Days after the Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion, Michigan’s Republican candidates for governor were asked if it was also time to roll back constitutional protections for gay rights.
None of the five candidates came to the defense of same-sex marriage.
“They need to revisit it all,” one candidate, Garrett Soldano, said at the debate, in Warren, Mich.
“Michigan’s Constitution,” said another candidate, Ralph Rebandt, “says that for the betterment of society, marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Since the Supreme Court decision last month overturning Roe v. Wade, anti-gay rhetoric and calls to roll back established LGBTQ protections have grown bolder. And while Republicans in Congress appear deeply divided about same-sex marriage — nearly 50 House Republicans on Tuesday joined Democrats in supporting a bill that would recognize same-sex marriages at the federal level — many Republican officials and candidates across the country have made attacking gay and transgender rights a party norm this midterm season.
In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton said after the Roe reversed that he would be “willing and able” to defend at the Supreme Court any law criminalizing sodomy enacted by the Legislature. Before that, the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform that calls homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice.”
In Utah, the Republican president of the State Senate, Stuart Adams, said he would support his state’s joining with others to press the Supreme Court to reverse the right of same-sex couples to wed. In Arizona, Kari Lake, a candidate for governor endorsed by Donald J. Trump, affirmed in a June 29 debate her support for a bill barring children from drag shows — the latest target of supercharged rhetoric on the right.
And in Michigan’s governor’s race, Mr. Soldano released an ad belittling the use of specific pronouns by those who do not conform to traditional gender roles (“My pronouns: Conservative/Patriot”) and accusing “the woke groomer mafia” of wanting to indoctrinate children.
Some Democrats and advocates for LGBTQ communities say the Republican attacks have deepened their concerns that the overturning of Roe could undermine other cases built on the same legal foundation — the right to privacy provided in the Fourteenth Amendment — and lead to increases in hate crimes as well as suicides of LGBTQ youth.
“The dominoes have started to fall, and they won’t just stop at one,” said Attorney General Dana Nessel of Michigan, a Democrat who was the first openly gay person elected to statewide office there. “People should see the connection between reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, interracial marriage — these things are all connected legally.”
This year, Republican-led states have already passed numerous restrictions on transgender young people and on school discussions of sexual orientation and gender.
In June, Louisiana became the 18th state, all with GOP-led legislatures, to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity. Laws to prohibit transitioning medical treatments to people under 18, such as puberty blockers, hormones and surgeries — which advocates call gender-affirming care — have been enacted by four states. And after Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a law in March banning classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, more than a dozen other states moved to imitate it.
In all, over 300 bills to restrict LGBTQ rights have been introduced this year in 23 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.
The bills under consideration focus not on same-sex marriage but on transgender youth, on restricting school curriculums and on allowing groups to refuse services to LGBTQ people based on religious faith. Most of the measures have no chance of passage because of opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Still, the Human Rights Campaign had characterized 2021 as the worst year in recent history for anti-LGBTQ laws after states passed seven measures banning transgender athletes from sports teams that match their gender identity. So far in 2022, those numbers are already higher.
Officials and television commentators on the right have accused opponents of some of those new restrictions of seeking to “sexualize” or “groom” children. Grooming refers to the tactics used by sexual predators to manipulate their victims, but it has become deployed widely on the right to brand gay and transgender people as child molesters, evoking an earlier era of homophobia.
Some conservative advocacy groups that poured resources into transgender restrictions insist that they are not focused on challenging the 2015 Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. But many LGBTQ advocates say they believe their hard-won rights are under attack.
“The far right is emboldened in a way they have not been in five decades,” said State Representative Daniel Hernandez Jr. of Arizona, a Democrat and a co-founder of the Legislature’s LGBTQ caucus. “In addition to trying to create even more restrictions on abortion, they are going after the LGBTQ community even more.”
Republicans say the laws focused on transgender youth are not transphobic — as the left sees them — but protect girls’ sports and put the brakes on irreversible medical treatments.
