Republican candidate for governor Paul LePage speaks at the Republican state convention, Saturday, April 30, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A video explaining transgender identity to children was the subject of the Maine Republican Party’s first ad for the 2022 gubernatorial election, ratcheting up the party’s focus on cultural issues in former Gov. Paul LePage’s race against Gov. Janet Mills.

The Democratic governor and her Republican challenger are locked in a tight race with six months until Election Day. The initial Republican ad buy, which the party is spending nearly $200,000 on, highlights the party’s turn toward cultural issues aimed at firing up its base.

It fits with a national trend of conservative policymakers targeting LGBTQ issues, including aiming to limit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. But it shifts focus from the main arguments of Maine Republican officeholders, whose primary emphasis in recent weeks has been the national economy and rising costs.

The Maine GOP ad says Mills’ administration created “radical school lessons.” It features a clip of a video that appeared on the Maine Department of Education’s website of a Whitefield kindergarten teacher explaining that transgender identity as when a person grows up to realize that their gender does not match with the gender they were assigned at birth.

The teacher’s video was part of a program launched by the Maine Department of Education in the spring of 2020 to provide free online learning modules during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a department spokesperson. The video, which the department removed from its site this week, was under a module aimed at children in preschool through 2nd grade.

Other modules have titles such as “A Week on the Farm,” “Making Music, Making Friends,” and “What Does it Mean to Be a Volunteer?” The state allocated $2.8 million in federal funds to support the entire initiative — the monetary figure cited in the Maine GOP ad — but the videos were created individually by teachers.

The video featured in the Maine GOP ad surfaced a few weeks ago on a Twitter account known as “Libs of Tik Tok,” a conservative account that derisively reposts content often related to LGBTQ or other social issues.

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education said on Wednesday that it was removed this week after concerns were raised and the department concluded it should not be recommended as part of kindergarten instruction.

In a release, Maine GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas said she was “extremely concerned” about the video discussing transgender issues that had appeared on the Maine Department of Education’s site, saying a kindergarten classroom was “not the place for this type of discussion.”

But Gia Drew, program director for Equality Maine and a former teacher, said it was “sad” that the Maine GOP had chosen to focus on the issue in an ad, noting that Maine has a significant population of LGBTQ people and that teachers should not feel the topic is off-limits.

“If we don’t talk about things, then people make stuff up, and that’s not healthy for anybody,” she said.

During the Maine Republican Party’s convention in late April, delegates approved a platform that called for severely restricting discussion of LGBTQ issues and identity in schools, including defining teaching about genders other than male or female as child sexual abuse.

Republican-controlled state legislatures have made similar efforts to crack down on teaching related to LGBTQ issues in schools in the past year. In Florida, lawmakers enacted legislation that allows parents to sue if school instruction includes any discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in any form in kindergarten through 3rd grades, and in a manner not deemed age appropriate by the parent in older grades.

Maine Democrats hit back on the issue during their own convention last weekend, with Mills among the speakers warning that Maine Republicans could look to roll back LGBTQ rights. The governor’s campaign directed an inquiry about the ad to the Maine Democratic Party, whose chair, Drew Gattine, noted that Mills had increased funding for public education and accused Republicans of looking to “distract, distort and divide.” 

Drew, of Equality Maine, said she hoped ads like the Maine GOP one did not gain traction, saying they could be harmful for transgender kids to be placed at the center of a political debate about their identity.

“I hope kids get to be kids and have fun with their friends and go to school and have summer camp this summer, and not get caught up in political fights,” she said.