GOP debate: Republican candidates accuse 'crazy woke' teachers of 'indoctrinating' kids about gender identity

"If God made you a man, you play sports against men," noted one candidate. Read what the rest had to say.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at Wednesday's Republican debate.
Many of the candidates at Wednesday's Republican debate, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, took issue with trans and gender-expansive people. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

During Wednesday’s GOP presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, the first of the 2024 election cycle, LGBTQ issues and other culture war battles didn’t emerge as a focus of discussion until the tail end of the night.

Over the course of two hours, the eight Republican presidential hopefuls on stage sparred over who has the most experience, who’s the most anti-abortion and which one would support former President Donald Trump (the current frontrunner, who opted for a softball interview with Tucker Carlson, instead of being on the debate stage) as the nominee if he is convicted in any of the four criminal cases he currently faces. It wasn’t until the candidates were asked about their views on education that some of their positions on queer policies were revealed.

Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida: “The decline in education is one of the major reasons why our country is in decline. We need education in this country, not indoctrination,” said DeSantis, who proudly boasted about signing his state’s controversial Parental Rights in Education law — dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents — which bans any instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in public school.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday.
During Wednesday's debate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said teachers are "indoctrinating" students with gender ideologies. (Morry Gash/AP)

“In Florida, we eliminated critical race theory from our K-through-12 schools. We eliminated gender ideology from our K-through-12 schools. And we have elevated the importance of American civics and teaching our kids about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” DeSantis said. While DeSantis’s campaign hasn’t said whether he would pursue such anti-LGBTQ policies on a national level, he has endorsed banning the use of federal funds for gender-affirming care, regardless of age.

Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina: “There’s a lot of crazy woke things happening in these schools,” she said when asked by moderator Martha MacCallum about previous comments Haley made insinuating that trans inclusion in women’s sports was the “women’s rights issue of our time.” Haley elaborated by saying, “I’m going to fight for girls all day long, because strong girls become strong women; strong women become strong leaders; and biological boys don’t belong in the locker rooms of any of our girls.”

Tim Scott, South Carolina senator: Scott used his closing argument to let the audience know where he stands on the debate over trans athletes in women’s sports, saying that one of the values his mother instilled in him was that “if God made you a man, you play sports against men.”

In a fundraising email sent after the debate, Scott’s campaign doubled down on that position: “This is what I stand for. If you’re able-bodied, you work. If you take out a loan, you pay it back. If you commit a violent crime, you go to jail. And if you're a man, you should play sports against men. America needs more victors and less victims.”

Republican presidential candidates Sen. Tim Scott, left, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum spoke about trans inclusion in women's sports at the presidential primary debate.
Republican candidates Sen. Tim Scott, left, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum spoke about trans inclusion in women's sports at the presidential primary debate. (Morry Gash/AP)

Doug Burgum, governor of North Dakota: “In North Dakota, we made a priority of protecting women’s sports,” Burgum said when asked about his decision to sign a ban on trans kids in school sports, despite not having any examples of that happening in his state.

He did, however, dispute “the idea that every school district and every teacher is somehow indoctrinating people,” arguing that “the vast majority [of teachers are] working low-paying jobs, and they’re fighting for those kids and their families.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, entrepreneur: “There are two genders,” Ramaswamy declared on the debate stage. In past interviews with conservative outlet Breitbart, however, he has made clear that he supports sweeping restrictions on transgender rights, going so far as to call trans people “mentally deranged.”

Why it matters

Queer people have been a central focus of the GOP’s culture wars in the past few years, with many LGBTQ Americans fleeing their states to escape punitive laws. Since Trump took office, Republicans have made swift efforts to reverse Obama-era policies protecting LGBTQ people — including measures to allow trans kids to use bathrooms matching their gender identity, as well as protections for health providers who offer gender-affirming care to trans youth. At one point, Trump attempted to remove any official recognition of transgender people by creating a narrow legal definition of sex as being only male or female.

President Biden has made queer issues a major priority, pledging in June that LGBTQ Americans would always have the support of his administration.

But with policies aiming to censor queer people at school, ban drag queens, books or musical productions with LGBTQ storylines and limit access to trans health care, the Republican Party’s growing antagonism toward LGBTQ people is sure to be a key issue as the primary election cycle moves forward.

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