A campaign official for the Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate is defending one of his consultants, who shared a transphobic meme, saying he will not be fired after Democrats called for his resignation.
The candidate, Scott Wagner, came under fire last week for his lack of response to a transphobic image Ray Zaborney, his campaign consultant, sent via group text to several campaign staffers. A Billy Penn reporter published screenshots of the meme after Zaborney mistakenly included the journalist on the group message.
Jason High, Wagner’s campaign manager and one of the recipients of the text, denounced the backlash against the Republican candidate by Democratic politicians in the state and trans activists, and reaffirmed the candidate’s commitment to LGBTQ rights.
“To question [Wagner’s] commitment to LGBTQ rights because of one text by a consultant who poorly judged the line between humor and sensitivity is ludicrous,” High wrote in an email to PGN. Wagner “has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community as both a business owner and lawmaker. He was vilified throughout the Republican primary for shepherding an anti-discrimination bill through the Senate, and even after millions in negative advertising was spent against him on the issue, he refused to back down one inch from demanding equal rights for LGBTQ individuals.”
Wagner has yet to publicly respond to the incident.
Henry Sias, co-chair of Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club and cofounder of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, compared the meme to the “horribly callous and dehumanizing jokes that people in government made about the AIDS crisis during the Reagan administration.”
Sias said the meme harms efforts to build a Pennsylvania “in which trans people are respected, loved and treated fairly. Zaborney’s sad attempt at a joke is not helpful — it’s disrespectful and dehumanizing. This kind of callous disregard for our lives, manifested in jokes, trivializes our bodies and violence against us. Wagner, a former state senator, has already had to walk back ignorant comments about transgender people during this campaign. Sias cited a “record” number of hate crimes against trans Americans. “This kind of ‘humor’ contributes to, and legitimizes, an environment in which transgender kids get bullied at school and then hear only negative and threatening messages about their futures when they are at home.”
The image Zaborney sent was a parody of Nike’s recent ad commemorating the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan. Under a black-and-white image of former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner is the text: “Believe in something. Even if it means cutting your dick off.” The white text is plastered across the photo of Jenner with Nike’s “Just Do It” logo superimposed on the bottom right-hand corner of the image.
State Rep. Brian Sims (D-182nd Dist.) and Malcolm Kenyatta, Democratic nominee for state representative for Pennsylvania’s 181st District, held a joint call with reporters Sept. 12 calling for Zaborney’s resignation.
“Wagner is refusing to hold one of his own staffers accountable for a level of hatred and a level of vitriol that translate directly to violence against the trans community,” said Sims, Pennsylvania’s first out legislator. “Here in Philadelphia, we had another trans woman of color murdered and yet here we have somebody pretending that they have the morals and the values to be a leader for the entire state. If he can’t show the type of leadership to step up and hold his own staff accountable, I have absolutely zero belief in his ability to lead with integrity and to lead the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Last month, Wagner drew sharp criticism for his remarks about “bathroom bills,” a catch-all term for policies allowing transgender people to use restrooms of their self-identified gender.
“It’s real simple,” Wagner said at an August campaign event in Zelienople. “If you’re born with male plumbing, you use the men’s room. If you’re born with female plumbing, you use the ladies’ room. Period.”
Kenyatta said in the conference call that Wagner’s silence and his anti-trans remarks are the reasons incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf is “the best ally we’ve had in Harrisburg in quite a long time. This is about violence towards a group of people who are already on the receiving end of extreme violence. That’s not leadership,” Kenyatta said.
“Wolf has been an advocate for our community. He started the first LGBT commission in the country and speaks out about injustices towards the LGBT community. I can’t say the same for Wagner.”