As an increasing number of young people identify as queer and/or trans and our collective understanding of gender identity and expression is becoming more expansive, the anti-trans backlash has been swift and forceful. Jules Gill-Peterson engages the heartbreaking implications of U.S. legislation specifically targeting — and effectively criminalizing — trans children.
On July 3, 2020, anti-trans agitators clashed in the streets with trans activists outside of a Koreatown, Los Angeles spa that had become the subject of a hoax. The protest was organized in response to a video posted to Instagram on June 24 in which a woman stormed through the spa claiming that “a man with a penis” was in the women’s changing room in view of children. While investigating journalists and law enforcement found no evidence backing the claim and quickly treated it as a fabrication, a local trans woman accused of being that absent person nevertheless received death threats. After making the rounds on anti-trans, white supremacist, and conspiracy theory websites, the protest led to a rash of violence: two stabbings, a journalist being hit with a metal pipe, and an anti-trans agitator drawing a gun on an activist. When the Los Angeles Police Department showed up, eyewitness videos posted to Twitter depicted them openly beating and even shooting trans activists with rubber bullets at point blank range, while calmly escorting the right-wing antagonists away.
Like many trans women, I watched in horror as these events played out and led to an intensification of online violence against myself and other public trans figures who denounced it. The spa hoax and resulting street violence bore shocking resemblance to the 1930s fascist playbook of scapegoating an oppressed minority through false conspiracy, materializing street violence in response, and counting on the police for reinforcement. At the same time, I couldn’t stop worrying about how my fate and the fate of trans women like me is irrevocably tied to trans children and youth.
The Los Angeles clash is just one culmination of intensifying anti-trans moral panics that have increasingly tied anti-trans feminists and reactionary liberal partisans to hardline Evangelical groups, violent white supremacists, and fully-fledged conspiracy theorists like QAnon. The “save our children” rhetoric animating the violence in Los Angeles is the other side of the coin of a well-funded, highly coordinated state legislative campaign to pass laws that would ban trans children’s participation in school-based sports and either ban or criminalize the delivery of gender-affirming healthcare. After over 100 such bills were proposed in over 30 states in the first half of 2021, 13 were passed.
Much like anti-abortion legislation, these bills appear less motivated by a concrete policy agenda than galvanizing a self-victimizing political base and incrementally advancing the decades-old project of cementing a Christian ethnostate in the United States by shrinking the public sphere and punishing those who deviate from its definition of civility. These contemporary eugenics bills — where the state explicitly declares an entire population of young people undesirable to civil life by stripping them of healthcare and education — need not find legislative success if they underwrite and escalate social and political violence. A second wave of more extreme and cruel proposals this spring made as much clear, like a bill passed in Florida that opened the door to genital inspections; one tabled in North Carolina that would have mandated teachers to out children to their parents if they “exhibit[ed] symptoms of gender dysphoria” or “gender nonconformity”; or one defeated in Texas that would have classified gender-affirming medical care for minors as child abuse, allowing the state to take trans children from their homes and place them into foster care. Regardless of whether such bills are signed into law or remain enforceable after legal challenges, their cumulative libidinal effect is visible in places like Los Angeles where an angry anti-trans coalition was willing to literalize violence that the state has not, all over a fantasy of an imperiled child that never existed.
In other words, it’s open season on trans women and children. I say women and children not for its perverse rhyme with the Victorian mentality that led to so much death on the Titanic, but because the extremism of the anti-trans present has taken women and children as its hypervisible figures to justify its violence. Trans women are conjured as ontologically violent male aggressors masquerading as women to gain access to their spaces, endangering children and justifying any violence sought against them as a revenge fantasy. In the same breath, actual trans children are targeted for eradication through legislated moral panic. Some of the more respectable, liberal pundit class couches their tacit support in careful language, claiming these trans youth aren’t really trans, but have been seduced by overzealous doctors or have fallen prey to peer contagion. “Rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) is cited as the phenomenon that turns young cis girls into trans boys. Unsupported by empirical evidence — the single study on which it is largely based has been both debunked and corrected by the journal that originally published it — ROGD has nevertheless been used to justify the passage of youth-specific anti-trans legislation.
Less timid agitators trade openly in familiar conspiracy theories about the network of Jewish billionaires funding transitions and gender-related social engineering, as well as race suicide fantasies in which white reproductivity is endangered by young people’s embrace of gender diversity. Both wings support authoritarian policy-making, eugenic selection, and a gendered police state as some sort of reality principle, though they arrive at that conclusion by different means and rhetorics.
