DES MOINES — Eligh Cade spiraled in 2017 when he read President Donald Trump’s tweet announcing a ban on transgender people in the military, unsure of what would happen to him. Trump’s declaration left then-active transgender soldiers such as Cade scrambling for answers, although they were able to stay in the military.
Cade, 26, now hears Republican presidential candidates making the case to his fellow Iowans that he is a threat to children and watches campaign commercials on TV attacking his identity. The veteran knows there are Republicans around him galvanized by rhetoric. And it is all frustrating and worrisome to him, he recounts, sometimes teary-eyed.
“I fought for their rights and now they want to take away mine,” Cade said Friday, sitting in Iowa’s oldest gay bar, the Blazing Saddle. In the bar, which has offered a safe space for Iowa’s LGBTQ+ community, Cade and others shared how Republicans’ attacks felt personal, like a schoolyard bully’s abuses, but with far greater stakes.
Targeting transgender rights has become increasingly central to the pitch many Republican politicians are making across the country, a trend that has come sharply into focus here in Iowa. As the leading Republican candidates for president have barnstormed the state ahead of Monday’s Republican caucuses, they have put the issue at the forefront of their pitches, saying in some cases, without evidence, that transgender people are a threat to children or have a mental health disorder.
Trump, the clear polling leader has said he would pass a federal ban on gender-affirming care. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he would reverse President Biden’s executive order that allows transgender personnel to serve in the military. And ex-U. N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who has recently surged into a distant second place, has falsely linked a rise in teenage girls’ suicidal thoughts to transgender athletes.
“I will keep men out of women’s sports,” Trump promised a cheering crowd of hundreds in Indianola, Iowa, on Sunday. He prefaced his comments by saying, “I can’t believe I have to say it but I do because it’s such a big thing, it’s not believable that it’s a big thing, can you imagine ten years ago, no one would know what you’re talking about.”
Many Republicans have argued that Democrats have gone too far in embracing the teaching of gender identity to children, believing that, in the face of some criticism, their positions will resonate with voters even in general elections. Most Americans believe a person’s gender is determined by the sex assigned at birth, according to recent polling.
But for some of Iowa’s transgender residents and their family and friends, the comments have been difficult to hear.
“They know they won’t get our vote,” said Isaac Lovan, who directs the drag shows at the bar where Cade works, the Saddle, and is better known as the drag performer Vana B.
Some Republicans, including DeSantis, have embraced drag show bans. And although doing drag performances and identifying as transgender are different matters, some transgender activists believe conservatives are trying to undercut transgender rights in part by attacking drag performers.
Nationwide, anti-trans bills led by conservative lawmakers doubled last year, now targeting various aspects of the LGBTQ+ community, including drag shows and gender-affirming care for adults, particularly in states with Republican-controlled governments. In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Republican candidates have been battling each other to position themselves as the most vocal critics of transgender athletes’ in youth and college sports, pageant participants and gender-affirming care for transgender children, such as puberty blockers.
“Tricky Nikki [Haley] supports the radical trans agenda,” starts one ad running in Iowa by Fight Right, a group supporting DeSantis. The ad goes on to attack Trump for allowing transgender women to participate in Miss Universe and stumbling when asked, “can a man become a woman?”
Cade, the Marine-turned-security-guard who works the door at the Blazing Saddle, has a scraggly mullet and beard, and a rat and skull tattoo on his arm that reads “RATS GET FAT WHILE BRAVE MEN DIE.” He doesn’t fear for his own safety but says he worries for children who fear coming out because lawmakers have treated them as mentally ill. And he feels for transgender people like him who have been cast out of their families.
He and others also referred to the history of hate crimes perpetrated against the community. In past years, the Saddle has been subject to a fake-anthrax-coated hate letter and a Pride flag burning. Regulars also memorialized the victims of the mass shootings at two gay bars: Colorado Spring’s Club Q in 2022 and Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in 2016.
Cade said his family — referring to the staff and regulars of the famed Iowa gay bar he works at — truly know him. For many in the LGBTQ+ community in Des Moines, the Saddle is home.
“It’s an oasis within an oasis,” said Ryan Dennis, the bar’s manager. “In the bluest part of the state, it’s the bluest and gayest part.”
Not even a mile from the Saddle, Iowa lawmakers passed two laws last year that limit access to gender-affirming for trans children and bar transgender students from using school bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
In the Saddle, there are cheap drinks, pop music, game nights, drag shows, rainbow-colored lights and free condoms. And almost nothing stops the party, not even the whiteout, chilly conditions on Friday. The bar has closed once: when Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) ordered the states’ bars shut down at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
No Republican candidate has visited this iconic East Village spot. And no one there is holding their breath. But in past competitive Democratic races, the Saddle has been a campaign stopover.
In 2019, Lovan and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), then a presidential hopeful, did their makeup together in the upstairs changing room. Gillibrand also served drinks there in a t-shirt that read in bold rainbow font “LOVE IS BRAVE.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) stood outside the bar during a Pride celebration. And First Lady Jill Biden gave a speech there in 2020, a campaign moment now memorialized by a photo hanging on a brick wall beneath pages from the Congressional Record that recognize the bar and its founder Robert ‘‘Mongo’’ Eikleberry.
Vana and the amazing queens at the Blazing Saddle in Des Moines invited me for a visit tonight before their show. I felt underdressed, so I brought a dress I picked up yesterday—turns out it fit me, but it fit Vana even better! Thank you for having me, ladies! pic.twitter.com/l0ISbENSwg
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) April 20, 2019
On Friday, as the candidates and campaigns entered the final stretch of rallying Republicans to caucus Monday, the Saddles’s occupants were readying for the holiday weekend. RuPaul’s Drag Race played loudly from the TVs above the bar, where one contestant, Megami, holding a rainbow Pride flag offered a direct critique of those trying to ban drag shows in her lip-sync performance of 4 Non Blondes’s “What’s up?”
In glittery pink capital letters, she held up signs that read, among other things: “IF YOU LOVE DRAG ON TV,” “LOVE US IN THE VOTING BOOTH TOO.”