They said the issues have the power to peel away centrist voters, who polling shows are less committed to transgender rights than to same-sex marriage. A Washington Post-University of Maryland survey in May found 55 percent of Americans oppose letting transgender girls compete on girls’ high school teams. In a Gallup poll last year, 51 percent of Americans said changing one’s gender is “morally wrong.”
“I believe these are enormous issues for swing voters and moderates,” said Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, a group that opposes civil rights protections for LGBTQ people and plans to spend up to $12 million on ads before November.
One of the group’s ads goes after Representative Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican facing a primary challenge next month, for co-sponsoring a House bill that peers anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people with exemptions for religious groups. Saying the bill “would put men in girls’ locker rooms,” the ad asks, “Would you trust Meijer with your daughter?”
By contrast, Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, said “hate has no place” in the state after he vetoed an anti-transgender sports bill. Had it become law, he said, the ban would have “a devastating impact on a vulnerable population already at greater risk of bullying and depression.”
A 2022 survey by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group, found that nearly one in five transgender or gender-nonconforming young people had attempted suicide in the past year. LGBTQ youth who feel accepted in their schools and community reported lower rates of suicide attempts.
The surge in transgender restrictions reflects a reversal of fortune for social conservatives from just a few years ago, when a focus on “bathroom bills” produced a backlash. A North Carolina law passed in 2016 requiring people to use public restrooms matching their birth gender contributed to the defeat of the Republican governor who signed it.
“It made a lot of folks wary of going after transgender rights,” said Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist for the ACLU who is transgender.
But that changed with the focus on sports teams and transitioning medicine for minors, she said.
On the right, the transgender restrictions have been pushed by advocacy groups that have long opposed LGBTQ rights and in some cases consulted in the drafting of legislation. And on the left, the wave of legislation has been used by liberal organizations to mobilize their base, fund-raise and help turn out voters in midterm primaries in a hostile national political climate for Democrats.
In Arizona, where Republicans control the Legislature and the governor’s office, a law enacted this year bars trans girls from competing on sports teams aligned with their gender and on transitioning surgery for people under 18.
“My colleagues on the right have spent more time demonizing me and the LGBTQ community than I’ve ever seen,” said Mr. Hernandez, the state representative, who is running in the Democratic primary for Congress on Aug. 2 in a Tucson-area seat.
In the Arizona primary for governor, Ms. Lake, the Trump-endorsed candidate who is leading in some polls, seized on a recent uproar over drag performers — in response to a viral video of children at a Dallas drag show — to demonstrate her sharp shift to the right.
“They kicked God out of schools and welcomed the Drag Queens,” Ms. Lake said in a tweet last month. “They took down our Flag and replaced it with a rainbow.” And Republican leaders in the Arizona Legislature, denouncing “sexual perversion,” called for a law barring children from drag shows.
But a drag performer in Phoenix, Rick Stevens, accused Ms. Lake, who he said had been a friend for years, of hypocrisy. “I’ve performed for Kari’s birthday, I’ve performed in her home (with children present) and I’ve performed for her at some of the seediest bars in Phoenix,” he wrote on Instagram.
Mr. Stevens, who goes by the stage name Barbra Seville, posted photos of the two of them together — one with Ms. Lake next to him while he is dressed in drag, and another when he is in drag and wearing Halloween-style skull makeup while she poses alongside him dressed as Elvis.
In a debate, Ms. Lake insisted Mr. Stevens was lying about performing at her home and her campaign threatened to sue him for defamation.
In Michigan, meanwhile, Ms. Nessel, the Democratic attorney general, joked at a civil rights conference in June that drag queens “make everything better,” and added, “A drag queen for every school.” In response, Tudor Dixon, a Republican candidate for governor, called this month for legislation letting parents sue school districts that host drag shows, despite there being no evidence that a district had ever done so.
“We’re taking the first step today to protecting children,” Ms. Dixon said.