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Josh Hawley’s viral transphobic comments, briefly explained

Hawley invoked transphobia during an abortion rights hearing in an apparent attempt to rile up the GOP base.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks to reporters outside of a hearing on “Protecting America’s Children From Gun Violence” with the Senate Judiciary Committee at the US Capitol on June 15, 2022, in Washington, DC. 
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

During a Senate hearing on the future of abortion rights Tuesday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) became the latest Republican lawmaker to use transphobic rhetoric to rile up the GOP’s base — and to avoid wrestling with the consequences of abortion restrictions across the country.

Hawley, in his line of questioning, asked one of the witnesses — UC Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges — why she kept using the term “people with a capacity for pregnancy” when she was describing who would be affected by bans and restrictions on abortion. “Would that be women?” Hawley asked.

Bridges explained that she was using this term to be inclusive of different groups who would be affected by these laws. “Many cis women have the capacity for pregnancy, many cis women do not have the capacity for pregnancy,” Bridges explained. “There are also trans men who are capable of pregnancy as well as non-binary people who are capable of pregnancy.”

“So this isn’t really a women’s rights issue, it’s a — ” Hawley countered.

“We can recognize that this impacts women while also recognizing that it impacts other groups. Those things are not mutually exclusive,” said Bridges. Hawley then went on to ask what she thought the “core of this right” was about. At that point, Bridges noted that his remarks limited who the conversation about abortion rights should be centered on.

“I want to recognize that your line of questioning is transphobic, and it opens up trans people to violence,” said Bridges, who went on to cite studies about the high attempted suicide rate among trans people. Hawley expressed skepticism that his remarks would contribute to violence, prompting Bridges to note that he was denying trans people’s existence.

“Do you believe that men can get pregnant?” said Bridges.

“No, I don’t think men can get pregnant,” Hawley said.

“So you’re denying that trans people exist,” Bridges said.

“And that leads to violence?” Hawley said.

Bridges’s concerns reflect the fact that lawmakers’ political attacks on trans people — including denying their existence, and using legislation to limit their freedom of movement, access to activities, and availability of health care — have coincided with an increase in physical violence. According to a 2021 Time report, anti-trans violence has surged in the wake of an increase in legislation targeting trans people. A 2021 UCLA report also found that trans people, particularly Black and brown trans people, were significantly more likely to be victims of violent crime than cis people.

You can watch the full exchange, here.

Hawley’s questions, which failed to acknowledge how many people are impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, are another instance of Republicans tapping into transphobia in their discussion of issues on which they’ve taken a stance that’s not reflective of the position of most Americans. As survey after survey has shown, most Americans support abortion rights, and Hawley’s focus on language allowed him to avoid engaging with that fact, and to instead focus on a topic that has proven to be galvanizing for the Republican base.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) used a similar tactic this past spring, during the nomination process for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who most Americans believed was a good fit for the Court. After other dishonest attacks that highlighted culture war issues, Blackburn asked Jackson to define what a “woman” was.

Turning their ire on inclusive language is a conscious strategy. It allows Republicans to misrepresent and minimize the effects of laws like abortion bans, by omitting groups that they affect. Engaging in transphobia also plays well with some members of the Republican base. And it deflects from arguments over the issue at hand: in Hawley’s case, that he and his party want to limit abortion access despite that being a nationally unpopular stance.

As Julie Allen, a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative fellow, wrote for WBUR, “Transphobia is not an ideology — it is a sound-bite wedge issue being used by opportunistic politicians, fear-mongering to their right-wing base.”