It has been a harrowing few weeks to be trans in Texas. On Feb. 18, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is facing a credible primary challenge from George P. Bush, released a legal opinion on trans children and their families. In it, Paxton answered a question from a Texas legislator about whether “gender-affirming care” (including surgeries and hormone blockers) constitutes child abuse—he said “yes.” Both private citizens and “mandated reporters”—professionals in a position of trust who risk additional legal consequences for failing to report suspected abuse—must report children with signs of abuse to the authorities. Citing a statute prohibiting physically harming a child, the opinion declares that any healthcare that affirms a trans child’s identity constitutes abuse. Since the requirement to report applies merely to suspected abuse, a child who seems to be trans can now be reported. Paxton’s legal opinion effectively deputizes private citizens to report trans children and their families to the state.
The opinion has since come under intense scrutiny from scholars and legal experts, but Gov. Greg Abbot wasted no time in directing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate any suspected abuse. As of Wednesday, a Texas judge and the Biden administration have stepped up to challenge the order. But this is only the beginning of a protracted struggle that has been long in the making. Texas’ new policy is the newest and most brutal attack in a national wave of anti-trans legislation, overseen by an increasingly fascistic GOP and invigorated by its reliable counterpart, the Christian right. More will be coming. 2022 is on track to become a record-breaking year for anti-LGBTQIA legislation, and Texas will surely embolden other states to dig their feet in.
To prepare for the onslaught, we need to figure out how we got here, what the right wants, and how to fight back. First, however, I want to dig into Abbot’s memo to show how it would inevitably lead to violence.
General Paxton’s opinion is clearly designed to weaponize a child’s support system against them. Mandated reporters include doctors, therapists, teachers, and priests—trustworthy members of a child’s community outside of their home who are the backbone of their social, educational, and spiritual support. These are the adults that children can (ideally) go to if they need help, or to know they are loved, cared for, and respected outside of their homes. In a ploy that resembles North Dakota’s strained attempt to redefine LGBTQIA people as religious fanatics in order to criminalize them, Texas has now re-categorized age-appropriate social and medical transition as “child abuse,” turning mandated reporter laws against them.
Turning this responsibility to children against the child is diabolical. It requires people of conscience to act against their personal beliefs and to the direct detriment of the child. It deliberately leaves trans youth and their caretakers with no good options. While there are some unknowns and well-understood risks when it comes to gender-affirming care, there is no doubt that it saves lives. Other treatments for gender dysphoria, like conversion therapies, are pseudo-scientific at best and literal torture at worst. Untreated gender dysphoria is distressing, sometimes deadly, and there is one treatment: permitting transition. And because even permitting a child to socially transition can be a sign of child abuse, the state is asking parents to force their own children into the closet or face possible investigation
This also foreshadows a chilling effect on free speech. Previously, trans children and their parents have been able to testify and advocate for themselves before the Texas legislature. Now, doing so opens them up to investigation. Mandated reporters who object to these measures (especially state employees) may be fired. One DFPS employee with a trans teen asked her workplace for direction after the Abbot memo was released and was immediately suspended and placed under DFPS investigation. The memo neatly criminalizes trans childrens’ support systems and silences them in the same pen stroke.
It’s hard to pick the worst consequence of the memo, but the near-certainty of trans kids being forcibly relocated from a loving home to the Texas foster system might be it. There is little recourse for parents once DFPS removes a child from a home. There are no due process rights for the parents of an “abused” child who has been removed from their home. DFPS doesn’t even have to prove abuse, only state that it suspects abuse. Once a judge orders removal, the conditions for reuniting the child with the family are wholly up to that judge (Texas is notoriously stacked with judges appointed by Trump). All of this would be traumatic for a child, regardless of how safe and loving their assigned foster family might be.
But worse, the Texas foster care system is in shambles—it cannot promise its wards safety of any kind. The foster system is already overburdened, with more than one hundred children sent out of state in 2021 for lack of beds. Unsafe foster facilities are subject to sudden closures, which has caused Texas to send hundreds of children to “temporary, unlicensed facilities—often offices, hotels or churches—for indefinite periods of time.” Additionally, Texas has struggled to implement court-ordered reforms to prevent abuse, neglect, death, as well as disappearances while in the system. More than 2,000 DFPS foster care children went missing in the fiscal year 2020, accounting for 5% of all placements. And while some may have returned their family home, nearly 200 who were found reported becoming victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking. For the vast majority, we simply don’t know what happened to them.
The right’s aim is no secret. Creating a pretext to separate trans children from their caregivers has been on Texas’ legislative agenda since early 2021. Given the facts of the state’s failed foster care system, it’s hard to see the mass placement of trans kids into foster care as anything other than attempted social murder.
