On the morning of the midterm elections in 2022, viewers of MSNBC’s Morning Joe could have been forgiven for wondering if they’d accidentally tuned in to the wrong channel. Host Joe Scarborough hinted at the possibility of an electoral backlash against Democrats based on Lia Thomas, a lone transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania whose college athletic career had ended half a year previously.
“You never know why people are going to vote,” he said. “It may be the swimmer at Penn, the trans swimmer at Penn, which Democrats don't talk about, but Republicans are littering mailboxes across America with fliers on it. You never know why people are going to vote.”
Guest and former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele preemptively blamed a Democratic loss among Hispanic voters on Democratic positions on LGBTQ people, saying those voters “are not sitting there talking about LGBTQ; they’re not talking about transgender.” Steele continued, “They look at the family unit very differently. The Republicans have been able to make that messaging work for them.”
But the Republicans did not, in fact, make that messaging work for them. Democrats held on to the Senate — and the Latino vote — successfully defending multiple vulnerable seats and defying the historical odds. But on MSNBC’s cheerfully named Morning Joe, trans people remained the spoken-but-largely-unseen sword over the heads of the Democrats, dangling by a slowly fraying thread, ready to end the party at any moment.
Morning Joe’s anti-trans messaging has largely come from the host it’s named after, but co-host Mika Brzezinski has not responded to the right’s onslaught against LGBTQ people with particular empathy either. She dismissed the reaction to the “Don’t Say Gay” law as Democrats “getting triggered,” even though it has led to teachers in Florida leaving the profession or facing investigations for showing materials with LGBTQ characters and losing their jobs for displaying art or showing empty bookshelves in schools. And Brzezinski misgendered Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr twice in a recent segment.
But Scarborough, a former Florida Republican congressman, has gone further, repeatedly claim that somewhere between 80% and 85% of Americans oppose trans inclusion in sports. He's also seemingly blamed trans people for the fall of Roe v. Wade.
Scarborough spent months laying the rhetorical groundwork for the 2022 midterms to be a devastating rebuke of Democratic support for trans people. In March 2022, he claimed that the culture war on trans equality had become a dinner table issue, “even with academics,” and that people feared being canceled for expressing the opinion that a transgender 22-year-old should be barred from athletic competition.
Scarborough and Brzezinski similarly took issue with the media focus on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in April 2022, dismissing it as a “phony issue” and complaining that “people on both sides” were engaging in “nonstop talk about 0.003% of America’s population.”
Scarborough said, "This will destroy our country. Look at people on both sides. Seriously? Just both sides, nonstop talk. Nonstop talk about 0.003% of America's population.”
“This is how Democrats will lose,” responded Brzezinski. (7.1% of Americans say that they are LGBTQ, according to a recent poll, including 20.8% of Generation Z. In the same poll, 0.7% of Americans say that they are transgender.)
“Democrats, I get so frustrated watching them respond to Republican trigger antics,” she said. “That's not the response Democrats need to have in terms of fighting to win the midterms. They're getting triggered by this law and letting it bring them down publicly. … I mean, there's so much to work with and, yet, they get caught on things and become emotional.”
In June, days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Scarborough quoted Bari Weiss, an anti-trans writer who seemed to blame trans people for the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back abortion rights.
“How did we wind up with a feminist movement that is policing our ability to say the word ‘woman’ but has been unable to safeguard second-wave feminism’s most important victory,” Weiss had written. Added Scarborough: “It seems there has been a lack of focus on first principles certainly for the Democratic Party and for women.”
In July, Scarborough returned to the topic of trans athletes, having apparently found a Pew poll that he said proved his point: “This is just something people don’t talk about much on television, maybe they’re afraid to. 82% of Americans, according to a recent Pew poll, said they don’t think that a man who transitions post-puberty should be able to compete in girls sports or in women’s sports. Now, that’s a position 82% of Americans agree on, but again, it’s set up as a left versus right.”
The poll that Scarborough appeared to be referencing had been released the month before. In reality, it found that while 58% of people favor or strongly favor laws requiring transgender athletes to compete with members of their birth sex, only 37% of Democrats agree. (The same poll found that 55% of Americans do not know anybody who is transgender.)
To get to the 82% figure he cited, Scarborough would have had to count not only those who say they “strongly favor” laws or policies that “require that transgender athletes compete on teams that match the sex they were assigned at birth, not the gender they identify with” (41%), and those who say that they “favor” such laws or policies (17%), but also those who “neither favor nor oppose” these proposals (24%).
But with nobody on air, or, apparently, on his production team, to push back, Scarborough brought up the poll again days before the midterms.
