GOP candidates in West Virginia are competing to see who is the most anti-trans

Republican candidates for governor in West Virginia are in a tight race — not only to take over the state’s highest office, but also to outdo each other in their commitment to attacking LGBTQ+ rights, especially for transgender people.

Advocate General of the Kingdom Patrick Morrisey, former state Rep. Moore Capito and businessman Chris Miller have each released a series of ads vowing to take stronger action to keep transgender student athletes, especially transgender girls, out of girls’ and women’s sports and further limit access to gender-affirming care for minors. (Another Republican candidate, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, has stayed out of the attack fray.)

According to a recent survey, Morrisey is leading the race with 28% of Republican voters, followed by Capito with 25%. questionnaire led by Emerson Polling and The Hill. Miller and Warner lag behind at 19% and 12% respectively. Nearly $14 million was spent on ads for these candidates last month, with most of that going to support Morrisey, according to an analysis of political ads in West Virginia by AdImpact politics.

Whoever wins on Tuesday will face the only 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 are just making things up 4% of West Virginia’s population, according to 2017 demographic data from the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ+ public policy research center based at the University of California, Los Angeles. However, queer and trans West Virginians are overrepresented when it comes to food insecurity, lack of insurance, unemployment, and general poverty.

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

The attacks

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

In 2019, Morrisey filed a friend-of-the-law brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against three plaintiffs who were dismissed for being LGBTQ+, but the Supreme Court instead ruled against discrimination in June 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County discriminates against employees based on 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 trustee at Marshall University in Huntington.

“Chris Miller protects them and not us,” the video’s narrator says as the ad shows a man who looks like Miller, wearing a lopsided blond wig, light makeup and women’s clothing. The ad claims the university sponsored drag shows and other LGBTQ-friendly events while Miller was on the board.

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

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

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

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

Capitolo argued an advertisement that he “wrote the bill banning puberty blockers for children,” while Morrisey “got rich lobbying for puberty blockers.” In another ad, Capito calls himself a “girl dad” and promises to protect girls’ sports.

Last year, Capito, then chairman 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 by Republican Governor Jim Justice, bans transitional care for youth but does provide restrictions for trans youth who have been diagnosed with “severe gender dysphoria” by at least two health care providers.

When questioned by a Democratic colleague, Capito admitted that he had never heard of any examples or testimonies of transgender minors undergoing gender confirmation surgeries.

Transgender children usually first go through a social transition, which may involve changing their name, clothing or hairstyle; ultimately, they may decide to take puberty blockers, which gives them time to consider whether they should switch to hormone replacement therapy.

A local newspaper in Morgantown recently condemned the Republican candidates in an op-ed, writing that they “have run almost exclusively anti-transgender ads for more than a month.” The editorial board at the Dominion Post wondered about the candidates’ positions on other issues — such as affordable health care, better road conditions and access to healthy food — that actually impact people in their daily lives.

“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

Over the past three years, the number of anti-LGBTQ bills in statehouses across the country has exploded. Legislation has focused on transgender people’s access to gender-affirming care, their ability to use bathrooms that match their gender identity, obtaining gender-appropriate identification, and their ability to participate in public life. More than last year 80 anti-LGBTQ notes were codified into law nationwide, making 2023 one of the worst years for LGBTQ+ rights.

As governor, Justice made West Virginia a pioneer in anti-trans legislation, and in 2021 he signed laws restricting gender-affirming care for minors and banning transgender children from participating in school sports. Since then, momentum has begun to stall, and anti-LGBTQ laws in the state have largely failed this year. The West Virginia Lawmakers have failed to pass all but one of the anti-LGBTQ bills, which LGBTQ+ advocates see as a possible sign that the The tide is turning through the whole country. (The same thing happened in Florida, another state that was an early leader in introducing and passing anti-trans legislation.)

But the outcome of Tuesday’s race will determine what the future of LGBTQ+ rights in West Virginia may look like — and provide insight into state government priorities and future political leanings. For more than fifty 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 strengthened its alignment with the right wing.

West Virginia’s political landscape looks very different than it did before the 2000s. Senator Joe Manchin is the only Democrat (albeit a fairly moderate one) to hold statewide office — and he announced last fall that he would not seek re-election. Justice, a former billionaire, has his sights set on taking Manchin’s Senate seatas he is no longer eligible to run for governor due to state term limits.

The story behind the dramatic shift in the state’s political alignment is complicated, but part of the answer lies in the demise of the coal industry. West Virginia is the the second largest coal producer in the country, and with the rise of the natural gas market, automation and new industrial regulations, more and more miners are unemployed. Voters in the state have largely done that blamed the Democrats for the state’s economic problems.

In a March poll of Republican voters in West Virginia, more than half said the economy is most important to them, followed by education, health care and immigration. Fifty-four percent said they were “very concerned” about “transgender issues.” However, the poll provided no further information on what constitutes a ‘transgender problem’.

And while anti-trans rhetoric has taken center stage in West Virginia, it hasn’t stopped transgender politicians and advocates from trying — and succeeding — to reform policy at the local level.

In 2020, 29-year-old Rosemary Ketchum was elected the first openly transgender person to public office when she won a seat on the nonpartisan City Council in Wheeling, a city that leans 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 overly concerned about which restrooms transgender people should use. She said the Republican Party’s focus on anti-LGBTQ rhetoric may work at the national level, but it “doesn’t work at the local level — it doesn’t register.”