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Over 300 Anti-Trans Bills Got Only Nine Seconds in Biden’s SOTU Address

President Biden spent just nine seconds of his State of the Union speech addressing the oppression of trans people, despite Republicans advancing more than 300 anti-trans bills through state legislatures. In the Republican response, however, far-right governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders spent a significant portion of her time pushing anti-“woke” transphobic messaging. This is not a coincidence.

Reba Landers

February 9, 2023
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Protesters gather outside the Arkansas State Capitol to protest anti-trans bill HB1570 in 2021. (Sydney Rasch/ACLU)

On Tuesday night, President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address. Present in the speech were discussions of infrastructure, social programs, and, very briefly, abortion rights. Noticeably absent, however, was any mention of meaningful protections for trans folks in the United States. The president mentioned briefly the importance of passing the Equality Act, which includes protections against discrimination based on gender and sexuality, but made no mention of gender-affirming healthcare, protections for queer childrens’ privacy, or the attacks against parents of trans children. In a time when these rights are under attack, Biden’s silence is unacceptable. 

Not backing away from discussion of trans issues, however, was Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union. The governor insisted that Biden’s presidency had been hijacked by a “crazy” radical Left, and that average Americans have no interest in engaging with the “culture war” started by the Left: that is, the demand for things like racial justice and queer protections. This is indicative of a larger pattern in U.S. politics: Republicans are waging attacks against trans folks across the nation, and Democrats are offering little more than lip service, if anything.

In 2022, over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were proposed in state legislatures across the country, the majority of which focus on transgender youth, barring them from participating in sports, using the bathroom that aligns with their gender, and accessing gender-affirming healthcare. These bills cannot be ignored: an enormous number are advancing in state legislatures, and some have already passed. Utah has completely banned gender affirming care for trans youth, Texas governor Gregg Abbot has implemented a directive to have parents of trans youth who received gender-affirming care investigated for child abuse, and Florida has passed the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill, banning discussion of queerness in classrooms and forcing teachers to out queer children to their parents. 

You might be interested in: The New York Times Is Wrong: Trans Kids Need Support, Not Gender Skepticism

Despite these massive attacks on trans individuals, particularly on children, Biden’s State of the Union address spoke on transgender issues for a paltry nine seconds. 

While queer children are at risk of being separated from their parents, forcibly outed by teachers, and stripped of their medical care, the President didn’t devote even a full minute of his hour-long speech to their protection. In fact, he uttered only one vague sentence about this issue: “Let’s also pass the bipartisan Equality Act, to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity.”

What does it mean to live with safety and dignity? Biden doesn’t elaborate. He gave no concrete proposals for protecting trans folks. The Equality Act — which he promised to pass last year and has since stagnated on the Senate floor — only protects against discrimination in public accommodations and facilities, including bathrooms, locker rooms, and gyms. It does not address Republicans’ vicious attacks on gender affirming care, it does not protect parents who provide care and support to their kids, and it does not protect trans children from being forcibly outed to their parents by their schools. 

This silence and inaction proves yet again that Biden is complicit in the attacks on trans people. But it’s not just the President — other Democrats, too, have refused to take up protections for the trans community, and instead separate themselves from this issue to avoid seeming “too left” and appeal to moderate voters. This is particularly alarming when we consider who is engaging with trans issues: far-right Republicans. 

In her response to Biden’s speech, Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders wasted no time getting to the topic — by minute three of her fourteen-minute speech, she had already attacked the transgender community, specifically trans women, saying that she is “the first woman to lead [her] state, and [Biden] is the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”

This is not just talk — Huckabee Sanders’ home state of Arkansas was the first to pass a law banning gender-affirming care for minors, and four other anti-trans bills are currently being advanced in the state which would restrict trans kids’ ability to participate in school activities and impose more restrictions on gender-affirming healthcare. Far-right Republicans like the Arkansas governor are not messing around. They are serious and dedicated to advancing their transphobic agenda. Huckabee Sanders posits that the U.S. is no longer divided by right versus left, but rather “normal versus crazy,” wherein the “normal” perspective is far-right transphobia, and the “crazy” perspective is protection and care for the trans community.

