How the trans culture wars came to New York

Who pays the price when Republicans start campaigning on trans issues?

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman speaks at an event with Caitlyn Jenner about trans women in sports.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman speaks at an event with Caitlyn Jenner about trans women in sports. Office of Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman

In March, Caitlyn Jenner – one of the most prominent trans women in the nation – made a trip to Long Island. The former Olympian and conservative activist had taken a flight from California to rally alongside Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman in support of his executive order effectively barring transgender women and girls from competing on girls’ teams in county facilities. Jenner, who competed in the men’s Olympic decathlon decades ago before her transition, said that athletes should compete based on their assigned gender at birth, not based on their current gender identity. “This is critical to protecting the integrity of competition in women's sports,” Jenner said. 

Blakeman’s executive order, issued in February, was the first of its kind in the state, making national headlines as his move suddenly placed New York squarely in the middle of the national debate over trans rights. Shortly after, a parent advisory board in Manhattan approved a resolution widely condemned as anti-trans that sought a review of the city school district’s guidance on trans athletes competing on sports teams aligning with their gender identity. 

At the state level, conservatives are taking aim at provisions that would protect trans New Yorkers in their attempt to defeat a would-be constitutional amendment. “I personally don't believe that we should have transgender, biological boys competing against girls in our grade schools,” said one-time gubernatorial candidate and former Rep. Lee Zeldin, referring to transgender girls, at a May rally in the state Capitol opposing the state-level Equal Rights Amendment, which Democrats have largely framed as a means to protect abortion. “I don't believe that they should be inside of our bathrooms or inside of locker rooms.” He was flanked by Republican lawmakers and former collegiate swimmer Riley Gaines, who has become a prominent activist against trans women in women’s sports.

Despite measures passed in recent years to protect trans people, New York has not managed to evade the trans culture wars. Now, in a crucial election year in New York, conservatives are seizing on the cultural wedge issue.

We in government, we don't wait for somebody to get punched in the nose to take active measures to make sure that people are protected.
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, on the lack of an inciting incident for his ban on trans girls in women’s sports

A wave of anti-trans – and more broadly anti-LGBTQ+ – legislation has swept the nation in recent years, particularly in states controlled by Republicans, as conservatives have honed in on the issue. In particular, the policies have targeted transgender people. According to the Trans Legislation Tracker tool, 602 anti-trans bills were introduced last year both nationally and at the state level, with 86 becoming law. This year already, the Trans Legislation Tracker reports 38 anti-trans bills have passed.

New York, with Democrats in control of both the state and New York City governments, has passed landmark protections for trans New Yorkers in the face of restrictive laws in other states. But even before this year, the deep-blue state and city haven’t been completely immune to anti-trans rhetoric, with high-profile protests of drag story hours hosted by public officials and in public libraries, particularly starting in late 2022. Condemnation of those protests was swift, and anti-drag story hour agitators were often outnumbered by supporters of the events. 

But at the same time that anti-trans rhetoric began taking hold in conservative circles in the 2020s, Republicans began gaining footholds in New York politics, with major victories in the suburbs. Blakeman’s 2021 victory, flipping the Nassau County executive seat red, is one example, with Republican congressional victories that helped the GOP win the House following in 2022. The congressional races in particular brought national attention, and with it national talking points – like attacks on trans rights.

In New York, the debate has largely focused around trans women athletes, with the framing of protecting women and girls from “biological men” competing against them. “There was concern in Nassau County, certainly, that this could happen here,” Blakeman told City & State of his executive order, which requires any women’s sports teams making use of county facilities to be made up only of cisgender women. It says that trans women can compete on men’s or co-ed teams, and leaves the door open to trans men playing on men’s teams. 

Blakeman – who said his policy is not an attack on trans rights – referenced a handful of incidents with trans female athletes winning titles or allegedly injuring cisgender athletes, but he freely admits that Nassau County has not encountered any issues with trans women in sports. “We in government, we don't wait for somebody to get punched in the nose to take active measures to make sure that people are protected,” Blakeman said. 

