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At the Core of Anti-Trans Legislation

By Elizabeth Williams
22 Nov 2022
photograph of person walking through crowd draped in transgender flag

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson has introduced two new anti-LGBT bills immediately after his reelection in the midterms. Senate Bill 1 targets gender-affirming care for minors; Senate Bill 3 regulates drag shows with children present. Johnson campaigned on the promise to preserve Tennessee’s conservative values, including the idea that marriage “must remain the sacred union of one man and one woman.”

Senate Bill 1 would ban hormone therapy and procedures that remove organs (practically this targets top surgery, or a double mastectomy) for minors who wish to have those procedures done to alleviate gender dysphoria, or, as the bill words it, “purported discomfort or distress from a discordance between the minor’s sex and asserted identity.” The bill provides an exception for congenital defects and chromosomal abnormalities. When writing SB1, Jack Johnson sought out input from notorious anti-trans, right-wing political commentator and leader of the recent “Rally to End Child Mutilation” protest against the Vanderbilt University Medical Center gender clinic, Matt Walsh.

Senate Bill 3, meanwhile, expands the definition of “adult cabaret performance” to include a performance that features “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest,” along with other legally recognized categories of performers including topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, and strippers. Since the current law governing adult cabaret performances states that they cannot take place where minors could be present, the amendment would ban certain drag shows from taking place in public spaces.

While the first bill may be obviously questionable to anyone familiar with trans activism, the negative impact of the second is less immediately apparent. If drag shows are of an 18+ nature, it seems fine to confine them to 18+ spaces. If drag shows are of a family friendly nature, then they should still be allowed in public spaces by the amended law, right? Wrong.

There is a throughline that connects these bills: a traditional, patriarchal worldview that paints drag queens and trans women as essentially sexualized and trans men as easily swayed victims whose reproductive capacities should be protected.

In other words, all drag is seen as entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, and all trans minors seeking gender-affirming care are misled victims. Trans and gender non-conforming adults are thus seen as grooming children by influencing them to identify as trans and to have medical interventions performed that mutilate their bodies and interfere with their reproductive ability (which is why the idea of sexual abuse is brought in).

These background transphobic attitudes can be clearly seen in two recent incidents, both in Tennessee. In September of this year, Chattanooga Pride held a family-friendly drag show event from which video footage emerged of a small child rubbing her hand up and down the front of a mermaid performer’s tail, near the performer’s groin. That video prompted a huge backlash against the event. Although the performer in question was a cisgender woman who regularly performs as a princess, many took the event as another example demonstrating that no drag shows are appropriate for children.

In October of this year, the Jackson Pride festival was moved indoors after lawmakers and community members complained about the scheduled, family-friendly drag show. The festival was planned to be held in the city’s public park, as it had been in past years, but organizers were pressured into changing the event to 18+ and moving to a venue where IDs could be checked. In part, this was done to appease community worries but to protect the event-goers given a number of violent threats levied by the Proud Boys and the Westboro Baptist Church.

As we can see in both of these examples, concerns about protecting children from inappropriate sexual content are being used to make even family-friendly drag performances private and inaccessible to children.

If almost all drag is sexualized by anti-trans legislators and residents, then the law may, in practice, treat a drag queen reading Goodnight Moon at a local library as no different from a drag queen suggestively performing WAP to an adult only audience.

In other parts of the country, there have been an increased number of hate crimes targeting drag reading hours.

These reactions and misunderstandings aren’t new — there’s a long history of harmful and inaccurate stereotypes that paint LGBTQ people as pedophiles and groomers. Transfeminine people, in particular, face excessive sexualization, from false autogynephilia narratives that claim trans women transition because they get off on seeing themselves as women, to the fetishization of trans women, to ideas that trans women will assault cis women in bathrooms, and on and on.

On the other hand, transmasculine people are often painted as innocent, misled victims who have been caught up in a kind of public social contagion that targets young girls who don’t want to have to face misogyny or who see transition as a way to solve unrelated mental health problems. And, for those who choose to undergo medical transition, they are seen as having done irreversible damage to their bodies from the effects of testosterone or the results of top surgery, with a focus on damage done to reproductive capacity.

These negative stereotypes and narratives rather neatly line up with patriarchal ideas that attach certain traits to cleanly divided ideas of biological sex (note that SB1 allows surgeries on intersex people to make them conform to binary ideas about sex). On this picture, men are seen as active, sexually powerful beings who can prey on the weaker sex. Women are seen as weaker, mentally and physically, and their purpose is to reproduce (in white supremacist patriarchal ideology, the point is to reproduce to repopulate the white race).

Gender non-conformity is a threat to the patriarchal system, because it implies that biology is not gender destiny and that gender categories, and thus power structures, are fluid.

While cisgender people may be allowed or encouraged to access gender-affirming care like breast implants and supplemental testosterone, intersex people and trans people either receive forced medical intervention or are denied access to care. These negative attitudes also affect trans and gender non-conforming people who choose not to undergo a medical transition, as they too disrupt the narrative of biological destiny.

Anti-trans activists thus aim to shield children from any knowledge that trans and gender non-conforming people exist so that there will be fewer trans people. The problem is that trans identity is not a contagion but a facet of human experience present across cultures and centuries. Children will continue to grow up and discover their own gender non-conformity, but when they do they seem doomed to find fewer and fewer supports. Ultimately, this rampant anti-trans hate will only increase the number of trans deaths, whether through hate crimes or suicides.

Elizabeth Williams is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department at Indiana University, Bloomington. Their dissertation focuses on questions about moral responsibility, and their other interests include feminist philosophy, virtue ethics, and social epistemology.
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