won't end with the midterms. Former President Donald Trump used similar rhetoric last week during his 2024 campaign announcement.

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DONALD TRUMP: We will not let men, as an example, participate in women's sports. Is that OK? No men. No men.

MARTIN: We thought it would be useful to consider how anti-gay and anti-trans rhetoric is being used on the campaign trail and why it seems to work in some races, but not others. For that, we call Kate Sosin. They are the LGBTQ+ reporter for The 19th. That's a nonprofit news outlet that focuses on gender policy and politics. And they are with us now. Kate Sosin, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KATE SOSIN: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Could you start with an explanation, for people who don't necessarily follow these issues, of how would you define anti-trans rhetoric?

SOSIN: There's really been two kinds of, I guess, bills or topics that we've seen come up, and this is since the advent of marriage equality in 2015. One, yes, is that sports issue of - we don't want to see men in women's sports, which is really just a way of basically misgendering transgender women and girls and saying that we don't want them to play sports. And then the other big issue that we see is this confusion around what is gender-affirming medical care. So for many, many years now, all of the medical associations have come together and agreed that if a person has gender dysphoria, which basically means that if you don't identify with the gender that you were assigned at birth and you maybe need a medical intervention or change, counseling, anything like that, then here's the care that we all agree on, right? Doctors, scientists - everyone came together years ago and agreed on the care. In recent years, politicians have come together and opposed that care, especially for minors.

MARTIN: So is this mainly a Republican campaign issue? And is there a particular reason that you've identified why it seemed to take off this year?

SOSIN: From everything we can tell, it is a Republican issue and it's part of getting at that extreme, religious right base in the Republican Party. The reality is most people are not actually anti-trans or anti-LGBTQ.

MARTIN: And how do you know that?

SOSIN: So poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Americans support LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, same-sex marriage, and that the more that people actually have LGBTQ people in their lives, the more likely they are to support trans issues. So we have data, and there's quite a bit of it, from the HRC that says, you know, less than 5% of people identified gender-affirming care for transgender youth or participation in sports as a motivating issue for why they voted. What we found, though, is that this is an issue in which people can sort of put it in this bucket of wokeism (ph), right? And that is something that appeals really heavily to the Republican base.

MARTIN: Why do you think it worked in some places and not others?

SOSIN: Well, I think the question is not, you know, why did it work or not, but to what extent did it work, right?

MARTIN: OK. I see.

SOSIN: I don't think that it's the top thing that comes to mind for a lot of voters. I do think that this issue is what is used to make a lot of noise. So I think that Donald Trump gave us the template for, you know, the loud, brash, sort of anti-woke candidate who can make a lot of news and get a lot of attention by saying things that are really outlandish, and it is really outlandish to misgender people. It is really outlandish to try to one-up each other in the media and to get attention. And the more we give these candidates attention for this, there's a reward, there's a payoff. And so I think that we'll see a lot more of this in primaries, but in the general, I don't know that it will fly.

MARTIN: Kate, beyond the rhetoric, there is a real legislative battle taking place around trans rights at the state level. Can you tell us about that?

SOSIN: So this year, legislatures and statehouses introduced 344 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in this session. Twenty-five of them did pass. We have to acknowledge this - it's a backlash, right? There's more LGBTQ people in media than ever before. And in 2018 midterms, they called it a rainbow wave. More than 400 queer candidates were on the ballot. In - this year, four years later, there were 1,065 queer candidates on the ballot, and 340 were elected. So there's just an explosion of representation of queer people. The world is changing, and this is the backlash against it.

MARTIN: So, Kate, before we let you go, you covered the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Florida. I was wondering if there are any takeaways that you have from that experience as you consider the impact of the shooting last night and what impact that might have on political discourse going forward.

SOSIN: We've seen attack after attack on LGBTQ+ people. The Human Rights Campaign is reporting that nearly 1 in 5 types of hate crimes are motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias. And, you know, it's really hard to separate this incident in the minds of folks from this rhetoric. Whether or not this was a hate-motivated incident, we don't know, but it is a really hard moment, I think, for a lot of us to sit in.

MARTIN: That was Kate Sosin. They are the LGBTQ+ reporter for The 19th. That's a nonprofit newsroom that reports on gender politics and policy. Kate Sosin, thanks so much for talking to us on this difficult day.

SOSIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.