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Trans youth have become a lightning rod in North Carolina politics. Why now?

Ted Eytan

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed three bills this week targeting transgender youth in North Carolina.

They include a ban on medical care for minors such as surgery, hormones and puberty blockers; a ban on transgender girls playing female sports in middle school through college; and a “Parents Bill of Rights” that would require schools to “out” students to their families if they want to use different pronouns, and would forbid the teaching or discussion of LGBTQ-related topics in elementary school.

North Carolina is one of many states where Republicans have been pursuing these restrictions. But why now?

Washington Post columnist Philip Bump joined WFAE's Nick de la Canal to discuss what might be driving the nationwide surge in legislation targeting transgender youth, and how the current climate is different than in 2016, when North Carolina received nationwide backlash for passing the so-called "Bathroom Bill."

Nick de la Canal: What of that question, Why now? What do you think is driving this surge in legislation, not just in North Carolina, but across the U.S.?

Bump: I think there are two things. One is sort of a small-picture reason, and one is a bigger-picture reason. The small-picture reason is that there has been obviously increased attention paid to the visibility of transgender people and LGBTQ people broadly in the United States for a long time. The central cultural fight in that regard was over same-sex marriage, and that was resolved in favor of the legality of same-sex marriage in 2015. The New York Times had good reporting, earlier this year, that indicated that there was an actual push to figure out, 'Okay, well what wedge issue can we use there?" And there was actually some research done that showed that focusing on transgender people was a way to go, in order to build a political wedge within the left on a hot-button issue. And so I think that's why this is occurring now because this is seen as a political opportunity.

But I think broadly, we are in a moment of broad change in the United States, and that is causing a lot of instability and uncertainty, particularly among conservatives, and I think that means that issues like this, which are obviously divisive and are seen as manifestations of the way America ought to be, I think, find more traction.

De la Canal: Are there any organized groups that are pushing for this or how much of this is organic, so to speak?

Bump: Yeah, it's interesting because we've seen some groups sort of emerge and gain prominence as a result of this. The social media account Libs of Tik Tok, for example, is not obviously a group — it is one individual person — but has really leveraged this issue and created a pathway for people to see how you can target the LGBT community broadly and transgender people specifically in a way that gains you attention and influence. But I think this really is effective for the political right, in that people, at first glance, are able to grasp it and understand what the fight is that they're supposed to be having and that it resonates with.

De la Canal: This also isn't North Carolina's first brush with this issue. In 2016, North Carolina passed the so-called "bathroom bill," which required people to use public bathrooms matching their birth certificates. That got a lot of national blowback and the law was eventually repealed. Do you see a difference between that moment and where we are now?

Bump: Yeah, absolutely. There's a fascinating moment when that occurred when Donald Trump himself was actually asked, 'Would you allow Caitlyn Jenner to use whatever bathroom she chose at Trump Tower?' And he said yes. I mean, at that point in time, it was generally understood that there was this broad trend toward acceptance of LGBTQ people in the United States. One of the things that happened then is that the partisan tension and the partisan animosity only escalated, thanks in part to Trump. And I think that Trump really focused on that big-picture divide I was talking about earlier. There's this sense of insecurity, mostly predicated on the idea that America was changing in scary ways. That was really something that Trump stoked. And I think that created more fertile soil for this sort of blowback.

De la Canal: A lot of the backlash to the bathroom bill also came from corporations and like big sporting organizations, like we saw the NCAA cancel its tournament here. Do you think that that's likely to happen again as these bills pass?

Bump: It's hard to say, in part because this is more widespread. I mean, North Carolina is sort of out on a limb by itself at that point in time. But it also is the case that there is now a playbook for the political right, in particular, to respond to corporate pressure. We saw, for example, when Bud Light, you know, had this relatively anodyne outreach to a transgender influencer earlier this year, resulting in a huge, huge response from the political right.There was very easy online organizing (against) the target of Bud Light. We saw something similar with Pride displays, particularly at Target. You know, I think that corporations, for a long time, understood that there was a viable market — and still understand — there's a viable market with younger Americans who are more receptive to LGBTQ protections and to the LGBTQ audience itself, but they also are now warier of producing the sort of backlash that Bud Light and Target saw.

De la Canal: So how do you see this playing out over the next several months and maybe into the 2024 elections?

Bump: I mean, I think we have seen, obviously in a lot of particularly red states, this emergence of this sort of legislation. I think it's important to note, too, that part of this is driven by the sharp increase that we've seen in recent years of supermajorities at the state legislative level. So it certainly is likely that we will see more such legislation.

One thing we have seen, though, is that the courts have actually smacked a lot of these things down. But, you know, to a large extent, this is political posturing and it is being embraced because it is politically volatile and politically potent and seen as something which can make the political left weaker. And that's why people are engaged in these sorts of things.

De la Canal: That's Philip Bump, a columnist with The Washington Post. Thank you.

Bump: Thank you.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal
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