“Let’s take the Penn swimmer who transitioned,” he said, referring to Thomas, who had long-since ended her season and graduated college. “82% of Americans don't believe that men who transition post-puberty should be able to compete against women in sports. 82%. And yet, if you have that conversation on television in news, if you write an op-ed about it, suddenly you hate and you're a hater. … We have to be able to debate issues like this.”
Four things are important in understanding Scarborough’s fixation on Thomas.
The first among them is that, over on rival network Fox News, Thomas’ story was inescapable. Fox covered her obsessively throughout 2021 and 2022. One six-week stretch between December 2021 and January 2022 featured 32 segments on the swimmer, and that obsession only intensified as her season progressed. From March 17 through April 6, 2022, the network ran 45 segments covering Thomas. Fox News celebrated the first day of Pride Month by misgendering her.
The second is that there was often nobody to defend Thomas — on MSNBC, or anywhere else. There is just one openly trans person with an on-air contract at a cable news company: Caitlyn Jenner, on Fox News.
While MSNBC sometimes features segments from NBC Out reporter Jo Yurcaba and Translash Media founder Imara Jones, and Morning Joe later brought on trans actor Laverne Cox to decry the lack of trans coverage in the media — in a segment for which Scarborough was not present — there was typically no voice from the community to push back.
There was typically no voice to push back as Scarborough repeatedly told over a million viewers that trans athletes were nearly universally opposed by the general public. There was typically no voice to put Thomas’ athletic achievements in perspective, to note the differences in athletic performance between cisgender men and transgender women, to note that the debate about trans athletes is also a debate about 10-year-olds playing soccer with their friends and trans men being forced to compete against cisgender women. And there was typically no voice to point out that for much of the trans community, issues like unemployment, lack of access to health care, or violent assault are more pressing.
The third thing is that the 2022 elections were a historic underperformance for Republicans. Despite predictions by Scarborough and right-wing media, LGBTQ candidates and allies had a night of historic successes, and candidates who had made trans issues a centerpiece of their campaigns overwhelmingly failed.
In case the message sent by voters was not sufficiently clear in November, Georgia voters in December rejected a campaign by Republican Herschel Walker that leaned heavily on anti-trans hate, maintaining Democratic control of the Senate.
The fourth thing is that Scarborough largely did not adjust his message to this post-election reality, continuing to present DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ agenda as popular and citing figures throughout 2023 that varied from 80% to 82% as opposing trans athletes. He did so in segments that aired in January 2023, twice in February, and twice in April as Republican legislators proposed over 450 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation, criminalizing transition care for trans youth in 17 states and banning them from athletic events as their lived gender in 21.
In April, the same day DeSantis expanded the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation to cover all grade levels, Scarborough claimed that “most people in Florida do agree that they don’t want their kindergarteners through third-graders to be taught about sexual orientation in an open general classroom.” (One 2022 poll showed that more Floridians opposed the legislation at the time than supported it.)
In May, Scarborough inexplicably increased the number he had so often cited — from 82% to 85%. (“I don’t want to get in trouble here,” one panelist responded.)
There’s an old saying: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. For not just the right-wing media but much of the mainstream in recent years, trans people have been one of the main entrees of the attention economy. The idea behind the push for visibility which climaxed in the transgender tipping point of 2014 was that much of the animus against transgender people was born out of deep ignorance — about our bodies, our minds, and the lives that we lived. If you do not know a trans person, as the majority of respondents in Scarborough’s favorite poll say they do not, it is all too easy to reduce us to a caricature, a joke about attack helicopters or a face on a beer can or a viral video screaming “It’s ma’am.”
Or a lone college athlete, quietly churning up her own lane in the face of public derision.
Visibility must go beyond images and soundbites. Trans people are far less common than the volume of media coverage suggests, but that does not mean that we do not deserve a voice in a debate centered on our health care and opportunities, nor does it mean that the debate should be ended prematurely on account of the false consensus too often presented on Morning Joe.
Joe Scarborough claims to want a debate on trans athletes. He claims to chafe at his inability to have one, though he clearly does not mind sharing opinions that he seems to believe are universally held but also pose a danger to his job security.
In the real world, there are zero trans people with the cable news audience that Scarborough enjoys, zero trans people with his electoral resume, zero trans people in a position to cause him more than a moment’s discomfort in a comfortable life. (By contrast, trans people who share their views or even just dare to participate in the marketplace face public harassment, calls for boycotts, and threats of violence.)
As the host of his own show, Scarborough can convene any debate he wants at any time he chooses — provided he’s willing to defend against challenges to his facts.