It’s the reasoning behind a March resolution approved by Manhattan Community Education Council District 2, the largest local school district in Manhattan that covers the traditionally LGBTQ-friendly neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and Chelsea. The nonbinding resolution, which supporters have charged has been mischaracterized as anti-trans, sought a review of a 2019 city policy that directed schools to permit trans athletes to participate on teams that align with their gender identity. “This resolution is pro-girl, period,” said Maud Maron, a member of CEC District 2 who supported the resolution, who has previously run for office and repeatedly made anti-trans remarks, including that trans kids don’t exist. “The resolution says that girls should have the right to compete in sex-class segregated sports against other girls.” 

Trans rights advocates have said that measures like Blakeman’s and the Manhattan schools resolution are a solution in search of a problem, given that trans women make up such a small percentage of female athletes. “All of this is really a manufactured crisis,” said Elisa Crespo, executive director of the New Pride Agenda. “There is no threat to women in sports.” She said rhetoric like the Nassau executive order or the campaign against the state Equal Rights Amendment is about “convincing people that don’t know any better that trans people … are coming for women’s rights or parents' rights.”

But polling shows that rhetoric like Blakeman’s and Maron’s hits home with New Yorkers. An April poll from Siena College found that 66% of New Yorkers support the idea of high school athletes only competing against others of the same sex assigned at birth, a prospect that would prohibit trans girls from competing in women’s sports. Even a small majority of Democrats supported the idea. In a Long Island-specific poll from Siena and Newsday in May, 53% of Long Islanders said they supported Blakeman’s executive order, including 52% of independents. “Our text messages, our emails, our phone calls, were running 8 out of 10 in favor of what we were doing,” Blakeman said.

The Nassau executive order has further raised the profile of Blakeman, who has been making headlines since taking office. Donald Trump recently called him “somebody who's a real star in politics” while inviting the county executive on stage at a rally in the South Bronx. Blakeman, who has often appeared with Trump during public events in New York, briefly railed against sanctuary city policies before exiting the stage. His future political ambitions are uncertain, with some speculation that he may be eyeing a run for governor (not uncommon for Long Island executives) or a position in a potential Trump administration. A spokesperson for Blakeman sent a video of the rally when asked about a Trump appointment.

The focus on women’s sports and parental rights – another means by which conservatives have framed anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation – also gives Republicans a salient talking point to counter the state Equal Rights Amendment, which Democrats are hoping will help to drive voters to the polls. The proposed state constitutional amendment would enshrine abortion rights, which Democrats and those on the left have largely campaigned on, as well as protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, age, national origin, disability and ethnicity. Currently, the state constitution only offers protections based on race, color, creed or religion, though the state Human Rights Law already provides all the anti-discrimination protections being proposed aside from those ensuring access to abortion care.

While abortion rights did not serve as a winning issue for most New York Democrats in 2022, Democrats and supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment are waging a $20 million campaign to get voters to support the measure in the name of protecting abortion. 

Republicans in New York have repeatedly asserted that abortion is settled law, with congressional members and candidates in key swing districts generally declining to publicly support a national abortion ban like many of their conservative colleagues. Abortion protections in New York remain popular and are not a key tenet for Republican campaigns like crime and public safety have been in recent years. And abortion ballot measures have succeeded in every state in which they have gone before voters since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, even in conservative states. The “abortion bump” helped Democrats across the country, even if it didn’t translate in New York. “Previously, (Republicans) were attacking abortion – now they're attacking trans rights in large part because they realize that they can't win on abortion,” said Allie Bohm, senior policy adviser at the New York Civil Liberties Union. 

Instead, Republicans like Zeldin are rallying behind efforts to block the amendment based on the other protections it provides, particularly around trans youth. Groups like the Coalition to Protect Kids, which describes itself as a nonpartisan parental rights group, warn without concrete evidence that the protections afforded would strip away parental rights and could open the door to minors getting any number of medical procedures – including gender-affirming care – without parental consent. But the group’s Executive Director Greg Garvey said that if the amendment were solely about abortion rights, they would not be advocating against it. “New York has the most expansive abortion policies in the country, and they're under attack in no way whatsoever here,” said Garvey, who also echoed the concerns about the ballot measure paving the way for “biological males competing in biological female sports.” And as polling shows, that could be a winning issue. 

