His campaign is promising a more repressive and dangerous America.
After decades of gains in public acceptance, the LGBTQ community is confronting a climate in which political leaders are once again calling them weirdos and predators. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate the parents of transgender children; Governor Ron DeSantis has tried to purge Florida classrooms of books that acknowledge the reality that some people aren’t straight or cisgender; Missouri has imposed rules that limit access to gender-affirming care for trans people of all ages. Donald Trump is promising to nationalize such efforts. He doesn’t just want to surveil, miseducate, and repress children who are exploring their emerging identities. He wants to interfere in the private lives of millions of adults, revoking freedoms that any pluralistic society should protect.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump seemed to think that feigning sympathy for queer people was good PR. “I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens,” he promised. Then, while in office, he oversaw a broad rollback of LGBTQ protections, removing gender identity and sexuality from federal nondiscrimination provisions regarding health care, employment, and housing. His Defense Department restricted soldiers’ right to transition and banned trans people from enlisting; his State Department refused to issue visas to the same-sex domestic partners of diplomats. Yet when seeking reelection in 2020, Trump still made a show of throwing a Pride-themed rally.
Now, recognizing that red-state voters have been energized by anti-queer demagoguery, he’s not even pretending to be tolerant. “These people are sick; they are deranged,” Trump said during a speech, amid a rant about transgender athletes in June. When the audience cheered at his mention of “transgender insanity,” he marveled, “It’s amazing how strongly people feel about that. You see, I’m talking about cutting taxes, people go like that.” He pantomimed weak applause. “But you mention transgender, everyone goes crazy.” The rhetoric has become a fixture of his rallies.
Trump is now running on a 10-point “Plan to Protect Children From Left-Wing Gender Insanity.” Its aim is not simply to interfere with parents’ rights to shape their kids’ health and education in consultation with doctors and teachers; it’s to effectively end trans people’s existence in the eyes of the government. Trump will call on Congress to establish a national definition of gender as being strictly binary and immutable from birth. He also wants to use executive action to cease all federal “programs that promote the concept of sex and gender transition at any age.” If enacted, those measures could open the door to all sorts of administrative cruelties—making it impossible, for example, for someone to change their gender on their passport. Low-income trans adults could be blocked from using Medicaid to pay for treatment that doctors have deemed vital to their well-being.
The Biden administration reinstated many of the protections Trump had eliminated, and the judiciary has thus far curbed the most extreme aspects of the conservative anti-trans agenda. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that, contrary to the assertions of Trump’s Justice Department, the Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ people from employment discrimination. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the investigations that Governor Abbott had ordered in Texas. But in a second term, Trump would surely seek to appoint more judges opposed to queer causes. He would also resume his first-term efforts to promote an interpretation of religious freedom that allows for unequal treatment of minorities. In May 2019, his Housing and Urban Development Department proposed a measure that would have permitted federally funded homeless shelters to turn away transgender individuals on the basis of religious freedom. A 2023 Supreme Court decision affirming a Christian graphic designer’s refusal to work with gay couples will invite more attempts to narrow the spaces and services to which queer people are guaranteed access.
The social impact of Trump’s reelection would only further encourage such discrimination. He has long espoused old-fashioned ideas about what it means to look and act male and female. Now the leader of the Republican Party is using his platform to push the notion that people who depart from those ideas deserve punishment. As some Republicans have engaged in queer-bashing rhetoric in recent years—including the libel that queerness is pedophilia by another name—hate crimes motivated by gender identity and sexuality have risen, terrifying a population that was never able to take its safety for granted. Victims of violence have included people who were merely suspected of nonconformity, such as the 59-year-old woman in Indiana who was killed in 2023 by a neighbor who believed her to be “a man acting like a woman.”
If Trump’s stoking of gender panic proves to be a winning national strategy, everyday deviation from outmoded and rigid norms could invite scorn or worse. And children will grow up in a more repressive and dangerous America than has existed in a long time.
This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “Trump Will Stoke a Gender Panic.”