GOP candidates lean into transphobia in fourth presidential debate

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy prepare before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at the Moody Music Hall at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy prepare before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at the Moody Music Hall at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Four Republicans with very slim chances of capturing the GOP nomination for president repeatedly attacked transgender individuals during a combative debate on Dec. 6 — and at many points they were competing to see who could take the most anti-trans position.

The fourth Republican presidential debate, hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama, featured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Former President Donald Trump, who has yet to participate in a primary debate this election cycle, remains on the fast track to the GOP nomination, sitting 50 points ahead of other GOP presidential candidates in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

The debate turned dark very early on when DeSantis — already notorious for his anti-LGBTQ policies in his state —  used his opening statement to boast about his record of transphobia and attack Haley. 

“[Haley] caves any time the left comes after her,” said DeSantis, who has watched Haley climb in the polls in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. DeSantis subsequently voiced false statements branding gender-affirming care as abusive, representing a continuation of previous debates when many of the same candidates repeatedly assailed trans rights and LGBTQ rights broadly. 

“I did a bill in Florida to stop the gender mutilation of minors,” DeSantis said. “It’s child abuse and it’s wrong. She opposes that bill. She thinks it’s fine and the law shouldn’t get involved with it. You’re not willing to stand up for the kids — if you’re not willing to stand up and say it is wrong to mutilate these kids, then you’re not going to fight for the people back home. I will fight for you and I will win for you.”

For what it’s worth, in June of this year, the American Medical Association approved a resolution written by the Endocrine Society defending gender-affirming care for youth, saying, “It is the responsibility of the medical community to speak out in support of evidence-based care. Medical decisions should be made by patients, their relatives and health care providers, not politicians.”

“Medical intervention is reserved for older adolescents and adults, with treatment plans tailored to the individual and designed to maximize the time teenagers and their families have to make decisions about their transitions,” the resolution noted. “Major medical organizations also agree on waiting until an individual has turned 18 or reached the age of majority in their country to undergo gender-affirming genital surgery.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took aim at former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who has been threatening him in the polls.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took aim at former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who has been threatening him in the polls.AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Haley, who served in the Trump administration as the US ambassador to the United Nations, fired back at DeSantis in the first of countless exchanges between the two candidates during the night. 

“He continues to lie about my record,” Haley said. “I actually said his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill didn’t go far enough because it only talked about gender until third grade and I said it shouldn’t be done at all, but that’s for parents to talk about — it shouldn’t be talked about with schools.”

DeSantis then sought to reframe the discussion, saying he was not referring to his “Don’t Say Gay” bill but rather a Florida law that passed earlier this year banning gender-affirming care for youth. The legislation punishes parents and providers with felonies for violating the law — including the threat of removing children if they are receiving gender-affirming care.

“That is what Nikki Haley opposed,” DeSantis asserted. “She said the law shouldn’t get involved in that… If you are somebody that is going to be president of the United States and you don’t stand against child abuse, how are you going to stand up to anything?”

Instead of fact-checking DeSantis and the other candidates, moderator Megyn Kelly joined in on the transphobia as she turned to Christie with a dramatic line of questioning over his record on trans issues. She claimed he does not favor ban on gender-affirming care for youth because it is an issue of parental rights.

“Kids who go from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones are at a much greater likelihood of winding up sterile,” Kelly said before asking Christine if he is “way out of step on this issue.”

Christie, in response, defended his record and even sought to distance himself from his opponents.

“No, I’m not [out of step on this issue],” he said, “because Republicans believe in less government, not more, and less involvement with government and not more involvement in people’s life. You know what, Megyn? I trust parents. We are out there saying we should empower parents in education. We should empower parents to make more decisions about where kids go to school. I agree.”

Kelly proceeded to press Christie even further, accusing him of approving legislation in 2017 requiring new guidelines for schools to navigate issues with trans students. That policy required schools to accept a child’s gender identity “even if the minor’s parents objected,” Kelly said.

“Not true,” Christie fired back, saying the law was approved in 2018. (Christie indeed signed a bill in 2017 requiring the state to outline guidelines on best practices for schools with trans students, but the policy mentioned by Kelly was unveiled under Christie’s successor, Phil Murphy). Christie went on to voice his discomfort over gender-affirming care for youth, but reiterated the importance of leaving the issue to parents.

“The minute you start to take those rights away from parents, you don’t know, that slippery slope, what rights are going to be taken away next,” he said.

DeSantis, eager to respond, immediately jumped in to pound Christie over that issue.

“As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids,” the Florida governor said. “This is cutting off their genitals! These are irreversible procedures… I signed legislation in Florida banning mutilation of minors because it’s wrong.”

But DeSantis did not stop there. He pivoted back to Haley, accusing her of killing a 2016 bathroom bill in her own state.

“So first of all, Ron has continued to lie because he’s losing,” Haley said. The former South Carolina governor recalled 10 years ago when there was a “bathroom situation” in her state involving “maybe a handful of kids who were having an issue.”

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley accused her rival, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, of lying about her record.
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley spewed anti-LGBTQ remarks as she defended her record.AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

She added: “I said we don’t need to bring government into this, but boys go into boys bathrooms and girls go into girls bathrooms, and if anyone has an issue they go to a private bathroom. And this shows how hypocritical Ron continues to be. When he was running for governor and they asked him about that, he didn’t think bathroom bills were a good use of his time.”

DeSantis retorted, saying he “signed a bathroom bill in Florida so that’s obviously not true.”

Haley, for her part, added yet another angle to the transphobic shouting fest when she brought up the issue of trans sports inclusion — a particularly hot topic in recent years as GOP lawmakers have sought to ban trans athletes from participating in sports in accordance with their gender identity. 

“I also say biological boys shouldn’t be playing in girls’ sports, and I would do anything I can to stop that,” she said.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, did not hold back on his transphobia, either. At one point, he even said “transgenderism is a mental health disorder.”

Pointing to age limits on smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, Ramaswamy challenged DeSantis to support a policy that would mirror former President Ronald Reagan’s legislation to punish any state that allowed people under the age of 21 to buy alcohol or else the state would receive a 10% reduction in annual federal highway funds. 

“We can do the same thing when it comes to banning gender mutilation,” Ramaswamy said. 

Long-shot bids

The candidates face an uphill battle in their quest for the GOP nomination. RealClearPolitics’ polling average has DeSantis registering at 13%, followed by Haley, with 10%, and Ramaswamy, who has 5%. Christie has averaged just 2.5% of the vote. As recently as February of this year, Trump’s lead over DeSantis had narrowed to 13%, but the former president has gradually pulled further away from the Florida governor, whose policies targeting the LGBTQ community and people of color have alienated voters on the national stage — so much so that the NAACP, Human Rights Campaign, and Equality Florida issued travel advisories in his home state.