Later in the speech, Huckabee Sanders doubles down on her culture war attacks chock full of anti-trans and anti-queer dog whistles:

The Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day. Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight. Every day, we are told we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with big tech to strip away the most American thing there is: your freedom of speech. That’s not normal. It’s crazy. And it’s wrong.

Huckabee Sanders is intentionally attempting to create an us and a them within her speech. The us in this narrative is “most Americans,” which is to say, in her framing, the white, Republican middle-class. The them she is creating is a “woke mob” who is waging a “left-wing culture war” and insisting that Americans “salute their flags.” That is to say: the Left, the queer community, and their supporters are fighting for the right to gender-affirming medical care and protections from anti-queer attacks, and this is, to quote her directly, “Not normal. It’s crazy. And it’s wrong.”

This rhetorical framing is a common far-right tactic to isolate transgender folks: she is shaping a narrative that trans folks are a miniscule but vocal group (a “woke mob”), that we are not included in “most Americans,”  that our very real material struggles (worsened at the hands of Republicans) are nothing more than “woke fantasies,” and that the majority of people in the U.S. do not care about our struggle. 

The reality is that five percent of young adults in the U.S. are openly transgender, and 42 percent of adults know someone who is openly transgender. We are not a tiny minority existing on the fringes of society while “most Americans” continue on with their daily lives, oblivious to our existence. We are workers, parents, students, neighbors, and friends.

Our struggles are not fantasies separate from the struggles of working-class America, they are included in the struggles of working-class America. Trans people are overwhelmingly working-class. Trans struggles are worker struggles, our fight is the fight of the American public, and our protection and safety is not a “left-wing culture war,” it is essential.

While it is easy to focus only on the egregious anti-trans attacks at the hands of Republicans, we must not forget the complicity of the Democrats. Republicans are clearly taking the trans struggle seriously by pouring their time, energy, and resources into pushing forward transphobic legislation, and yet Democrats have taken no meaningful action, and they spent all of last year breaking their promises to the queer community

In a time when being openly transgender can be quite literally deadly, the trans community was worth only nine seconds of Joe Biden’s time. This is no accident. The Democratic Party is not forgetting that these attacks are happening, and their lack of action is not simply a moral failing. This is a strategic move on the part of the Democrats to avoid association with the “radical left.” Looking toward 2024, the Democratic Party is desperate to win the votes of the white, middle-class moderates that could swing the election. In order to prevent these centrists from voting Republican, the Democrats stop short of any meaningful action that would risk losing them votes in this key demographic.

We have seen this failure to act time and time again: in order to avoid looking “too radical” and polarizing moderate voters, the Democrats did not defund the police, but rather took a knee, told the Black community they were “valid,” and pushed more money into the pockets of police and military budgets. Instead of fighting for the reinstatement of Roe v. Wade or codifying the right to an abortion into law, Democrats rallied around providing access to abortion pills in states where abortion was still legal, hanging states where abortion had been banned out to dry. And now, in the face of the most heinous attacks on trans people on record, the President and the Democratic Party are saying trans kids deserve safety and dignity, but taking no action to protect their access to life-saving gender-affirming care.

The lesson is clear: Democrats are not here to protect us. “Voting blue no matter who” is not the path to queer liberation, and the trans community is under more widespread and pressing threats now than it was during the Trump administration. Trans people are our fellow workers and their children, and we need worker action to protect them, from schools to medical facilities and beyond. 

Joe Biden afforded the trans community only one sentence in a speech and an unsatisfactory bill that is stuck in limbo. We must take this fight up ourselves, in the streets and in our workplaces. The fight for trans liberation is not a culture war or a fantasy, it is a fight for our lives.

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Reba Landers

Reba is a teacher and theatre artist in NYC.

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