GOP Candidates In West Virginia Are Competing Over Who Is More Anti-Trans

Republican candidates for governor in West Virginia have been competing in a tight race — not only to take over the state’s highest office but also to surpass one another in their commitment to attacking LGBTQ+ rights, in particular, for transgender people.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, former state Delegate Moore Capito and businessman Chris Miller have each run a series of ads promising to take stronger action to keep transgender student athletes, particularly transgender girls, out of girl’s and women’s sports and to further restrict access to gender-affirming care for minors. (Another Republican contender, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, has stayed out of the attack ad fray.)

Morrisey is leading the race with 28% of GOP voter support, followed by Capito with 25%, according to a recent survey conducted by Emerson Polling and The Hill. Miller and Warner are trailing at 19% and 12%, respectively. As of last month, almost $14 million had been spent on ads for these candidates, the bulk of which has gone toward supporting Morrisey, according to an analysis of West Virginia political advertising from AdImpact Politics.

Whoever wins on Tuesday will go up against the lone Democrat in the race, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, in November, in a state that Donald Trump carried by more than 38 percentage points in 2020.

LGBTQ+ people make up only about 4% of the West Virginia population, according to 2017 demographic data from the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ+ public policy research center based at the University of California, Los Angeles. Queer and trans West Virginians, however, are overrepresented when it comes to rates of food insecurity, lack of insurance, unemployment and overall poverty levels.

But despite their minuscule populace in the state, GOP gubernatorial candidates have made protecting the state and its children from the “radical transgender agenda” their major talking points to connect with voters.

The Attacks

Morrisey’s campaign website describes him as “one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates against biological males playing sports with women.” He has vowed to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review an appeals court decision that allowed a transgender student to compete on her middle school sports team after the lower court ruled that the state’s transgender sports ban violated Title IX. He recently joined more than 20 state attorneys general in suing the Biden administration over its updated Title IX guidance, which explicitly protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination at federally funded schools.

In 2019, Morrisey filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against three plaintiffs who were fired for being LGBTQ+, but instead the high court ruled in June 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, against discrimination of workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In a video ad paid for by a pro-Morrisey political action group, his supporters criticize Miller’s tenure as a board member at Marshall University in Huntington.

“Chris Miller protects they/them and not us,” the narrator of the video says while the ad shows a man who resembles Miller wearing a crooked blond wig, bright makeup and women’s clothing. The ad claims that the university sponsored drag shows and other LGBTQ-friendly events while Miller was on the board.

A counter-advertisement from Miller’s campaign features an interview with a high school student and her mother, who criticize Morrisey for his past work as a lobbyist for some pharmaceutical companies. Critics have attempted to link Morrisey to the production of puberty blockers because he was previously affiliated with such companies.

In the ad, the student complains about having to share a locker room with a trans student.

“There was a boy in there, he’s trans, he would go in there every day and just watch,” she says. The mother adds that Morrisey is “not a strong man, we need a strong man with a strong voice and he’s not that.”

Capito — like his mother, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who supported same-sex marriage — has shown some support for LGBTQ+ rights. In 2019, as a state delegate, Capito sponsored a bill to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people, but he has since adopted the anti-trans rhetoric of other Republicans.

Capito argued in one ad that he “wrote the bill banning puberty blockers for children” while Morrisey was “getting rich lobbying for the puberty blocker companies.” In another ad, Capito calls himself a “girl dad” and vows to protect girls’ sports.

Last year, Capito, who was then chair of the state’s House Judiciary Committee, argued that West Virginia’s new ban on gender-affirming care for minors did not violate the U.S. Constitution. The ban, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Jim Justice, bars transition care for youth but does carve out restrictions for trans youth who are diagnosed with “severe gender dysphoria” by at least two health care providers.

When questioned by a Democratic colleague, Capito admitted that he had not heard of any examples or testimony of transgender minors receiving gender-affirming surgeries.

Transgender children typically socially transition first, which could include changing one’s name, clothing or hairstyle; eventually, they may decide to take puberty blockers, which gives them time to consider whether to move on to hormone replacement therapy.

A local newspaper in Morgantown recently condemned the GOP candidates in an opinion article, writing that they have been “running almost exclusively anti-transgender ads for well over a month.” The editorial board at the Dominion Post wondered what the candidates’ positions are on other issues — like affordable health care, bettering road conditions and access to healthy food — that actually impact people in their day-to-day life.

“With these anti-trans ads, Morrisey, Miller and Captio are competing to show voters who can be the biggest bully,” the board wrote.

A Changing West Virginia

In the past three years, the number of anti-LGBTQ bills has ballooned in statehouses across the country. Legislation has targeted trans people’s access to gender-affirming care, their ability to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity, obtain IDs with their correct gender marker, and their ability to participate in public life. Last year, more than 80 anti-LGBTQ bills were signed into law nationwide, making 2023 one of the worst years for LGBTQ+ rights.

As governor, Justice made West Virginia an early mover on anti-trans legislation, and in 2021 he signed laws restricting gender-affirming care for minors and barring transgender children from participating in school sports. The momentum has since started to stall, and anti-LGBTQ bills in the state have largely failed this year. The West Virginia Legislature failed to pass all but one anti-LGBTQ bill, which LGBTQ+ advocates see as a potential sign that the tide is turning across the country. (The same thing has happened in Florida, another state that was an early leader in introducing and passing anti-trans legislation.)

But the outcome of the race on Tuesday will determine what the future of LGBTQ+ rights in West Virginia may look like — and give a window into the priorities and future political leanings of the state government. For more than 50 years, West Virginia was one of the most Democratic states in the country, with Republicans winning only a handful of victories. But after Trump was elected in 2016, the state solidified its alignment with the right wing.

West Virginia’s political landscape looks very different than it did before the 2000s. Sen. Joe Manchin is the only Democrat (albeit a fairly moderate one) to hold statewide office — and he announced last fall that he would not run for reelection. Justice, a former billionaire, has set his sights on taking Manchin’s Senate seat, as he is ineligible to run for governor again due to the state’s term limits.

The story behind the state’s dramatic shift in political alignment is complicated, but part of the answer lies in the decline of the coal industry. West Virginia is the second-largest coal producer in the country, and with inroads in the natural gas market, automation and new industry regulations, more and more coal miners are out of work. Voters in the state have largely blamed Democrats for the state’s economic woes.

In a March poll of Republican voters in West Virginia, more than half said that the economy is most important to them, followed by education, health care and immigration. Fifty-four percent said that they were “very concerned” about “transgender issues.” The poll, however, did not provide any more information about what constitutes a “transgender issue.”

And even though anti-trans rhetoric has taken center stage in West Virginia, it has not stopped transgender politicians and advocates from trying — and succeeding — in reshaping policies at the local level.

In 2020, Rosemary Ketchum, 29, was elected as the state’s first openly transgender person in public office when she won a seat on the nonpartisan City Council in Wheeling, a city that skews conservative.

Ketchum is running for mayor of Wheeling in Tuesday’s race. She told The Associated Press that contrary to what Republicans in her state and elsewhere tout in speeches, ordinary voters aren’t too concerned about which bathrooms transgender people should use. She said that the GOP’s focus on anti-LGBTQ rhetoric may work on the national level, but it “doesn’t work at the local level — it doesn’t register.”


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