Dr. Mehmet Oz leans in to ask a little girl, “Do you remember when your parents thought you were a boy?”
The question was but a few seconds of a full 2010 episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” that focused on the experience of raising transgender children. But the clip now appears in an attack ad aired by a super PAC supporting one of his Republican primary opponents in the crowded and high-stakes race for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.
Another campaign ad, from Republican U.S. Senate candidate Vicky Hartzler in Missouri, targets transgender people in sports and has her referring to an NCAA athlete — Ivy League championship-winning University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas — by her deadname and saying “women’s sports are for women, not men pretending to be women.”
And on Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is running for reelection, ordered the state’s child welfare agency to investigate reports of gender-confirming care for kids as abuse.
Derision and disparagement of transgender people, and even of those perceived as their allies, are proliferating on the airwaves and in statehouses across the country as 2022 election campaigns heat up. It’s a classic strategy of finding a “wedge issue” that motivates a political base, political observers say.
“They are just weaponizing the fact that most everyday Americans don’t yet realize that they know someone who is transgender,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “It is easy to fall for a myth about a group of people you don’t know, and that’s just human. … It’s just really unfortunate to now see a group of politicians try to use that to their own advantage.”
Republicans use it because public opinion is on their side, said Neil Newhouse, a veteran Republican pollster.
The idea of restricting transgender athletes resonates with parents of high school athletes, motivates the Republican base, and carries swing voters by 2 to 1, Newhouse said.
In a primary, a Republican candidate can use it to establish their conservative credentials and to come out first or forcefully enough to own the issue, Newhouse said. Or it can be used to push a rival to the left, he said.
Asked for comment on the ad, which does not mention sports, Oz’s campaign — using inaccurate terminology to describe transgender women — said only that the celebrity surgeon doesn’t believe that “biological males should compete in women’s sports.”
The efforts to make political hay of transgender and other LGBTQ people extend well beyond just campaign ads.
At least 10 states have banned transgender athletes from participating in sports in a way that is consistent with their gender identity.
Indiana is poised to be the 11th, although federal courts have blocked laws in Idaho and West Virginia. And then there are states that are banning or investigating gender-confirming treatment, such as Texas.
The narrative of transgender people as a threat has strong parallels to bathroom-use and same-sex marriage bans and can be traced to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977, said Andrew Proctor, an associate professor of politics at Wake Forest University who studies and teaches LGBTQ politics.
The political framing is often around protecting girls, which is probably designed to broaden its appeal, Proctor and others said.
“It’s good messaging. Who doesn’t want to protect children?” said Don Haider-Markel, a University of Kansas political science professor.
Although examples like Lia Thomas are few across the country, Hartzler — who cites her experience as a high school athlete and coach — said in an interview that the issue of trans athletes is ad-worthy in a Senate race because it is a “representation of the wokeness that is being inflicted upon us from all sides and has gone beyond common sense.”
A spokesperson for University of Pennsylvania athletics said Thomas would not comment on the ad.
The NCAA in January adopted a sport-by-sport approach for transgender athletes to document testosterone levels before championship selections. For high school sports, states have a hodgepodge of policies.
In Pennsylvania, the TV ad from the super PAC supporting Republican David McCormick tries to characterize Oz as a “Republican in Name Only,” or not conservative enough.
The super PAC, Honor Pennsylvania, has received millions of dollars from conservative billionaire Ken Griffin.
The ad rips a few seconds from the episode and presents it without the context of a show that looked at transgender children from a measured standpoint, with input from a pediatrician and their parents on the kids’ newfound happiness.
The clip in the attack ad stops after Oz gently asks the girl, from a military family, if she remembers when her parents thought she was a boy. The full episode continues:
“A little bit,” the girl answers.
“Talk to me about that a little bit,” Oz says. “What do you remember?”
The girl’s mother, sitting next to her, says: “Like, how did it make you feel when I used to take you and get your hair cut at the barber shop on base?”
“It made me very angry,” Josie answers.
“You did not like your hair cut,” the mother says. “Why not?”
Josie answers: “Because I’m a girl, not a boy.”
A political consultant to Honor Pennsylvania did not return messages asking how that makes Oz not conservative enough. A McCormick campaign spokesperson did not return messages asking whether McCormick agrees with the ad’s attack.