The difficulty in facing down this cross-partisan coalition is that the blurred lines of political alliances can make the killing of children appear like a mirage. The assemblage of violences presents a question formed out of overwhelm: can it really be this bad? Is it true that the eradication of trans children, however implicitly or explicitly articulated, is a widely shared political goal of a vast constellation of groups ranging from angry mothers posting on Mumsnet message boards to the religious right? Much of the opposition to bills banning trans children’s access to healthcare has been explicit that children will die as a result of these laws. But I am increasingly concerned that the spectacle of openly fascistic conspiracies, rhetorics, and physical violence of the anti-trans right makes the liberal pundit class appear more reasonable by comparison, when in reality they rely on one another. Instead of looking for the difference between degrees of anti-trans political violence, we need to ask what it is that unites these disparate groups.
Painful as it is to contemplate, we need to ask how they are killing trans kids.
The rationalization of death abetted by the sentimental politics of “protecting women and girls” trades in all sorts of rhetorical games, such as concern trolling over there being “suddenly too many” openly trans kids today, or arguing that making transition impossible before adulthood will prevent accidental or regretfully “false” trans childhoods. This rhetoric, literalized by bills that materially immiserate trans children by depriving them of education and healthcare, shares in a darkly modern mode of killing: letting die. Rather than exercising the brute violence of the state that would kill them outright, this logic would instead reduce their life chances to as close to zero as possible by depriving them, as a population, of the material means to survive. The most spectacularized outcome of this is, of course, the specter of trans children’s suicides that hangs over all trans politicization.
But what Lauren Berlant has termed the “slow death” of being systemically worn out to the point of exhaustion is just as potentially lethal. If trans youth cannot safely attend public school or visit a doctor, their shot at a life in anything other than the informal economy, rife with exploitation, overwork, and a lack of autonomy, is foreclosed. This is why most anti-trans platforms focus on expelling trans people from the public sphere — bathrooms, workplaces, schools, doctors, legal documents, public benefits. Without the rudiments of public life, that life is systematically worn out over time by being forced to survive in the shadows, or criminalized. It is no coincidence that the first sizable generation of trans youth to grow up in their families of origins, with parents who support their childhood transition and thus, their access to public education and the workforce, are being targeted. At its harshest, this eugenic vein of anti-trans politics fantasizes about the reduction and even eradication of trans people in the world by preventing their survival and growth out of childhood. Their deaths are seen as incidental (perhaps even tragic) because the state did not explicitly sign off on their execution: it merely gave them every opportunity to slide further into economic, legal, political, and social hardship, daring them to give in.
A killing machine that does not point the gun at you, but rather ensures you will be exposed to every debilitating and deadly condition possible, is an insidious one to organize against. And here we must train our eyes back on the relationship between anti-trans movements and the state violence that gives them extra teeth: the Los Angeles Police Department effectively endorsed the legitimacy of the right-wing protestors’ fantasy politics by siding with them on the streets. The police in the United States have a long history as enforcers of anti-Blackness and corporate interests, originating in the 19th century as muscle for hire to impose through violence what could not be obtained by political consent. The police remain key to seeing the fullest picture of trans children’s oppression: I’m talking about trans kids of color, especially Black and Latina trans girls, who are least likely to have access to the rarified gender-affirming clinics in major cities whose clientele are mostly upper middle class, white, suburban families. These trans kids find themselves more likely to be unsafe at school already, where disproportionately high rates of discipline, suspension, and expulsion for Black and brown kids are given an accelerant in their gender, funneling them into the school-to-prison pipeline. This primary experience of the dispossession of Black and brown childhood reverberates in the extremism of our anti-trans present only in the sense that it is expanding.
What is happening today is that some white trans children from the middle class are now being treated similarly to how Black and brown trans children have been treated since at least the 1960s: they are deliberately put in situations where they are left to die. Dismissed outright as unable to be trans by bad faith actors, whether through moral panic or disinformation, they can be excluded from the trans medical model, LGBT-inclusive school policies, or other would-be shelters of childhood only ever offered to the idealized figure of the innocent child. Determined to be lacking innocence, and also lacking agency, these children are declared dead weight to the nation. Disposable, their selection for state and extra-legal suppression to the point of total exhaustion — their desired inevitable deaths — are rationalized from the beginning as ungrievable and necessary to the social order.
Until the slogan “Protect Trans Kids” means dismantling the extensive institutional cooperation between explicit police and right-wing violence alongside the institutionally manufactured overexposure to death across education, healthcare, the labor market, and the carceral state, we will find, I am terribly afraid to say, that the killing won’t stop. ■