For now, the measure technically won’t be on the ballot after a state judge knocked it off in response to a Republican lawsuit over an alleged procedural faux pas. But Democrats have appealed and expect the higher courts will put the amendment back before voters. And in the meantime, neither side has stopped their advocacy. 

Previously, (Republicans) were attacking abortion – now they're attacking trans rights in large part because they realize that they can't win on abortion.
Allie Bohm, senior policy adviser at the New York Civil Liberties Union

Still, while parts of the rhetoric seem to resonate with some voters, measures like Blakeman’s executive order and the Manhattan schools resolution were met with swift condemnation from Democrats in charge of the state and the city. State Attorney General Letitia James almost immediately issued a cease and desist to Blakeman, and the NYCLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Long Island Roller Rebels to block the order. A judge struck down the measure last month, though Blakeman is appealing the decision and plans to introduce legislation to codify the order.

The same night the schools resolution passed, city schools Chancellor David Banks said the district would not follow its recommendations – and the resolution more broadly drew swift condemnation from local elected officials in March. Last month, Assembly Member Tony Simone led a letter signed by a number of officials, including Rep. Jerry Nadler, that called on the CEC District 2 to rescind the resolution. “To make this about sports, with anti-trans rhetoric, is BS,” Simone told City & State.

New York approved anti-discrimination laws in 2019 that added protections on the basis of gender identity and gender expression, a longtime priority for trans activists. Just last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed “safe haven” legislation that aims to ensure trans youth and their parents are protected from punitive laws restricting gender-affirming care in other states. Though Democrats in recent years have reacted to Republican talking points on crime by rolling back landmark bail laws, Bohm from the NYCLU that’s not a major concern right now. “I think that these are generally winning issues,” Bohm said. “I think Gov. Hochul and Legislature are really proud to be a trans justice state, an access state for gender-affirming care, a beacon for the LGBTQ community.”

The same polling that showed support for sports separated by gender assigned at birth showed that New Yorkers back both protecting LGBTQ+ rights and a state constitutional amendment that enshrines trans civil rights protections. Per the April Siena poll, 69% of New Yorkers said they support enhancing LGBTQ+ protections. Another Siena poll last month found that a plurality of New Yorkers – 48% – would vote for a state constitutional amendment that protects trans rights. While it’s not as high as the 64% who said they would support an amendment that protects abortion rights, 59% still said they would back the state Equal Rights Amendment that does both. And while conservatives are campaigning on women sports and parental rights, the amendment language makes no mention of either. (It technically also does not say “abortion,” instead using the language “pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes.”)

But even if the policies don’t take hold and enacted protections work as intended, the rhetoric itself can have chilling effects on members of the trans community. Curly Fry, of the Roller Rebels roller derby team that sued Blakeman, told City & State they recently had a “transphobic, queerphobic” interaction on the train with a man “who wanted to basically blame us for the country's problems” that almost turned physical. It came roughly a week after the executive order. “I was like, ‘Huh? Interesting. Super unrelated, couldn’t be, no way possible,’” Fry quipped.

Crespo of New Pride Agenda said that “the damage is already done” despite the swift condemnation and court rulings preventing policies from taking effect. “We're creating environments where we're normalizing this anti-trans rhetoric where young people are on the receiving end of it,” Crespo said. 

“This is part of the rising red wave in New York state that has been building for years now,” said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who swiftly condemned the education resolution in his borough. He pointed out that Zeldin, who is now parroting anti-trans rhetoric about girls’ sports in Albany, came within spitting distance of becoming governor in 2022 in the closest race in decades. He added that he increasingly considers New York a swing state. “What we're facing in Republicans, and in the right, more broadly, has been totally Trumpified,” Levine said. “And it's a worrying trend that Democrats need to respond more aggressively to.”