GOP Attacks on Trans Girls Were Never Just About Sports


Republican lawmakers introduced nearly 70 bills last year to prevent trans kids’ participation on sports teams, arguing that trans girls would have an unfair advantage in competition. This year, 29 states have considered such bills. 

Here’s the thing: These attacks on trans girls were never just about sport. They are part of a broader right-wing campaign that seeks to deny trans kids equal opportunity—and even access to gender-affirming health care. 

That broader agenda was on display after Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union who puts on the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, called for “compassion” for Lia Thomas, a 22-year-old trans swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. “No matter what one thinks of Lia’s ability to swim with women her story deserves our compassion. It will be interesting to hear Lia’s [point of view] in 30 years,” Schlapp wrote on Twitter.

 Right-wing politicians and pundits quickly slammed Schlapp for expressing compassion and attacked Thomas for hurting “real”—that is, cis—women.

“Just no,” right-wing commentator John Cardillo wrote on Twitter. He went on to refer to Thomas using male pronouns. “Have compassion for the real women whose college athletic experiences he’s selfishly destroying,” Cardillo wrote. “He’s a spoiled brat. No conservative should ever enable this. No sane person should promote this insanity.”

Matt Walsh—the host of The Daily Wire’s podcast who tried to lure trans kids into participating in a fake documentary earlier this year—said that by using “her” in reference to Thomas, Schlapp had “already lost” and “surrendered reality to the Left.”

“There’s nothing left to fight for,” he added with a dramatic flourish.

Jenna Ellis—a former Trump attorney who penned a coup memo—accused the GOP establishment of caving to the “LGBT agenda” by using Thomas’ proper pronouns. Ellis, who considers anti-LGBTQ activist Michael Farris of Alliance Defending Freedom a mentor, called on conservatives to abandon CPAC. 

A slew of other attacks on Schlapp were reported by The Daily Mail, which ran pre-transition photos of Thomas.

Schlapp, for his part, made sure to clarify that he has no desire to normalize trans people’s experiences, replying to Ellis, “We score the bills aimed at protecting girls sports and our kids from gender confusion indoctrination. I don’t wish to normalize it.” In a follow-up statement released Tuesday, he said, “The left’s war on gender must be confronted,” and he suggested that it was an accident that he used Thomas’ proper pronouns.  

So why are conservatives so alarmed by Schlapp’s call for compassion? Recognizing the dignity and humanity of trans people would make it harder for them to demonize and fearmonger.  

Behind the slate of bills attacking trans girls’ ability to play sports are a host of right-wing and religious-right groups that drafted them, encouraged lawmakers to take them up, and laid the groundwork for their passage through disinformation and pressure campaigns, a Right Wing Watch investigation found last year. 

The anti-LGBTQ American Principles Project has spent millions on ad campaigns fearmongering about trans girls, depicting them as boys, with the suggestion that parents need to protect their daughters. Alliance Defending Freedom—a multimillion-dollar litigation-and-legislation shop that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group—drafted model legislation to keep trans kids from playing on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity. And the Heritage Foundation helped organize these efforts, contributing their own fearmongering about trans girls in girls’ locker rooms.  

These groups are a part of “Promise to America’s Children,” a coalition of 22 groups dedicated to fighting “gender ideology,” which paints the advance of women’s and LGBTQ rights as a threat to the Christian right’s narrow vision of “the natural family.”

The coalition’s positions go beyond not wanting trans girls to play sports: These groups want to prevent public schools from teaching sex education, to encourage schools to out LGBTQ kids to their parents, and to prevent trans kids from accessing gender-affirming health care. They stand in opposition to the Equality Act. And should any state or federal legislator be interested in how to make these goals become law, the coalition offers model legislation. 

What we’ve seen just this year alone makes it clear that the buck doesn’t stop at legislating trans girls out of girls’ sports. Eighteen states have introduced bills this year to limit trans kids’ access to gender-affirming health care. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state’s child and protection services to investigate gender-affirming care as “child abuse,” a development for which the American Principles Project took credit and thanked Steve Bannon for his help. The Idaho House passed a bill Tuesday that would make gender-affirming care a felony, punishable by life in prison for anyone who helps a child travel out of state for such care. That same day, a Florida bill that limits what can be taught about sexual orientation and gender identity (and that allows parents to sue schools and teachers who teach these topics), was sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Alarming, revamped rhetoric has proliferated among conservatives who suggest that people who talk about their sexuality or gender identity or take pride in their LGBTQ identity are “grooming” children. Among those participating in such rhetoric is Matt Walsh who, it’s worth noting, is now participating in the redemption of far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos, who made comments widely seen as condoning pedophilia.

The swift backlash to Schlapp’s call for compassion and the rapid spread of anti-LGBTQ legislation illustrate that demonization and fearmongering are central to these activists’ goal to stop and reverse the advancement of LGBTQ rights.