This feels like a different country from the one that put trans actress Laverne Cox on the cover of Time in 2014 and progressively legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. Gay marriage was an electric victory for any queer person, the kind that creates a flash memory of the second you heard about it. I was sitting on a futon eating noodles watching television, and I almost choked in excitement, hollering for my husband and swallowing at the same time. Among my housemates and queer friend group, the mood for six months was pure elation. It felt like, perhaps, an unstoppable momentum might sweep the rest of the LGBTQIA community forward. It was a defeat for the right, but it managed to stay busy. For a time, conservatives focused almost exclusively on misogyny, racism, and abortion as their chosen culture war issues. The years between 2015 to 2020 saw the worst upswings of racist and sexist violence in my lifetime, and the anti-abortion movement has never been stronger. But as a strategy, opposing the civil rights of women, attacking racial minorities, and threatening the right to abortion has a problem: women and racial minorities together make up the overwhelming majority of the population.
Trans people, by contrast, make an almost perfect common enemy for a movement trying to manufacture consent about national and familial decline. We are a vanishingly small portion of the population. Unlike gay people, who won gay marriage after decades of combating stereotypes in the media, the stereotypes trans people are subjected to by the right persist largely unchallenged. Trans people, we’re told, are predators who lure unsuspecting people into sleeping with them. They assault children. They’re fetishists. They’re serial killers. Look no further than Matt Walsh’s twenty-minute rant comparing doctors who treat trans children to Nazi scientists. Meanwhile, Ben Shapiro freaks out about how “creepy” he finds Elliot Page’s transition. The right has always been obsessive about its disgust for trans people. Because of the sheer venom and grossness of their hate, I’ve sometimes thought it might limit their appeal.
But that’s the “old” transphobia. A new kind of anti-trans politics has emerged, propelled by a motley alliance of self-described liberals and conspiratorial right-wingers. Enter Jesse Singal. His 2016 puff piece on Dr. Kenneth Zucker, whose clinic was shut down for offering outmoded and cruel conversion therapy, and his 2018 Atlantic essay “When Children Say They’re Trans” signaled a transformation of right-wing transphobia into something palatable for the political center. Other “gender critical” figures have subsequently waded into this culture war, but Singal was one of the first and most influential. His work is now cited in courts and by far-right attorneys general. Singal can be difficult to pin down for critique because his flaws are largely in his framing. For instance, in his piece at The Cut, critics of Dr. Zucker are dubbed “trans activists”—implying that trans advocacy is creeping illiberalism—and he carefully omits that their objections to Zucker’s practice are not merely ethical, but also have a solid scientific basis and are in step with mainstream medicine. Dr. Zucker is in fact the outsider, but to read Singal, you wouldn’t know it.
This tendency is pervasive among gender-critical writers, who advance baseless or questionable premises, then lure their readers toward extremist views about gender and sex—all the while maintaining plausible deniability as trans people suffer the consequences of extremism. This is especially the case with heightened anxiety about trans youth. As Jules Gill-Peterson puts it at The New Inquiry, Singal and other gender critics like Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, Glenn Greenwald and Abigail Shrier, “frequently draw a line around age, declaring that trans children are not really trans and, so, can be targeted to limit the overall numbers of trans people in the world.”
This new thread of transphobia from Singal is a soft sell for the eradication of trans people by eradicating trans children. It doesn’t matter to gender critical pundits if that line is arbitrary or false. Trans children are pawns in their larger war to fend off challenges to liberalism. Undoubtedly, this is the political shift most relevant to the current anti-trans onslaught. But there are other developing narratives about trans men that may end up translating into legislation as well. Writers like Shrier, Katie Herzog, and J.K. Rowling have stepped up to give us the tropes of confused, self-loathing tomboy (who thinks she is a boy because she likes Ninja Turtles) and the amazing disappearing lesbian (who is so bowled over by compulsory heterosexuality she feels compelled to be a man). These are gross, thin caricatures of the inner lives of trans people. They are bad fiction. These mangled figures are evidence of the paternalism driving depictions of trans men and AFAB nonbinary people. I worry about how the right will weaponize this devious misinformation. Perhaps we’ll see bills that assume that trans men are fragile, mentally ill women who need additional protection and thus extra hoops to jump through before they’re permitted to transition. I hardly wish to speculate more—it might give them ideas.
And that is how we’ve gotten where we are. While right-wing media howls day and night about trans people—going so far as to blame trans rights for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—a small group of center-right grifters are laundering their bigotry and shielding the political agenda. Meanwhile, the President uses trans people as an applause line during the State of the Union, but is unwilling to unleash political capital to codify trans rights. Corrupt right-wing politicians shamelessly lean into the convenient enemy to publicly hate when they’re close to losing an election. Every part of the meat grinder fits together perfectly. And it’s not slowing down.
