As the 2024 election nears, Republicans have made clear that transgender rights are the next battle in the GOP's culture wars.
The Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, which the House is expected to vote on Thursday and would bar transgender student athletes from participating on women's school sports teams, is one of hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills being pushed by conservative lawmakers across the country.
"They will say and do anything to earn a buck to inch them closer to that primary election victory," said Justin Unga, director of strategic initiatives for Human Rights Campaign, which advocates against LGBTQ discrimination.
More than 1.6 million Americans identify as transgender, about one-fifth of them under 18 years old. Their identities have become a rallying cry for the right, thrusting them onto the political battlefield as Republicans seek to invigorate voters ahead of the 2024 election.
Though anti-trans issues have exploded as a key messaging strategy for Republicans, experts in politics and gender studies told USA TODAY that the issue may bolster the party's culture wars more significantly than its voter base heading into the next election.
"(Anti-trans messaging) is successful on the social level," said Alithia Zamantakis, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern University's Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing. "On a political level, it's not paying off as well."
Record anti-trans legislation in 2023
GOP lawmakers have upped anti-trans rhetoric and legislative efforts in recent months as the party barrels toward the 2024 primary elections.
Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., on Tuesday grilled Education Secretary Miguel Cardona over what it means to be a "woman," a line of questioning GOP lawmakers have used to criticize the Biden administration by calling into question the legitimacy of gender identity.
The GOP-led House passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act last month, which would require schools to get parental consent before honoring a student's request to be identified by different gender pronouns.
Though anti-trans sentiment has always existed, 2020 marked a turning point for the GOP when the Supreme Court decided that discriminating against an individual on the basis of their gender identity or sexuality does violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to Jason Pierceson, a University of Illinois-Springfield professor of the legal and political issues relating to sexuality and gender.
"A lot of conservatives were shocked by that, because they had argued in that litigation that there's really no such thing as transgender identity, gender identity or transgender people," he said. "That pushed them, I think, to turn to the states to enact their policy agenda."
More than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills, some 210 of them targeting transgender and non-binary people, have been introduced in state legislatures this year — both records, according to the HRC.
Some 40 of those bills would ban transgender students from playing school sports, and another 30 "bathroom bills" would prevent transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity, the advocacy group said.
"Even bills that had been knocked down or not approved in state legislatures one, two, three years ago, are being reintroduced," said Z Nicolazzo , a professor of trans studies in education at the University of Arizona. "I think what we can know is that the right is just not going to stop."
Kids 'rallying call' for GOP voters
At the center of Republicans' anti-trans messaging are children.
Republicans have in recent years latched onto inflammatory rhetoric depicting LGBTQ people as "groomers" — a term associated with adults who sexually abuse children. The terminology implies that by educating kids about gender identity, LGBTQ people are seeking to "sexualize" and "recruit" them into the LGBTQ community, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
"The GOP has been the party that seems to have captured this notion of 'family values' for probably the last 40 years, if not longer than that," Nicolazzo said. "Because of that, they're couching the anti-trans rhetoric...couching this legislation, as 'protecting family values.'"
It's similar to the tactic Republicans took in the 2022 elections over "critical race theory" — the idea that racism is embedded in all American laws and institutions. That messaging was particularly effective at pushing white women voters to the right, Jatia Wrighten, an African American studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, previously told USA TODAY.
“You do see a lot of white women voting more conservative in the name of protecting (their) children," she said.
Some 34 anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted by state legislatures this year, including new rules banning gender affirming care, targeting drag performances or censoring school curriculum, according to HRC.
"Children (are) the starting point; it's sort of the rallying call," Zamantakis said. "From there, they grow to the larger anti-trans rhetoric."
Culture wars continue, but will GOP voters mobilize?
As the 2024 election nears, anti-trans rhetoric will continue to escalate as Republican presidential candidates seek to set themselves apart from each other, Zamantakis said.
Former President Donald Trump, who has announced his 2024 presidential bid, said last month during his first campaign visit to Iowa that, should he win, he would cut federal funding for any school pushing “critical race theory,” “transgender insanity” or “any other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content on our children."
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has not yet announced a presidential bid but is expected to be the former president's top challenger, has led the charge on anti-trans legislation in his state.
"The two of them are really going to be battling to be seen as who is the furthest right — who can best represent the base," Zamantakis said. "I think in that way, this sort of rhetoric will play into who is ultimately selected for the nomination."
However, it's less likely that the more moderate voters GOP candidates have to sway ahead of the general election will vote on those issues.
"We really have to look no further than five months ago, at that red wave that never happened," Unga said.
In 2022, Republicans predicted a "red tsunami." In reality, it was more of a ripple, the party winning a narrow majority in the House and Democrats retaining control of the Senate.
Republicans had little luck mobilizing voters with anti-trans issues in 2022. Less than 5% of voters named transgender issues, like gender affirming care or participation in sports, as an issue motivating them to vote in 2022, according to exit polling from HRC. Instead, inflation (52%) and abortion (29%) were on the top of voters' minds.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they favor protecting transgender people from discrimination, though some 60% say that gender is determined by their sex assigned at birth, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey.
"(Anti-trans messaging) might mobilize some conservative voters and it might electrify conservative media, but it doesn't necessarily translate into general election success," Pierceson said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anti-trans messaging central to 2024 GOP strategy. Will voters buy in?