Vermont GOP officials double down on anti-trans line of attack

Republican candidate Christopher-Aaron Felker stands in the rain outside the polls August 17, 2021. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Some in the Vermont Republican Party are taking a page out of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ playbook.

Last week, state GOP chair Paul Dame wrote to party members in his newsletter about H.659, a bill that that would allow transgender and non-binary minors to receive certain types of gender-affirming care without parental consent. “Progressive Democrats Try to Strip Parental Consent,” he titled the email, in which he asked party members to “PLEASE donate immediately to help Republicans STOP THIS MADNESS!”

On Monday, Burlington GOP chair Christopher-Aaron Felker doubled down, tweeting out individual pictures of the bill’s sponsors alongside a single descriptor: “groomer.”

Felker, who has been dogged by accusations of transphobia in past runs for office, also retweeted a link to a video, titled “The Groomer Boom,” made by right-wing YouTuber Joshua Slocum. In it, the online personality called on his audience to “bombard” the phone lines of H.659’s sponsors, including Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker. Slocum also dismissed statistics showing that LGBTQ+ youth suffer from disproportionate rates of depression and suicide, arguing that being trans was itself a mental illness, and likely the result of trauma and abuse.

“There's no such thing as, ‘I'm just naturally trans and everything else is fine,’” Slocum said. 

Republicans in states across the country have introduced a series of anti-trans bills, including in Florida, where DeSantis recently signed a bill barring teachers in kindergarten through grade 3 from discussing sexual identity or orientation with their students. In defending the measure, called by its critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted that it should be “more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill.”

“Grooming” has since become a buzzword anew on the right, suggesting that adults are preying on children by discussing gender identity and expression. Gay rights activists counter that this is an old trope and that those fighting social change have long tried to equate LGBTQ+ communities with pedophilia. 

“What we're seeing from the statewide party of the Vermont GOP is these consistent attacks and rhetoric that has just been used against LGBTQ people for my entire upbringing,” Small said. 

In contrast to the spate of anti-trans legislation seen across the country, the Vermont Legislature has recently passed two trans rights bills championed by Small, both of which Gov. Phil Scott strongly supported and quickly signed.

One banned the so-called LGBTQ+ “panic” defense, and the other will allow trans people to more easily amend their birth certificates.

“I felt like we were moving in a direction of support and love,” Small said. “And I think this is taking us back to a time that I'm grateful I did not have to experience in the state — but hear so often (about) in the halls of the Statehouse — which is the time of ‘Take Back Vermont’ and civil unions. And that's not the Vermont I want to go back to. I was hoping that we'd be moving forward.”

Scott, a socially liberal Republican, has grown increasingly distant from the state party as some local and county officials have continued to lean into the culture wars. Asked to weigh in, Jason Maulucci, the governor’s press secretary, said in a written statement that Scott “unequivocally condemns these online attacks.”

“For years he has called out this kind of polarizing rhetoric that seeks only to divide and cause harm,” Maulucci wrote. “The Governor believes that legitimate policy debates, even those that can become heated, are appropriate and healthy for democracy. But there is no place for personal attacks and the stoking of fear.”

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: lduffort@vtdigger.org

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