In 2016, Michael Bloomberg brought up transgender people using the bathroom when he was asked a question about Brexit.
The current presidential hopeful referred to a hypothetical transgender woman as a "man wearing a dress" and implied people in the Midwest couldn't understand social issues.
A statement from the Bloomberg campaign insists he is dedicated to protecting the rights of the transgender community.
A spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund told Business Insider that the former mayor should be allowed to grow, and said his past comments indicated an issue with his education on trans issues.
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg came under fire Thursday after a recently surfaced 2016 video showed him referring to transgender women as a "man wearing a dress," and suggesting that people in the US Midwest are not intelligent enough to understand social issues.
While speaking at a University of Oxford event in England, Bloomberg, 77, brought up the topic of transgender people using the bathroom, which at the time was a controversial issue in the U.S.
"We, the intelligentsia, the people who could make it into this room, we believe a lot of things in terms of equality and protecting individual rights that make no sense to the vast bulk of people," the former New York City mayor and billionaire business mogul said while responding to a question about Brexit.
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Bloomberg pointed to the issue around trans rights and bathrooms to support his argument that there is "a fundamental disconnect between us believing the rights of the individual come first and the general belief around the world — I think it's fair to say — that the rights of society come first."
In 2016, nearly 20 states pursued "bathroom bills" to block transgender people from using public facilities. Around the time Bloomberg made his comments, 60% of transgender people said they avoided using the restroom in public over fears of harassment.
"If you want to know if somebody is a good salesman, give them the job of going to the Midwest and picking a town and selling to that town the concept that some man wearing a dress should be in a locker room with their daughter," Bloomberg said. "If you can sell that, you can sell anything."
The presidential hopeful, who came in tenth place in the Iowa caucus, then pivoted to explain a policy in New York prisons requiring inmates "drop their trousers" to determine whether they are sent to a men or women's correctional facility.
"You can't sit there, you can't mix things in a jail," Bloomberg said. "That's a practical case of when you have to make a decision."
Partisan stances on trans rights and bathroom policies intensified amid former President Barack Obama's 2016 guidance to public schools, stating trans students were protected by Title IX and could use the bathroom of their identified gender. A year later, the Trump administration rescinded this directive, arguing that transgender status was not protected by the decades-old statute.
The reversal was just one move in a series of actions that targeted the trans community, and why, despite Bloomberg's comments, the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund Executive Director Mara Keisling told Business Insider her organization would support any candidate trying to prevent Trump's reelection.
"This year everybody needs to understand, and our community needs to understand, we really have a choice between four more years of this heartless, thoughtless, dangerous agenda of President Trump, or whoever his opponent is," Keisling said Friday. "And whoever his opponent is, they are most certainly going to need some education."
While Kiesling did not approve of the way Bloomberg had addressed transgender issues in 2016, she referred to his current pro-equality policy proposals, saying, "We have to allow people to change and grow and embrace them when they come around and become more educated and more respectful."
"Almost every Democratic candidate, including Mayor Bloomberg," she continued, "really has a strong pro-equality agenda on paper, and we're just going to need to make sure that they are individually sufficiently educated so that they respect us, and they work to make things better for us," Keisling told Business Insider.
Kiesling called Bloomberg's framing of the Midwest "geographic bias," and "cliche," adding she thought it was "equally true of people in Brooklyn and in the South."
Bloomberg's campaign did not directly address the candidate's 2016 comments, but in a statement said he "understands" the transgender community and pointed to some of his past efforts to support them, such as providing "comprehensive healthcare" to his transgender employees while he was mayor of New York City.
"Mike is running to defeat Donald Trump and reverse the many policies he has implemented that attack the rights of the transgender community," the statement read.
"As president, I will work to protect every member of the LGBTQ+ community from hatred, violence, and discrimination," Bloomberg said on January 28. "We will close disparities in health care access and quality, stop violence against transgender people, and advocate for equal rights across the world. We cannot settle for anything less – and I won't."