On Tuesday, Virginia residents will go to the polls to elect state legislators and decide who will be the next occupant of the governor’s mansion. The race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor of the state, and Republican Glenn Youngkin has been closer than expected, with a bitter cultural battle taking center stage in the campaign.
The race will likely decide the future of trans rights as a political issue in the United States for the foreseeable future.
While much of the attention has gone to the nationalized moral panic over critical race theory, which explores America’s history of slavery and racial inequality and which conservatives have defined as teaching any history that might make white people look bad (and which, notably, is not taught in Virginia schools), the race has also revolved around bathroom access for trans students. What most people don’t realize is that the race will likely decide the future of trans rights as a political issue in the United States for the foreseeable future.
The Youngkin campaign has taken an incident at a Loudoun County school that involved a student sexually assaulting a classmate in a girl’s bathroom and twisted it into an effective campaign talking point. This, Youngkin and his supporters in right-wing media have trumpeted, is the mythical unicorn of the trans bathroom panic. The one case, they thought, that would finally help sway the public on the trans bathroom issue they’ve been unsuccessfully pushing since 2015.
But the facts of the case don’t match up with the trans stranger danger happening that they have painted it to be. The sexual assaulter didn’t lie secretly in wait for his victim to unknowingly enter the stall next to him. Instead the meetup was arranged beforehand. The attacker and victim had had sex in the same bathroom before. This time, however, the girl said no, and the boy didn’t stop. The crime is no less awful, and should be outright condemned. But it was not the attack facilitated by a trans-friendly bathroom policy as conservatives claimed it was.
In fact, the school had not yet implemented its trans bathroom inclusion policy when the assault took place.
That’s not to say that the Loudoun County school board hasn’t made major missteps along the way. They denied that any student had been attacked in a girls bathroom, and school administrators also let the attacker transfer to another school in the district while awaiting trial, where he assaulted a second girl, in a classroom. For that, the board should be rightfully condemned, but the trans community — nor its fight for basic human rights — had nothing to do with the attack.
Nonetheless, the Youngkin campaign has effectively fearmongered over the case, and managed to close a major gap in polling in the historically red state turned recently blue. The election has become an oddly important event for trans rights, thanks to distorted GOP messaging.
There’s no reason to believe that Democrats will suddenly grow a spine just to protect trans people.
If Youngkin wins on Tuesday, it’ll be the first time a conservative candidate has been able to leverage trans panic into an Election Day win. Historically, anti-trans candidates for governor in close elections have struggled to gain traction. Perhaps most famously, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, the chief architect of the state’s infamous bathroom bill in 2016, lost re-election that year. It was the highest profile GOP loss in the year of Donald Trump's presidential victory, when conservatives generally swept into power across the country.
In 2020, an out-of-state group leaned hard into ominous TV ads in Kentucky about trans girls in girls sports in the Kentucky governor’s race, hoping to help GOP incumbent Matt Bevin against Democrat Andy Beshear. That effort also failed.
Late in the 2020 presidential election cycle, Trump’s inner circle toyed with the idea of going full transphobia on the campaign trail as it became more and more apparent that he would most likely lose to President Joe Biden. Despite instituting the most explicitly anti-trans agenda of any president since the nation’s founding, Trump rarely commented publicly about the issue. His comments were limited to his tweets about the trans military ban in 2017 and a brief answer to reporters' questions on the White House lawn in 2018.
Ultimately, the Trump campaign decided not to scaremonger over trans issues, eventually losing to Biden. But after the election, Trump apparently changed his mind. At the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump riffed on trans women and children in sports. If he runs again in 2024, transphobia is sure to be at the center of his campaign message.
The possibility of becoming monstered in political and campaign discourse is a constant risk for trans people, especially in the United States, and Youngkin’s campaign of distortions is perhaps the most serious threat to date.
Should Youngkin win, it would signal to conservatives that transphobia wins, and they will hammer Democrats over the airwaves for the entirety of next year’s campaign cycle. And there’s nothing to indicate that Democrats would stand firm in their support for trans rights. After the 2016 election, political pundits and comedians alike blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss on trans issues, despite it never coming up in presidential campaign discourse or in any of the debates.
The message sent to trans people was loud and clear: “You’re expendable.”
In 2020, former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., blamed a focus on “transsexuals” (among other issues) for Democrats failing to gain a solid majority in the Senate, despite trans issues not breaking through as a national issue in the campaign cycle. The message sent to trans people was loud and clear: “You’re expendable.” (McCaskill later said her message was "misinterpreted," and apologized for her remarks.)
Given how quickly Democrats capitulated on police reform in the fallout of “defund the police” attacks from conservatives, there’s no reason to believe that Democrats will suddenly grow a spine just to protect trans people.
That makes the Virginia election Tuesday all the more critical. If Youngkin loses by a wide margin, which looks increasingly unlikely according to recent polling, then Democrats are less likely to so quickly abandon trans rights nationally. But a close result with McAuliffe winning could make Dems in purple states and districts nervous.
Democrats may not wholly abandon trans people, but their support could soften. They may be more open to compromising on the Equality Act and leave trans people partially or completely out of the Equality Act, for instance.
Ultimately, a Youngkin win would be a complete disaster for trans people both in Virginia and nationally. It would signal open season on trans rights going into perhaps the most important midterm election in U.S. history.