To understand where we’re headed, we need to understand the animating ideology of Republican politicians’ transphobia. To do that, we should revisit an 18th-century protofascist theory of biological and social development. Lamarckism, the theoretical predecessor to Darwin’s theory of evolution, hypothesized that children inherited characteristics that their parents acquired through use or disuse over a lifetime. For instance, a giraffe was believed to have a long neck because giraffe parents spent a lot of time stretching their necks to reach for branches. From this arose a worry: what if the sins of a parent left a permanent and genetic mark on children? What if sin caused physical deformities that proliferated and infected the social body?
From here, a full-blown theory of degeneracy was developed, buoyed by an insidious pseudoscience of eugenics. It quickly became easy to suggest that racial minorities, gay people, and the disabled—anyone who wasn’t white, straight, able-bodied, and cis—bore physical and behavioral marks of people who had fallen away from perfection. Degeneracy theory helped gave birth to the rhetoric of modern bigotry, including animus toward the LGBTQIA community.
Once you understand degeneracy theory it is very hard not to see its fingerprints everywhere. The far-right is extremely concerned with genetic purity, and some fascists use the term “degenerate” outright. The trans-exclusionary radical feminist Camille Paglia invokes it when she suggests that fluid gender roles were correlated with the fall of the Roman Empire. It lurks in Charles Murray’s musings on the dysgenic determinants of “black culture.” Paul Nehlen, a transphobic white supremacist and former political candidate, encouraged his followers to stalk parents and children at an event where drag queens read storybooks to children. “PROJECT DOX T—– STORYTIME,” he tweeted. “Get photos of all the degenerate parents who take their kids to this filth. Get their license plates, anything else you can.”
What is at stake for the right is civilization itself—at least, civilization as it is fantasized by the right. Trans people are a threat to what they believe the future must look like if the species is to survive. Eradication of “degenerate” populations, therefore, is the goal, not moderating their supposed effects. It’s not only trans people who imperil this future. A stone butch cis lesbian or a straight cis man wearing nail polish is also “degenerate.” Black people and foreign invaders are threats. Women who resist the control of husband and home are a menace. In a delirium of reactionary panic, the victims of violence are now transmogrified by the right into the real oppressors—giving them permission for an open season of even more violence in the name of “civilization.”
It does not matter that these imagined internal enemies are based on absurd and dehumanizing caricatures. As Judith Butler has observed in The Guardian, the contemporary fascist movement is constituted by “an incendiary bundle of contradictory and incoherent claims and accusations… Through a spate of inconsistent and hyperbolic claims, they concoct a world of multiple imminent threats to make the case for authoritarian rule and censorship.” Fascist violence will not stop at trans people. We must not be fooled into thinking that trans violence has nothing to do with the broader fascist project and its frenzied commitment to the total purification of the social body.
More state violence is in the pipeline, a lot more. Florida is currently pushing a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would criminalize educators who discuss LBGTQIA orientation on the grounds it’s gender-inappropriate. Texas’s recent rash of book bans included books about trans people. We should be clear-eyed about the intentions behind such legislation. The goal is to forcibly closet trans children, deprive them of the language to describe their own lives, and destroy their family and community ties—ultimately, to kill them.
This is where the right is headed, and they’re winning.
Every couple of months for the past several years, some new and horrible event fundamentally changes my understanding of what is possible and how the world works. It is difficult to make predictions and harder still to imagine good things. But despair is a sin and hope is mandatory. I will try to hope.
Being an Episcopalian, I was heartened at first to see my bishop, Andy Doyle, speak out against Gov. Abbot’s order. In a recent tweet he said:
“There is no requirement for anyone to report the existence of trans kids or their parents in one of our Episcopal Churches or schools. The gov’s statement has no force of law. ALL people are welcome in churches of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas without fear – we offer only love.”
However, upon reflection, I wish he hadn’t leaned so hard on the legitimacy of the directive. Church leaders are perhaps the most protected of all mandated reporters; they aren’t licensed by the state and enjoy additional free speech protections. While I think any anti-trans laws should be met with mass civil disobedience, I also believe there is an additional ethical requirement for spiritual leaders to, well, lead. Priests, pastors, and clergy should commit to disobeying directives like this even if they do become law—and they must state their intent to break the law publicly and forcefully. They must clearly express that embracing trans people is what Jesus wants and that they will resist any law that commands them otherwise. Church leaders must be willing to dedicate funds to defend themselves from lawsuits and prosecution. And they must be willing to go to jail to protect trans children.
I don’t see a way forward without that kind of resistance on all fronts from Christians. While Joe Biden’s administration appears to be dedicating itself to halting Gov. Abbot’s order and mitigating the damage to trans children in Texas, Biden won’t be president forever. It is likely only a matter of time before power is swapped again among the parties. We will not be able to “Vote Blue” ourselves out of a GOP stranglehold. There is no looming voting reform to restore the intentionally disenfranchised voters of Texas; the hope of a blue Texas is well and truly dead until that’s remedied. We are the front lines and someday our backup in the halls of power will vanish. If we do not organize our communities to shield trans children from violence, then there will be no one else.