On December 6, 2023, four candidates met on stage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the NewsNation-hosted GOP debate, the fourth in the primary. Candidates Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy (pictured above from L-R) and faced questions from moderators Megyn Kelly, Elizabeth Vargas (NewsNation), and Eliana Johnson (The Washington Free Beacon).
The debate did not include any substantive questions that address the safety and freedom of LGBTQ Americans and instead devolved into a competition between candidates—and between candidates and one moderator—as to who could prove the most transphobic.
Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD said, “Last night’s debate was a failure of leadership and of journalism, full of unchecked disinformation about LGBTQ Americans and their families. In a few instances, a moderator was the one fueling the disinformation and egging on the candidates for shameful pile-ons of transgender people. GLAAD asked the moderators to ask questions about how to keep Americans safe, including LGBTQ Americans who are facing unprecedented violence and harassment. Moderator Megyn Kelly chose instead to grossly mischaracterize life-saving healthcare and bait candidates into outdoing one another in anti-transgender fear mongering. This debate was an embarrassment for the candidates, for the host, and for the American people looking for real answers to actual problems, not more bullying of vulnerable people and lying about who they are. Voters, responsible reporters, and viewers can take note of last night and all that it revealed about the desperate candidates and a grandstanding moderator and how they failed to deliver information that advances our democracy and the safety of all Americans.”
In advance of the debate, GLAAD sent a letter encouraging the moderators to include pressing LGBTQ issues in the debate. Candidates and moderator Megyn Kelly amplified falsehoods about LGBTQ people and laws targeting, beginning in the candidates’ opening remarks.
- Florida Governor Ron DeSantis attempted to contrast himself with former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, claiming a bill he signed banning mainstream health care for transgender people would stop the “gender mutilation of minors,” an inflammatory and false characterization of health care backed by every major medical association. DeSantis claimed Haley opposed the law.
- Haley responded, “I actually said his ‘don’t say gay’ bill didn’t go far enough,” because it only applied to students up to third grade. Haley added that gender identity should not be “talked about in schools” at any grade level.
- DeSantis doubled down, claiming the bill banning best practice healthcare for trans youth (which has been blocked from enforcement by a federal judge as unconstitutional and “motivated by bigotry”) prohibits “sex change operations on minors,” DeSantis falsely claimed puberty blockers are irreversible. Puberty blockers are safe, effective, and have been prescribed for decades in children with precocious puberty and are reversible. DeSantis went on to falsely describe transgender health care as “child abuse.” The care is supported by every major medical association, statements here.
Moderator Megyn Kelly’s question to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie included a blatantly false and inflammatory premise:
Kelly: You do not favor a ban on trans medical treatments for minors saying it’s a parental rights issue. The surgeries done on minors involve cutting off body parts at a time when these kids cannot even legally smoke a cigarette. Kids who go from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones are at a much greater likelihood of winding up sterile. How is it that you think a parent should be able to okay these surgeries, never mind the sterilization of a child, and aren’t you way too out of step on this issue to be the Republican nominee.
Christie: No, I’m not because I because Republicans believe in less government, not more… government involvement in people’s lives. And you know what Megyn? I trust parents and we’re out there saying that we should empower parents and education. We should empower parents to make more decisions about where their kids go to school. I agree.… Let me just say this. This is not something I favor. I think it’s a very very dangerous thing to do. But that’s my opinion as a parent Megyn, and I get to make the decisions about my children—not anybody else. And to every parent out there who’s watching tonight? You start to turn over just a little bit of this authority, the authority they’re going to take from you next, you’re not going to like.
Kelly: …Okay, here’s my follow-up question. You talk about parental rights. Let’s talk about him when you were governor in 2017. You signed a law that required new guidelines for schools dealing with transgender students. Those guidelines required schools to accept a child’s preferred gender identity, even if the minor’s parents objected. And it said that there is no duty for schools to notify parents if their son or daughter changes their gender identity, allowing the serious issue to remain a secret between the school and a child. How is any of that pro-parental rights?
In fact, Chris Christie signed a bipartisan law in 2017 requiring the NJ Commissioner of Education to develop guidelines for school districts regarding transgender students, which moderator Kelly falsely characterized as being anti-parents’ rights. His successor’s administration designed the education regulations. Contrary to Kelly’s claims, puberty blockers do not cause sterility, and surgeries on minors are exceedingly rare.
During the debate, DeSantis charged Haley with killing a bill that said, in his words, “that men shouldn’t go into girls’ bathrooms,” which Haley denied. In fact, transgender girls are not “men,” and there is no evidence that trans students are a threat to other students. Transgender students are three times more likely to miss school than other students, are more likely to report feeling unsafe at school and being bullied, and face a risk of sexual assault being in locker rooms and restrooms that don’t match their gender identity. Research of crime data does not support claims that transgender people pose a risk in private spaces.
