Why Mike Huckabee's 'shocking' transgender remarks resonate with many Americans

Mike Huckabee's comments about transgender issues have been  portrayed as out of touch and out of date. But there's a sizable, mostly silent, contingent uncomfortable with the issue. It is these Americans that Huckabee is speaking to.

Steve Nesius/Reuters
Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee addresses attendees during an economic summit hosted by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in Orlando, Florida, June 2, 2015.

Former Arkansas governor and 2016 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has courted controversy so many times – as when he compared abortion to the Holocaust, said AIDS patients should be quarantined, and called gay people "icky," – he's made it clear outrageousness isn't a gaffe, it's his trademark.

Now, with transgender issues in the spotlight, he's at it again.

“Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE [physical education],” Mr. Huckabee said at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville, Tenn., in February. “I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said: ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’ You’re laughing because it sounds so ridiculous, doesn’t it?”

The 2016 GOP candidate was discussing religious liberty at the Nashville convention earlier this year. Though the event occurred months ago, the video became public after it was uploaded to WorldNetDaily this past weekend and picked up by BuzzFeed.

Huckabee continued, “For those who do not think that we are under threat, simply recognize the fact that we are now, in city after city, watching ordinances say that your seven-year-old daughter, if she goes into the restroom, cannot be offended and you can’t be offended if she’s greeted there by a 42-year-old man who feels more like a woman than he does a man."

Thanks in part to former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner’s transition to a female identity, publicized on the latest cover of Vanity Fair magazine, transgender rights are having their moment in the sun.

But Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, has never shied away from attacking controversial topics. In his 2008 presidential run, he attracted the support of religious conservatives for his stance on gay rights. (When asked on his views, he famously said that asking Christians to accept same-sex marriage is "like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli.")

And he doesn't appear to be backing off this time around.

In his February comments, Huckabee said that Christians and conservatives are scorned for their views.

“And yet today, we’re the ones who are ridiculed and scorned because we point out the obvious," Huckabee said. "That there’s something inherently wrong with forcing little children to be a part of this social experiment."

By and large, Huckabee's comments have been portrayed as out of touch and out of date.

Tuesday night, late night host Conan O'Brien quipped, "Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said he wishes he could've been transgender in high school so he could've showered with girls. It’s all in keeping with Huckabee’s new slogan, 'If this were 1954, I’d be hilarious.' ”

The Washington Post headlined its piece, "Mike Huckabee's puzzling transgender comments suggest a campaign stuck in the past."

A recent Gallup poll shows the number of Americans who consider themselves socially liberal is at an all-time high, while another poll showed the idea that government should be in the business of "traditional values" is on the decline.

Even Rick Santorum, conservative culture warrior, appears to have accepted Caitlyn Jenner – at least publicly.

“If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” Santorum said Saturday during a roundtable with reporters at the South Carolina Republican Party’s convention. “My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody."

Yet, despite the apparent tide of opinion seeming to shift in favor of transgender rights, there's a sizable, mostly silent, contingent uncomfortable with the issue. It is these Americans – Gen Xers and baby boomers in Middle America, the Bible Belt, and the conservative West – that represent Huckabee's audience.

A February 2015 Harris poll found that about 40 percent of Americans show discomfort with a transgender person supervising children, and more than a third say they’d feel discomfort playing on a sports team that included a transgender athlete. The poll showed higher levels of discomfort in the South on nearly every LGBT issue.

For those respondents, Huckabee is a spokesman willing to give voice to their views and go where few other politicians would.

As the Washington Post pointed out, there's support, and perhaps a counterintuitive wisdom, behind some of Huckabee's seemingly inane comments. "After Huckabee made some similarly questionable comments accusing Beyoncé essentially of allowing Jay-Z to pimp her out, comments that were widely panned, a poll showed about four in 10 likely Iowa caucus-goers were on the same page," the Post reported.

"It’s the kind of aw-shucks, flyover-country-versus-the freaky-coasts politics," Huckabee excels at, writes the Post. "That dynamic amounted to a central theme in Huckabee’s book, and it seems to be a real part of Huckabee’s 2016 GOP primary campaign strategy."

In other words, stay tuned for more headline-making Huckabee zingers in the months ahead.

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