As Republican-led states have enacted an unprecedented number of anti-transgender bills in recent months, alarm bells have gone off within LGBTQ+ communities — and at the White House.

White House officials have held numerous behind-the-scenes discussions with Democrats and trans rights advocates on how to fight back. In phone calls and face-to-face meetings, they have discussed the legal grounds for challenging the bills. The Human Rights Campaign, a top LGBTQ+ group, has been in near-daily contact with Biden officials and congressional Democrats to plot strategy.

Publicly, the administration’s approach to transgender issues has sometimes been more cautious. Reaction from advocates was mixed when Biden’s Education Department proposed a rule in April that would prohibit schools from issuing blanket bans on transgender athletes but also allow them to impose restrictions in individual cases. Transgender advocates say the administration could be doing more to speed up anti-discrimination rules.

The political sensitivity and peril of the issue were highlighted when a trans activist posted a video of herself and two others topless at last weekend’s White House Pride event. Conservatives accused Biden of degrading the presidency, while the White House denounced the behavior as “inappropriate and disrespectful’ and banned those in the video from future events.

Some trans groups also criticized the activists. “This behavior was inappropriate, and it is important to understand that the actions of a single individual do not define an entire community,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center on Transgender Equality. “Transgender people have families and cherish family-friendly events just like anyone else.”

Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D) said Biden’s team, while generally supportive of trans rights, missed the mark on the athlete rule and failed to recognize that compromising with anti-trans activists can embolden them. Democrats in Washington need to push harder to pass the Equality Act, a measure aimed at protecting trans people from discrimination, she said.

“The burden for protecting vulnerable communities, including the trans community, should not fall on one cog in government,” Zephyr said. “It cannot rest solely on the state legislatures. It cannot rest solely in the courts.”

Zephyr, who was censured recently by GOP colleagues after saying they have “blood on [their] hands” for supporting a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, was among 14 trans and nonbinary state lawmakers who wrote Biden to protest the proposed athlete rule. A dozen Democratic attorneys general, led by New York’s Letitia James, urged the administration to adopt stronger protections for trans athletes.

White House officials defend the rule as a fair-minded effort to balance trans rights with concerns about individual cases. Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer and transgender woman, has attracted furious controversy after turning in strong performances in several meets, for example.

Many LGBTQ+ activists say Biden’s support of trans rights far surpasses that of any previous president. He was the first president to use the word “transgender” in an address to a joint session of Congress and the first to mark Trans Day of Visibility at the White House. Biden’s team plans to bring more trans people to the White House to humanize the issue for those on the fence, aides say.

“I want every member of the trans community to know that we see you,” the president said in a written statement on Transgender Day of Visibility earlier this year. “You’re each made in the image of God, and deserve love, dignity, and respect. You make America stronger, and we’re with you.”

In private conversations, Biden becomes visibly animated about transgender rights, his staffers say. One aide recalled an Oval Office meeting last year when Biden, unprompted, rattled off the number of trans Americans killed the year before.

“They’re doing more than any administration,” said Cal Dobbs, a trans ultramathon runner. Still, he added, “That’s a very low bar.”

At a recent gathering of trans leaders ahead of the White House’s Pride celebration, advocates expressed conflicting feelings about the administration. A White House official briefed the group on new initiatives it’s undertaking, but Devon Ojeda, senior organizer for the National Center on Transgender Equality, rattled off a list of those it has not yet accomplished.

Ojeda cited a push to reverse a Trump-era rule that stripped trans people of protections against health-care discrimination and called for faster action to give veterans more access to gender-confirming surgery. “I want to acknowledge they’ve done a lot of great things,” Ojeda said. “But we need more.”

Republicans say Biden is out of touch with voters on this issue. Most Americans have strong reservations about gender transition, they say, and especially about the notion of allowing transgender women into women’s sports or bathrooms.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is one among numerous GOP governors who have signed bills prohibiting minors from receiving gender-affirming treatment and banning transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity. “A woman should not be in a locker room having to worry about someone from the opposite sex being in their locker room,” DeSantis said recently.

After the White House recently flew a Pride flag with white, pink and light blue stripes to represent the trans community, online fury spread through GOP circles. During a recent speech in North Carolina, former president Donald Trump took note when his endorsement of anti-trans measures prompted a standing ovation.

“It’s amazing how strongly people feel about that. I’m talking about cutting taxes and people go like that,” Trump said, mimicking half-hearted applause. “But if I talk about transgender, everyone goes crazy. Who would have thought? Five years ago, you didn’t know what the hell it was.”