Also last night, Vivek Ramaswamy renewed his false claims from the second debate, that “…transgenderism… is a mental health disorder.” The term “transgenderism” is used by anti-transgender activists to dehumanize transgender people and reduce who they are to “a condition” or a “dangerous ideology” and medical consensus states that being transgender is not a mental health condition. Ramaswamy promised to “ban genital mutilation or chemical castration,” an inflammatory and inaccurate description of health care for transgender people that is supported by every major medical association, statements here.
Alabama, where the debate took place, has laws denying LGBTQ people equality in family law, public accommodations, health care, and education. Some 3.1% of adult Alabamians are LGBTQ and 24% are raising children. This year Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law HB 261, the second law banning students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, this time targeting college and university students. Only 4% of Alabamians live in parts of the state with non-discrimination policies regarding sexual orientation or gender identity making it among the states most hostile to LGBTQ equality.
GLAAD offered moderators questions for the candidates, including the following:
Suggested questions for Ron DeSantis:
As governor of Florida, you signed and then expanded the so-called “don’t say gay” law to include not just the earliest grades but all the way to 12th grade. What would you say to a gay 16-year-old, or a student with two moms, about why they can’t talk about themselves or their families in school?
Your record in Florida includes multiple bills targeting transgender people—the bathroom they use, whether they can play school sports, having names and pronouns respected in school, and limiting AP Black history because it included “queer theory,” even though there have been queer Black Americans in history. If elected president, should we expect this emphasis in Florida to extend to LGBTQ Americans nationwide?
Suggested question for all candidates:
Do you support marriage equality for same-sex couples?
FACT: Marriage equality has climbed to a record high support of 71% of all Americans, including 49% of Republicans.
Suggested question for all candidates:
Gun violence is the number one cause of death for young Americans, yet there’s incredible focus on banning health care for transgender youth that the experts say saves and improves their lives; and on banning books by and about LGBTQ people and books about race and racism. Do lawmakers have the right priority here?
Suggested question for Chris Christie:
As governor you signed two bills protecting for transgender New Jersey residents, including a bill directing schools to let students use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity or provide “reasonable alternative arrangements,” and another prohibiting health insurers from discriminating against transgender residents. Why was this important to you?
Suggested question for Vivek Ramaswamy:
Your campaign website states that as president you would sign into law a ban on health care for transgender minors if it reached your desk in the White House. Every major medical association in the U.S. supports such care for trans youth. Have you talked with parents of transgender youth about their lives and private health care decisions? Why is it a politician’s place to decide what is best for these families?
Suggested question for Nikki Haley:
You’ve suggested that teenage girls’ mental health has suffered because transgender girls are playing school sports and are in locker rooms. There have been more bills proposed about transgender people in sports than the known number of transgender students in school sports. Where are you getting your information about mental health and transgender teens?
FACT: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released studies about a rise in suicidal ideation in teenage girls and LGBTQ students, but no connection was made between the presence of transgender youth and thoughts of teenage girls.
FACT: Transgender students are three times more likely to miss school than other students, are more likely to report feeling unsafe at school and being bullied, and face a risk of sexual assault being in locker rooms and restrooms that don’t match their gender identity. Research of crime data does not support claims that transgender people pose a risk in private spaces.
Suggested question for all candidates:
The past two years have seen a sharp uptick in attempts to ban books and inclusive lesson plans from schools, most going after books about or by LGBTQ people and people of color. Do you support removing these books from schools and libraries?
Suggested question for Ron DeSantis:
More than 70% of candidates supported by the anti-LGBTQ “Moms for Liberty” lost their elections last month, 90% of their candidates lost in Iowa. You’ve called for the resignation of Florida’s Republican party chair, Christian Ziegler, who is accused of sexual assault, and whose wife co-founded “Moms for Liberty,” but who said she was in a three-person sexual relationship with the woman accusing her husband of assault. Does any of this dim your view of “Moms for Liberty” or the Zieglers?
President Trump has also been accused of multiple sexual assaults and held liable. Should that disqualify him for elected office?
Suggested question for all candidates:
How do you plan to protect LGBTQ people and supportive communities, rather than politicize them?
GLAAD’s reference guide on all the declared presidential candidates and their stances on LGBTQ issues is available here: Election 2024: Presidential Primary Candidates on the Record.
Throughout the rest of the campaign, GLAAD is encouraging voters and journalists to ask the candidates questions about their LGBTQ records. Americans have the right to know how these candidates plan to address LGBTQ people’s rights and needs to be safe, belong and to succeed in all areas of American life.
Some 7% of Americans are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, according to Gallup, including 20% of GenZ, the youngest population cohort studied and most out generation in history. Polling and turnout analysis from the 2020 election indicate that LGBTQ voters played a deciding role in the victory of Joe Biden for President and in key battleground states.
The results of the 2024 general election will have profound implications for LGBTQ people in Alabama and across the country. The NewsNation debate was an important opportunity to discuss what’s at stake and the LGBTQ records of the candidates. Media covering the debate should note the candidates’ LGBTQ records.