Why won’t Democrats say the word “trans”?

Trans kids are under direct attack, but Democrats are hiding behind vagueness.

LGBTQ+ activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New Yor...
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Say Their Names

What’s in a name? In Shakespeare, when Juliet asks this regarding her forbidden lover Romeo’s last name of Montague, it’s an expression of lamentation. In her society she is banned from a life with her true love. Nowadays, naming things of all kinds is important — especially in politics.

Late last week, after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered his state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to treat gender-affirming care for transgender minors as child abuse, it seemed suddenly that Democrats had trouble with names. When asked about it, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki didn’t even use the word “trans” or “transgender” in her reply, instead choosing to steer the conversation away from Texas and toward’s Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill which targets LGBTQ+ students more broadly.

This week, the situation for trans kids in Texas became even more dire. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the state has already launched investigations against families with trans children. The mother of a 16-year-old trans girl who herself works for DFPS was put on administrative leave from her job, and an investigator showed up at her home Friday demanding the teenager’s health records.

The Texas attack on trans youths and their families is the worst in years — worse than North Carolina’s H.B.2, worse than the trans military ban, worse than any of the athlete bans. We’re talking about adolescents being ripped from possibly the only family homes they know, only to be dumped into a state foster system littered with abuse and underfunding issues.

This rule meets three of the five criteria of the United Nations’s definition of “genocide.” It’s a five-alarm fire for trans rights in Texas, and yet Democratic officials like Psaki seem reluctant to even say the word transgender. After the Times article dropped Tuesday, Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke seemingly dropped his own “don’t say trans” response to the shocking news, tweeting with a conspicuous lack of specificity:

It was an unusual departure for the gubernatorial candidate, who has a history of robustly defending the rights of trans kids. After an initial backlash from many trans people and allies on Twitter, O’Rourke, to his credit, tweeted two other times later in the day, each time specifically naming trans kids in Texas.

It’s not just Psaki or O’Rourke who have done this. It’s a common trope among trans people that Democrats often will replace “trans” with “LGBTQ,” even when cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people aren’t targeted by whatever harmful policy Republicans are trying to implement.

This also tends to happen with abortion policy. Democrats have a long history of avoiding using the word “abortion” when addressing draconian Republican bans. They’ll instead opt for seemingly more palatable phrases like “a woman’s right to choose,” or “reproductive health access.” President Biden hasn’t publicly uttered the word “abortion” even once in his time in the White House, despite the fact that Texas effectively banned it early in his presidency.

I asked a few contacts of mine with experience in legislative communications why this keeps happening. According to them, there could be a number of reasons why an individual politician may be reluctant to even say the word “transgender” or “abortion.”

If a Democrat or their staff is still unfamiliar with trans rights now, that ignorance seems purposeful.

One reason, they told me, is that especially when it comes to trans rights, politicians could simply feel unfamiliar with the specifics and language of the issue. This seems far-fetched to me, given Republicans have made attacking trans rights a central plank of their platform since 2016. If a Democrat or their staff is still unfamiliar with trans rights now, that ignorance seems purposeful.

Another reason they mentioned is that politicians could be using focus groups or polling-based language. In other words, “LGBTQ” might poll better than “trans,” so the elected official opts to use the phrasing that polls better, even if it signals to trans people and their allies that their support isn’t as solid as they purport. It should be pointed out that both O’Rourke and the White House have flagging poll numbers; if their data shows that avoiding the issue polls best, it’s clearly not working.

This mindset lets them skirt the responsibility of actually learning the ins and outs of trans issues. It’s how you end up with Democrats speaking with the goal of denying their opponents access to possibly polarizing soundbites to use in their latest political attack ads. Maybe that’s good strategy, but it makes them unable to explain to voters exactly why their opponents’ culture war obsession is bullshit.

Biden seems to straddle this line. In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, he wasn’t afraid to say “transgender,” and said he would always have trans kids’ backs. He called for Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would enshrine LGBTQ+ rights into federal civil rights law. Unfortunately, the Equality Act is already politically dead as long as the filibuster is still in place. And Biden didn’t name any action his administration would take directly to protect trans kids, in Texas or elsewhere.

Trans kids and their families in Texas can’t wait around for the Equality Act. They need immediate help now. If the president really had their backs, he would leverage the federal government to help beyond calling for passage of dead legislation. He would direct the Department of Justice to intervene. He would encourage people to donate to grassroots organizations like Equality Texas or the Transgender Education Network of Texas.

But that didn’t happen. This is the problem. Trans people need more than just words, but many Democrats can’t even say our names.