First GOP debate sees trans youth attacked

  • by Christopher Kane, Washington Blade
  • Thursday August 24, 2023
Share this Post:
Candidates stood on stage at the first Republican Party presidential primary debate August 23 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo: Screengrab via Fox News
Candidates stood on stage at the first Republican Party presidential primary debate August 23 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo: Screengrab via Fox News

Among the non-economic issues discussed by the eight candidates who appeared on stage August 23 for the first Republican Party 2024 presidential primary debate, several spoke against allowing trans students to play on sports teams that match their gender identity.

The debate on Fox News took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, site of next year's Republican presidential nominating convention. Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum moderated.

Candidates who discussed LGBTQ matters focused on education policies and trans youth.

"In Florida, we eliminated critical race theory from our K-12 schools, we eliminated gender ideology from our K-12 schools," Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said. "We need education in this country, not indoctrination in this country."

Former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley reiterated her opposition to allowing transgender girls to compete on girls' sports teams, proclaiming that "biological boys don't belong in locker rooms of any of our girls," an issue that Fox host MacCallum noted, Haley had once called "the women's issue of our time."

"In North Dakota, we've made a priority of protecting women's sports, and we've done that in our state," Governor Doug Burgum said, referencing the anti-trans sports ban he signed in April. At the same time, he hedged that "the idea that every school district and state and every teacher is somehow indoctrinating people is just false."

In his closing statements, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said, "there are two genders," along with other proclamations like "God is real," "reverse racism is racism," and "The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to man."

Other references to LGBTQ issues were more ambiguous.

Haley, for instance, said, "There's a lot of crazy woke things happening in these schools," arguing "We need transparency in the classroom because parents should never have to wonder what's being said or taught to their children in the classroom."

"If God made you a man, you play sports against men," South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott said in his closing statement, a possible reference to policies allowing transgender student athletes to compete on teams consistent with their gender identities.

Responding to a question about the 91 felony counts against former President Donald Trump, Scott addressed what he called "the weaponization of the Department of Justice against political opponents, but also against parents who show up at school board meetings," adding, "They're called, under this DOJ, 'domestic terrorists.'"

Other elected Republicans, including DeSantis, have made similar claims over the past few years, beginning with the discovery of a one-page memo issued by Attorney General Merrick Garland in 2021, which concerned coordination with local law enforcement after widespread reports of threats by parents against school board members, administrators and teachers over COVID-19 policies.

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw spoke out against the arrest of a parent for protesting "a Loudoun school's cover-up of his 14-year-old daughter's sexual assault by a transgender classmate in her school bathroom," an account later revealed to be untrue.


The moderators asked each GOP hopeful to share their positions on a federal law governing access to abortion, with only two — Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence — pledging to support a 15-week ban.

"We cannot let states like California, New York, and Illinois have abortions on demand up until the day of birth," said Scott, who called the 15-week limit the "minimum" restriction he would support.

The proposal is "an idea whose time has come," Pence said, adding, "We appointed three conservatives to the Supreme Court who gave Americans a new beginning for the right to life," a reference to last year's Dobbs decision overturning the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade.

Trump, who appointed those justices, did not attend the debate. The latest polls show he is leading the other candidates by a wide margin, with 56% support among likely Republican primary voters compared to 10 percent each for the candidates tied for second place, both of whom participated in the debate: DeSantis and Ramaswamy.

Hours before the event began, the South Carolina Supreme Court allowed the Legislature's six-week abortion ban to take effect. Haley struck a more measured tone — asserting that she is "unapologetically pro-life" but lamenting that the high court's "unelected justices did not need to decide something this personal."

Haley accused her rivals of misrepresenting the political challenges that would come with passage of a federal ban, which would require a 60-vote majority in the Senate that she stated is not a realistic expectation.

Burgum, who had signed a six-week abortion ban, came out against proposals for a federal prohibition by the Congress.

Also sharing the stage were former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson.


The only candidate on stage with no experience serving in government, Ramaswamy's remarks often presented himself to be more conservative politically than his opponents.

"Let us be honest as Republicans, the climate change agenda is a hoax," he said, later claiming that "fossil fuels are a requirement for prosperity."

During an interview with right-wing pundit and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that aired last week, Ramaswamy likened the beliefs by proponents of LGBTQ rights and climate change activists to the ideologies of people in religious cults, bent on effectuating "a broader vision that defines itself in opposition to the American vision, to the American way of life."

Ramaswamy also distinguished himself as the only candidate on stage who pledged to pardon Trump if he is elected president. Others, by contrast, focused on leveling accusations about the weaponization of law enforcement against conservatives, arguing that Republicans should move on from the matters being litigated against the former president, including over his role in the January 6 insurrection, defending Pence for refusing to overturn the results of the 2020 election, or — in Christie's case — asserting that "Whether or not you believe that criminal charges [against Trump] are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States."

Baier noted Ramaswamy's pledge to abolish federal administrative agencies including the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the IRS, and the Department of Commerce.

In a possible reference to his pledge, Ramaswamy concluded his closing statement with the message that "there are three branches of government, not four. And the U.S. Constitution is the strongest guarantor of freedom in human history — that is what won us the American Revolution, that is what will win us the revolution of 2024."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.