As conservatives attack trans people, does Joe Biden still have our backs?

OPINION: In his 2022 State of the Union address, Joe Biden told trans kids, “I will always have your back.” In this year’s speech, the president was silent on trans issues

On Tuesday evening, President Joe Biden delivered his second State of the Union to the customary joint session of Congress. Though marred by repeated heckling from several Republican elected officials throughout, Biden’s speech served to lay out his agenda for the next two years.

Many in the beleaguered trans community hoped, perhaps in vain, that Biden would repeat sentiments from last year’s speech, when he told trans youth that he had their backs—or maybe that the president would push back more sharply against the increasingly extreme GOP anti-trans rhetoric. However, the president merely repeated his call to pass the Equality Act, which would add LGBTQ2S+ people to the Civil Rights Act of 1972.

Biden’s lack of attention devoted to what has quickly become the top conservative political priority was initially received with disappointment from many trans people, and parents of trans kids, who feel that they are under constant assault from hundreds of GOP state bills targeting the community.

Strategically, the president’s avoidance of the issue makes some intuitive sense. Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the official Republican response after Biden’s address, and her speech stood in stark contrast to what voters presumably saw from the president. Instead of pushing for substantial political goals, Sanders instead waged more culture war. She named trans issues as a specific case of the left pushing too far, too fast.

“The choice is no longer between right or left,” said Sanders, who is the former press secretary to Donald Trump. “The choice is between normal and crazy.”

Sanders went on, claiming that the current culture war on trans rights rights, critical race theory and other now-mainstream conservative attacks was a fight conservatives didn’t start or want in the first place. It’s obvious that isn’t true. The current assault on trans rights began in 2015, almost immediately after conservatives lost on gay marriage at the Supreme Court. That year, a referendum was successfully used to repeal a Houston city ordinance granting multiple marginalized groups non-discrimination protections. Proponents of the repeal used now-familiar hand-wringing about “keeping men out of women’s bathrooms” to move their political agenda forward.

From there, conservatives attempted to ban trans people from public bathrooms with the now infamous HB2 bathroom bill in North Carolina in early 2016. The number of anti-trans state house bills introduced has grown exponentially every year since then.

In the end, Sanders’s wild, red-meat-wielding speech came off as more “crazy” than the president’s cool, calm and collected speech touting the many road and transportation projects funded with his signature infrastructure bill, and calling for a crackdown on so-called “junk fees” on consumers.


“The fact that Democrats are willing to avoid issues they find difficult to argue is also a bad sign—especially for trans people already under attack from the right.”

From an optics perspective alone, it appears that Biden scored a win for the night.But while the speech might be a short-term political victory for the president, the fact that Democrats are willing to avoid issues they find difficult to argue is also a bad sign—especially for trans people already under attack from the right.

Ceding the rhetorical battleground to conservatives on LGBTQ2S+ issues lets conservatives continue to falsely slur queer people as “groomers” and “pedophiles.” It signals that it’s okay to continue attacking trans youth in ever more creative and hideous ways, even as the federal government has attempted to push back on discriminatory state actions.

Saying one year that you “have our backs” and then leaving that line out of the next year’s speech creates little cracks in the minds of queer and trans people that maybe the president might not be willing to defend us after all. Maybe he’s more enamored of building another highway overpass than in protecting trans lives.

It’s a tough balance for Biden to strike. How do you communicate that you will defend a community without enabling the right to use it as an excuse to ramp up attacks of its own?

I sincerely hope Biden can overcome whatever Republican opponent he faces in 2024, but it does not feel good to be the political cannon fodder of the culture war while the president touts his bridges-and-roads initiative.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

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