Nikki Haley participates in a CNN Republican Town Hall moderated by CNN's Jake Tapper at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday, June 4, 2023.
CNN  — 

Nikki Haley, the 2024 Republican presidential contender, linked the presence of transgender girls in sports to suicidal ideation among teenage girls in a CNN town hall Sunday night in Iowa.

The former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador’s comments came when moderator Jake Tapper asked her to define “woke.”

“The idea that we have biological boys playing in girls’ sports – it is the women’s issue of our time,” Haley said.

She said she didn’t know how she would have had a conversation about the presence of transgender girls on a high school team with her daughter, who ran track in high school.

“How are we supposed to get our girls used to the fact that biological boys are in their locker room? And then they wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year,” Haley said. “We should be growing strong girls; confident girls.”

Haley also complained that “we have gender pronoun classes in the military now.”

“All of these things that are pushing what a small minority want on a majority of Americans?” she said. “It’s too much. It’s too much.”

Haley’s remarks come amid a conservative push to punish businesses for acknowledging and working with transgender figures. On the campaign trail, she has previously misgendered Dylan Mulvaney, the transgender influencer whose promotional partnership with Bud Light ignited conservative boycotts, describing her as “a guy, dressed up like a girl, making fun of women.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February released an alarming report that found nearly 1 in 3 teen girls seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021, and that 3 in 5 teen girls “felt persistently sad or hopeless” – double the rate found among boys. However, that study made no connection between suicidal ideation and the existence of transgender youths or their participation on sports teams.

A CDC report published in April found that LGBTQ students were more likely to have seriously considered, planned and attempted suicide than heterosexual students.

Tapper asked Haley if there was room for the humanity of transgender youths in the debate.

Haley said she opposed a North Carolina-style “bathroom bill” that would have regulated which restrooms transgender students could use when she was South Carolina governor, because in her view, accommodations needed to be worked out individually between students and principals.

“I think there’s a humane way to do it. Let’s get them the help, the therapy, whatever they need so that they can feel better and not be suicidal. But don’t go and cause all these other kids to feel like the pressures on them. They don’t deserve that and they don’t need that either,” Haley said.

“I want everybody to live the way they want to live,” she said. “But stop pushing your views on everybody else.”

Haley’s comments were met with criticism from mental health experts, LGBTQ advocates and progressives, who said there is no evidence of a link between the presence of transgender youths and teen suicide.

Heather O’Beirne Kelly, a clinical psychologist and former House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staffer, tweeted: “Nikki Haley’s suggestion that trans youth are responsible for girls’ elevated suicide risks is disgusting. Let’s also be clear that the suicide rate for trans youth is sky high – they need support, not blame from a politician seeking the presidency.”

Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, said on Twitter that for Haley, transgender youths are “just punchlines.”

“Nikki Haley suggesting that 1/3 of American teenage girls are contemplating suicide because of the existence of trans people is an unserious, untrue, and hateful thing to say,” he tweeted. “But hate is the point, isn’t it?”