MONROEVILLE, Pa. — Cletus Abate was aghast after learning last week that the Pennsylvania legislature is considering a bill that would extend protections to transgender people, including allowing them to use the bathrooms they choose.

So she took a petition and packets outlining what opponents see as threats from the legislation to a Ted Cruz rally, handing them out to anyone who would listen, including the candidate himself.

“I’m here because Donald Trump came out on the news and said he doesn’t have a problem with transgender bathrooms,” Abate said.

Transgender rights have become an unlikely and heated issue in the presidential campaign after North Carolina enacted a law that, among other things, mandated that people use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate.

Cruz has seized on Trump’s assertion that the North Carolina law, which also rolled back other protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people, was unnecessary and bad for business – corporations such as PayPal and Deutsche Bank scrapped plans to create jobs in the state after the legislation was enacted. Trump said there has been “little trouble” with allowing people to use the bathroom they want, though he later said that states should have the power to enact their own laws. Trump also said he would let transgender reality television star Caitlyn Jenner use the women’s bathroom at his properties.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he probably wouldn’t have signed the North Carolina law, while both Democratic candidates have condemned it.


“There’s been a significant amount of conversation about it on the presidential level,” said Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, who noted that 50 anti-transgender bills have been filed nationwide this year. “In terms of it being new territory, the answer is yes.”

Cruz’s argument centers on the idea that allowing transgender women to use the women’s restroom would lead to deviants dressing up as women and preying on young girls. His campaign released an ad accusing Trump of capitulating to the “PC police” and asking viewers whether a grown man pretending to be a woman should use a restroom with your daughter or wife.

“Donald Trump thinks so,” the ad reads.

Cruz has woven his support of North Carolina’s law into his stump speech. There has been some backlash: A woman holding a “Trans lives matter” sign protested Friday outside of a stop Cruz made in Allentown, Pa.

“As the father of two young girls, I can tell you it doesn’t make any sense to allow adult grown men strangers to be alone in a bathroom with little girls,” Cruz said at a rally here, the crowd loudly applauding.

He called Trump’s views on transgender people “political correctness on steroids.”


“Evil!” a woman in the crowd yelled.

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have forcefully condemned the laws, and Sanders said he would overturn them if elected president.

In Pennsylvania, the battle over transgender rights has been brewing for years. It is the only northeastern state that does not extend anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender people, which some members of the Republican-controlled legislature have tried to change in session after session. They have found an ally in Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who this month issued executive orders barring gender-based discrimination against employees and job applicants in state government and its contractors. Pennsylvania’s physician general is a transgender woman.

The governor has called for passage of the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, which would provide protections to gay and bisexual people in housing, employment and public accommodations, including public bathrooms. An employer does not need to construct new facilities to comply. The bill is stalled in the legislature because of a contentious battle over the budget.

Opponents here have seized on the national controversy over transgender rights, labeling it the “bathroom bill,” as many did in North Carolina.

Sally Keaveney, chief of staff to state Sen. Larry Farnese, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said this is the first time opponents have used the specter of transgender people in bathrooms to fight a statewide anti-discrimination bill. A number of conservative groups have launched a website dedicated to defeating the bill. It urges Pennsylvanians to call their elected officials, highlights that the bill would affect the commonwealth’s public schools and claims such legislation would lead to an increase in sexual assault, something organizations who work with assault victims call a myth.


Lizabeth Kleintop, a transgender woman and Moravian College professor from Bethlehem, Pa., said she doesn’t use the women’s bathroom because it is a choice, but rather because she identifies as a woman.

“Our interest in going to the restroom is to pee,” Kleintop said.

Cruz does have at least one transgender fan: Jenner, who has said she supports Cruz and would like to be his transgender ambassador. In the latest episode of her show “I Am Cait,” Jenner was informed that Cruz supported a group of pastors that worked to defeat a Houston anti-discrimination ordinance. Jenner called Cruz “totally misinformed” about transgender people but said he can “take care of the big issues.”

A representative for Jenner declined to comment when asked about Cruz’s stance on the North Carolina law.

Abate said she’s willing to fight as long as it takes to defeat the bill. She insists that she is not bigoted and has gay and lesbian friends and family members, but she believes such legislation violates the rights of people, businesses and places of worship that don’t want transgender people in single-sex bathrooms.

Abate’s newly enacted crusade is now driving her political choices. For months she has supported Trump’s candidacy, but his transgender comments have made her reevaluate, just days before Pennsylvania’s Republican primary on Tuesday.

“I guess I am going to be pulling the lever for Cruz,” she said.

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