Originally published in The Nation on September 21, 2023
By Pamela Shifman
Over the past few election cycles, many Democrats have been running scared.
Back in the 2022 midterms, the issue Democrats feared most was crime. As Republican candidates released thousands of ads focusing on violent crime, the Democratic consultant class panicked. According to them, the topic was such a lost cause that the Democrats’ only options were to pander or change the subject.
In the end, many Democrats who stood their ground on criminal justice, like John Fetterman and Brandon Johnson, went on to win their elections.
Now, just in time for critical races this year and next, Republicans have found an equally potent issue: trans kids. Campaigning in North Carolina this summer, Donald Trump explained the appeal: “I talk about transgender, everyone goes crazy. Who would have thought? Five years ago, you didn’t know what the hell it was.”
Across the country, Republican candidates have manufactured a cultural crisis that they claim threatens our children’s schools, sports, and overall safety—all while pushing their own regressive policies that actually harm children. In other words, they’re at war with our kids, in the name of our kids, to devastating political effect.
The underlying hypocrisy of the message is beside the point; it’s all part of a broader strategy. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, the man who rode to the governor’s mansion on a similarly manufactured wave of fear about critical race theory in 2021, is at it again. Youngkin is stirring up more panic over trans kids ahead of this year’s elections in the General Assembly, when every seat is up for grabs.
If he helps secure a Republican majority, Youngkin can do more than roll back LGBTQ rights. He’ll erase Virginia’s progressive gains on everything from gun safety to abortion to climate to voting rights—and take his vision (and a possible presidential candidacy) national.
And Youngkin is not alone. Just this year, far-right politicians have introduced hundreds of bills nationwide targeting transgender youth, while extreme MAGA Republicans in the US House have added anti-trans provisions to must-pass funding bills. As trans kids move to center stage, how should Democrats respond?
Some might be tempted to cower. But I’ve got good news: Far from running for cover, the best thing for Democrats to do—both morally and politically—is to lean in, speak out, and support trans kids and their families.
In an age of political cynicism, let’s start with the most obvious and important reason: It’s the right thing to do. Scientific evidence proves over and over again that gender-affirming care is essential to trans kids. One study found a 14.4 percent decrease in suicide attempts when hormone replacement therapy was started between the ages of 14 and 17. The decrease was largest when therapy began at age 14 or 15. We’re talking about saving our kids’ lives. If those are the terms of a “culture war,” we must win.
But it is more than the right thing to do. It can also be a path to victory. There’s no reason for Democrats to be afraid and show up on defense. Sixty-four percent of Americans favor protecting trans people from discrimination, according to the Pew Research Center. A survey by Selzer & Co./Grinnell College found that a majority of Americans oppose bans on gender-affirming care for those under 18. Progressive elected officials are showing us that it is possible to go on the offense. In Minnesota, for example, Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order guaranteeing that gender-affirming care will remain available in the state.
Transgender youth, like all youth, have the best chance to thrive when they are supported and can get medically necessary care. No politician should stand in the way of that care.
We will never realize the power of our progressive majority by giving in to an agenda of fear. From abortion rights to trans rights, freedom over our bodies is fundamental to every other freedom, and American voters are fed up as they watch their fundamental rights disappear. In a fight this consequential, Democrats must not only show up but win.
Pamela Shifman is president of the Democracy Alliance, a network of progressive donors committed to building a just, multiracial, feminist democracy and strengthening the progressive infrastructure in the United States.