The increase in the visibility of transgender people and policies of the Trump administration seen as targeting the community have helped trans issues make their way onto the political platforms of several Democratic presidential hopefuls.
“Before Obama it wasn’t even on the radar,” said Jami K. Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Toledo. “The attention was really on same-sex marriage.”
"Almost any trans person you talk to will say this administration has been catastrophic for trans people."
Mara Keisling, National Center for Transgender Equality
But now, Taylor said, she expects "see more attention to trans issues because of some of the actions the administration has taken,” citing opposition to the application of Title VII protections to LGBTQ employees and attempts to roll back nondiscrimination protections in the Affordable Care Act as just two examples.
In a move applauded by trans people and the broader LGBTQ community, three candidates — Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro; and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — listed their pronouns in their Twitter profiles over the summer. And in mid-August, Warren tweeted that everyone should be able to access “affordable, gender-affirming health care.”
The presidential campaign website of Mayor Pete Buttigieg South Bend, Indiana, who served in Afghanistan with the Navy, features a photo of him in fatigues and pledges to reverse the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the military.
The six candidates currently serving in the Senate — Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Michael Bennett of Colorado, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — have co-sponsored the Equality Act, legislation that would ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit.
In further efforts to make their positions on transgender issues known, several Democratic candidates for president sat down for interviews with Transform the White House, an initiative of the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund.
Mara Keisling, the center's executive director, said the idea behind the initiative is to engage presidential candidates around trans issues and educate transgender people about the candidates and their platforms.
“This is the most important election in everybody’s lifetime,” Keisling told NBC News, noting that numerous actions by the Trump administration have imperiled the rights of transgender children and adults.
From education to health care, the current administration has politicized a number of transgender issues.
“Almost any trans person you talk to will say this administration has been catastrophic for trans people,” Keisling said.
Indeed, all of the candidates Keisling sat down with made sure to distinguish themselves from President Donald Trump on trans issues.
“We see such hostility towards trans communities from this administration,” Booker said during his interview with Keisling. Booker pledged to address the issue of violence against trans women of color, which has claimed at least 17 lives in 2019 so far, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“There are so many areas where just your physical safety if you are a trans American is under threat in this country right now, and I won’t tolerate it,” he said. “I will be a president that is very aggressive in calling out these issues and putting forward the best of who we are to stop this kind of targeting, harassment, violence and murder.”
Klobuchar said she has been “appalled” by the president’s actions, including his attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which includes nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.
“Before the ACA, being transgender was considered a pre-existing condition,” Keisling said. “The ACA has really opened up access to all health care for trans people, not even talking about transition-related care, which is super important.”
Klobuchar also said that in her first 100 days as president, she would replace Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, in part because of her refusal to enforce Title IX protections for transgender students.
“The educational thing is really important to parents of trans kids, trans kids and people who care about children,” Keisling said.
"LGBTQ people and allies should look to the specificity of each candidates’ plans to advance trans equality, not just the platitudes."
Annise Parker, LGBTQ Victory Fund
In his interview with Keisling, Castro distinguished himself from Trump on immigration, an issue Professor Taylor said is much more likely to feature prominently in the general election.
Castro decried the detention of transgender individuals at the border, saying that they are among the most vulnerable to violence during the migration process. “I have called for ending that kind of detention in our country,” he said.
Sanders, during his Transform the White House interview, pledged leadership on the Equality Act, legislation Trump opposes. The bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights law to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
“Right now we have a president who is a leader: He is leading this country in divisiveness and hatred, and that is a very sad sad state of affairs for the United States,” Sanders said.
“As president of the United States, you will see me as a president who tries to do exactly the opposite of what Trump is doing,” Sanders continued. “He tries to divide us. We are going to try to bring people together, and I think with good leadership we can go a long way in doing that.”
‘On safe ground’
For Democrats, taking pro-transgender stances on a number of issues appears to be a relatively safe bet. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released in June found that support for trans rights is growing: Sixty-two percent of Americans say they are more supportive of transgender rights now than they were five years ago. This support, however, is sharply divided by party, with 76 percent of Democrats and 47percent of Republicans reporting increased support.
Public opinion, though, is firmly against the Trump administration’s ban on military service. Taylor and her colleagues found that majorities in every state opposed the ban.
“For Democrats, by attacking the military service ban, they are going to be on safe ground,” Taylor said.
Americans are also behind nondiscrimination protections for transgender people, with over 70 percent of Americans saying they support legislation protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing.
“Those issues that look more like civil rights policies tend to have more support,” Taylor said, while there will be a reluctance to address more contentious policies — "restrooms, sport, provision of funds for gender confirmation."
Donald Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said there is a kind of irony for the Democratic presidential hopefuls when it comes to trans issues. Because the majority of them have taken pro-trans stances on many topics, they can become "nonissues.”
“They can’t distinguish themselves from each other on this issue,” Haider-Markel said. “So there isn’t too much advantage to spending too much time talking about it.”
While presidential candidates have already defined their positions on trans issues for the most part, down-ballot races could see more contention. “There are candidates announcing and just taking a random shot at trans people," Keisling said.
For example, in a recent TV ad, Ralph Abraham, a Republican running for governor in Louisiana, took a swipe at the transgender and nonbinary community, saying, "As a doctor, I can assure you there are only two genders."
Some candidates for House, Senate and state-level offices may try to capitalize on the country’s ambivalence on some transgender issues, like bathroom access, Haider-Markel said.
“I would expect this issue will come up a lot more in particular parts of the country where Republicans are going to try to beat their opponents over the head with ideas of ‘men going into women’s bathrooms,’” he said.
Researchers have found Americans are more ambivalent about issues relating to the body.
Haider-Markel expects that Democratic candidates will stay away from issues of bathrooms or sports participation, because the public is more divided.
“When you get to the issue of bathrooms, there is no majority on either side … Plenty of people will say they don’t know or are unsure,” he said. “Even amongst Democrats, there is not overwhelming support.”
Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, now the president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee supporting LGBTQ candidates, said that since the Democratic presidential candidates generally support transgender nondiscrimination policies, it is “unlikely to be a divisive issue during the primary.”
However, she noted, “the level of knowledge about trans people and the detail in the trans-related policies proposed vary widely among the candidates.”
Indeed, candidates have already made some missteps. In the first Democratic debate, Castro noted that transgender people need access to reproductive health care. However, his reference to “trans females” needing this type of care had to be corrected and clarified later by his campaign, explaining that what he meant was that trans men and nonbinary people who may not identify as women may need access to abortion services.
“If the candidates really aren't conversant in the language, they shouldn't be talking about it, but they feel some pressure to do so,” Haider-Markel said.
This led some commentators to wonder if candidates are “transpandering” — appealing to transgender voters without the sincerity or background knowledge required to effectively represent the constituency.
“LGBTQ people and allies should look to the specificity of each candidates’ plans to advance trans equality, not just the platitudes,” Parker said.
However, Keisling is not particularly worried about the issue of pandering. “Asking candidates how they feel about us should not be considered pandering,” she said. She described the candidates she spoke with, including Castro, as “incredibly fluent” and “totally empathetic.”
“Everyone we’ve interviewed so far knows trans people,” Keisling said. “These folks know trans people and they value the trans people in their lives and have taken the time to learn about the marginalization and what they can do to help.”
For Keisling, the bottom line is that everyone should care about transgender people and issues.
“We are important,” she said. “If you don’t care about trans people, you are not a caring person.”