To defend democracy, you need to defend trans people
Scapegoating marginalized groups is a deliberate fascist tactic to build power.
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. After a short holiday break, I’ll be back with another newsletter next Wednesday. I hope my American readers have a great 4th of July, and everyone has a pleasant weekend no matter where you are. Cheers — Aaron
Trans people are a small minority of the population; about .6% of individuals 13 and older, for a total of around 1.6 million people. That’s not a large political constituency. It’s so small and so demagogued by the right that some have argued it’s not worth defending. Let’s compromise with the GOP on gutting trans rights, the argument goes, and we can then focus on other supposedly more important issues, like voting rights and saving democracy.
In fact, though, you can’t save democracy while abandoning trans people, because the attacks on trans people are a key part of the effort to undermine democracy. Fascists use transphobia and scapegoating of small minorities to smear and delegitimize a broad range of political enemies. Surrendering to the trans moral panic harms marginalized people, empowers fascists, and puts democracy in danger.
A concise example of the squishy centrist case for abandoning trans rights appeared in the Financial Times earlier this month. In an interview with former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, the US national editor Edward Luce argued that supporting trans rights will lose Democrats elections.
My espresso has arrived. Clinton asks for more iced tea. I cannot allow the lunch to end without questioning the direction of her party. I say that Democrats seem to be going out of their way to lose elections by elevating activist causes, notably the transgender debate, which are relevant only to a small minority. What sense does it make to depict JK Rowling as a fascist?
Clinton vaguely agreed that winning is the most important thing, though she didn’t cosign Luce’s dismissal of trans rights. She didn’t exactly defend them either though.
Which she should have. Luce thinks he’s making hard tactical choices about how to fight fascism. But actually he’s showing how little he understands the authoritarians, and how shallow his commitment to democracy is.
In the first place, while there are not a ton of trans people in the country, the measures used to strip their rights, torment, and isolate them have wide-ranging implications for a whole range of individuals.
Those individuals include me, personally. My daughter is trans. Gender affirming medical care has been vitally important for her mental health and happiness. My wife and I don’t want our daughter to be miserable and we have done our best to get her such care.
We live in a blue state, so while getting her medical resources has occasionally been challenging, it hasn’t been a terrifying nightmare. If we lived in a red state, though, it would be a different story.
Texas Governor Abbott in February ordered Texas’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who try to get gender affirming care (puberty blockers, hormones, surgery) for their trans children. He also called for members of the public to report trans supportive parents, encouraging anti-trans vigilantism. (The Texas Supreme Court cosigned Abbott’s cruel order in May.)
Texas targeting parents of trans kids as child abusers obviously is a danger to the parents themselves. But it also links to the broader anti-trans program of claiming that trans people and those who support them are pedophiles or “groomers.” And that’s a tactic that has metastasized into attacks on all queer people, cis or trans.
Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his party have passed a broad “Don’t Say Gay” law that bans discussions of gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through grade 3. The legislation frames LGBT identity as a threat to the health and safety of children. It’s also meant to silence queer people and push them into the closet. In that it has succeeded. The legislation has led schools to remove books about trans identity from libraries. A teacher who told her students she was pansexual was fired.
Hatred of trans people has also been used to attack male cross-dressers and drag queens. The latest right wing moral panic has been directed against drag queen story hour, where drag queens read to kids.
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Fascist propagandist Chris Rufo, who is employed by the conservative Manhattan Institute, has recommended that his audience of reactionary bigots use the phrase “trans stripper” in place of “drag queen” in order to demonize cross-dressing. Inspired by such rhetoric, Proud Boy affiliated thugs showed up to a drag queen story hour in San Lorenzo, California, to harass and threaten organizers in front of children.
Conservative gay author Andrew Sullivan, who has not been a friend to trans rights, argued that Rufo’s post was misleading because drag queens are not trans. Sullivan is right; drag queens are cis for the most part. And for Sullivan, respectable gay people are worth defending and trans people are not.
But Rufo and his alt right followers don’t make those distinctions. For them, gender roles are rigid and absolute, and anyone who steps outside them in any way is a threat who must be smeared, bullied, and destroyed. Sullivan is useful to Rufo and his ilk when he attacks trans people. But they hate all gay people, and that means they hate Sullivan too and will try to destroy him at the first sign of defiance.
Imposing gender roles as absolutes is a way to terrorize trans people and gay people. But it also has frightening implications for cis heterosexual people who happen to be gender nonconforming in any way. Cis women mistaken for trans have been harassed in bathrooms.
As another example, Ohio Republican legislators are pushing a vicious trans sports ban that prevents trans girls from competing in female sports. The bill says that if an athlete’s sex is “disputed,” they must get a physician to perform a test of testosterone levels, DNA, and a genital inspection.
As James Factora at them explains, this doesn’t just affect trans youth: “The vagueness of the language could allow for anyone suspected of being transgender (or intersex, for that matter) to be forced to ‘prove’ their sex.” Any woman athlete, cis or trans, could be challenged and forced to undergo an involuntary genital inspection. As Democrats have pointed out, this is essentially state-mandated sexual assault of children.
Black women face racist stereotypes characterizing them as masculine or gender-nonconforming. Therefore, it’s likely they will be targeted disproportionately by challenges to their gender under the Ohio law and others like it. The Olympics, for its part, has disqualified multiple cis Black women contestants for naturally high levels of testosterone.
Transphobia, then, doesn’t just affect trans people. It also affects parents and loved ones of trans people, cis gay people, cross-dressers, Black cis women, and anyone, cis or trans, who is gender-nonconforming.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that attacks on trans people are a danger beyond trans people. Scapegoating marginalized groups is a deliberate fascist tactic to build power. The Christian nationalist right inflames disgust and hatred against trans people in order to create a moral panic about gender nonconformity and impurity. For fascists, trans people aren’t just people. They’re a sign of sweeping social decadence, an indication of How Bad Things Have Gotten. For the right, the existence of trans people shows that our nation is failing and justifies the need for cleansing violence and authoritarianism.
Edward Luce might say, over his espresso, well, let’s just make sure the right knows we good upstanding Democrats don’t care about trans people either and then they’ll stop attacking democracy! But (as Andrew Sullivan discovered) if you let fascists come for the trans people without opposition, they will use the space you give them to come for you next. Martin Niemöller even wrote a poem about that.
You can’t save democracy by letting fascists pick their victims. Trans rights are human rights because trans people are human beings. But trans rights are also human rights because if you abandon the first, you’re giving up on the second as well, for trans people and for everyone else.