Liberal activists and some on Biden’s team acknowledge they have been caught off guard by the surge of anti-trans legislation. “We have all been taken aback by the intensity with which we’re being attacked at the state level,” said Maria Bruno, public policy director for Equality Ohio.

Biden’s active but careful approach highlights the broader dilemma he faces as Republicans seize on volatile social issues heading into the 2024 campaign. Biden must energize a progressive Democratic base that polls suggest is lukewarm toward him, while also peeling off centrist and conservative voters who may be skeptical of gender fluidity.

The posture also reflects Biden’s own duality as a figure who has been a centrist Democrat for much of his long career but is increasingly embracing his party’s growing liberalism.

As a senator in the 1990s, Biden voted to block recognition of same-sex marriages. But he has shifted on LGBTQ+ issues, aides say, pointing to his off-the-cuff comment in 2012 supporting same-sex marriage, which pushed President Barack Obama to announce his own support.

Liberals argue that embracing LGBTQ+ rights is a winning political issue, noting that several Republican candidates lost in the midterms after taking aim at trans people. They cite Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz, for example, who defeated Daniel Kelly, whose supporters were urged on Election Day to “end trans madness.”

David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s government affairs director, said Republican candidates spend more time talking about anti-trans policies in primary races than general election campaigns, suggesting their position does not appeal to independents or Democrats.

“It’s really about focusing on a narrow slice of their base,” Stacy said.

But Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, said trans issues were not decisive in the last election and are unlikely to be so in the next one. “In 2024, my sense is that those issues will be well down the priority list compared to the state of the economy, the war in Ukraine, character issues around age,” Ayres said.

Polls suggest Americans’ attitudes on trans-related policies are mixed. Most oppose discrimination against trans people, but many draw the line at sports inclusion and gender-affirming treatment for children and teens, according to recent polls. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted last fall, 57 percent of adults said a person’s gender is determined from birth.

LGBTQ+ advocates say that poll is an outlier and that Americans’ attitudes on trans issues are evolving. Bruno said she has met with Ohio lawmakers to dispel misinformation, for example making it clear that gender-affirming care is not “genital mutilation” but can include a variety of interventions including socialization, puberty blockers and hormone therapies.

More than 150,000 people have weighed in on the administration’s proposed rule on transgender athletes, and their comments reflect the country’s sharp divisions.

“As a mental health counselor, in Utah, I am seeing the negative impacts of legislated trans-negativity and gender non-conforming discrimination daily,” wrote one commenter. “Please, please, please protect equality and justice for all, especially our trans, intersex and non-binary siblings.”

Another forcefully disagreed. “By allowing a Biological male to compete against Biological females provides an unfair advantage,” this person wrote.

White House staffers working on trans issues say a central goal is to fight restrictive bills in red states while enacting anti-discrimination laws in blue states.

Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, said she contacted the White House after reports that her state’s ban on gender-affirming care for minors has also been restricting the treatment available to adults.

Biden administration officials must do “everything in their power” to match Republicans’ intensity on trans issues, she said. “I’m hopeful to see federal engagement to whatever degree is possible,’ Eskamani said. ‘But I also know that this is a White House that operates with a lot of caution.”

Biden’s associates say he has been influenced by his friendship with his former aide Sarah McBride, who became the first openly trans state senator in U.S. history when she was sworn in to the Delaware Senate in 2021.

The White House recently announced several efforts to protect trans people and other groups, including safety training for community centers and health providers and advisory information for mental-health professionals who care for transgender youth.

The Republican-controlled House, in contrast, has advanced a national ban on transgender women competing against cisgender women and girls, a measure Biden has threatened to veto.

Much of the battle is unfolding at the state level, where red and blue states are taking starkly different approaches.

A dozen states, including Maryland, have enacted protections for trans people, while states like Texas have moved to restrict transition care for minors and prevent transgender athletes from playing on teams reflecting their identity.

Texas state Rep. Jessica González (D) said that has made things so difficult for families with transgender children that some now plan to leave the state. “It’s a full-on assault on the LGBTQ+ community, in particular the trans community,” she said.

But conservatives say they want to protect people from procedures that can be difficult or impossible to reverse later. Florida state Rep. Randy Fine (R), for example, championed a bill that would require trans adults to get their treatments from doctors, rather than nurse practitioners or physician assistants.

“Our bills protect children,” Fine said. “The people who are going to be on the wrong side of history are the people who believe it is okay to mutilate and castrate children.” (Many medical experts say gender-affirming care for children rarely includes surgery.)

In Georgia, which passed its own gender-affirming care ban, Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the issue could become more contentious as Republicans pursue restrictive measures into the next election cycle.

“There’s a tsunami of hate directed at transgender kids,” Graham said. “But I do believe that there is hope in turning the tide on this.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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