Every June, millions of people gather and dance down metropolitan streets to upbeat club music, donning rainbows and shimmering in a rain of glitter and confetti. A pride parade is a valentine to the LGBTQ+ community and a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots that catalyzed the Gay Liberation Movement. Many parades this year focused specifically on the rights of transgender people, a testament to the increased visibility of the community throughout the years and the indispensable activism done by trans advocates to further human rights. Everyone’s love and pride are palpable.
Amidst the demonstrations of queer and trans joy is a growing crescendo of legislative and ideological opposition. The Wyoming Senate passed SF 111 to criminalize medical professionals who provide gender-affirming care to minors, defining it as “child abuse.” The Arizona Senate passed SB 1700 to ban books in schools that validate concepts of gender or pronouns. The Missouri Senate passed SB 39 to prohibit transgender students from participating in sports teams not aligned with their biological sex. These bills and 565 others were proposed in just 2023, heightening threats to the safety and existence of transgender people. To put this number into perspective, 174 anti-trans bills were proposed in 2022. This uptick in anti-trans bills within just one year signals the dissolution of democracy as we know it.
What is driving and sustaining this wave of transphobic legislation? What does the GOP stand to gain from targeting trans people? In answer to these questions, we should consider three trends occurring across the GOP: they redefine conservatism as an effort to reconsolidate their base, they perceive trans rights as a threat to social norms and stability, and they are descending into authoritarianism.
Conservatism as an Ideology
English philosopher and former Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics (1951-1969) Michael Oakeshott observed conservatism as a disposition and behavior that informs one’s preference to preserve rather than to innovate. As such, when instead characterized as a political ideology, or a set of ideals that mobilize action, conservatism and its practitioners appear inconsistent in their values. They are predisposed to upkeep the incumbent status quo in the face of challenger social orders. However, they are not ideologically conservative as the mutability of social structures undermines the very definition of ideology. The “pasts” that conservatives try to protect are mutually exclusive and wholly incompatible. Therefore, conservatism at its core is situational and reactionary.
The modern Republican Party sits on this unstable ideological foundation, and it is in disarray. They are reckoning with a post-Trump America that has carved out spaces and support for extremist values and behavior. Those who do not follow his rhetoric are shunned by their own constituents. Nevertheless, there is a clear desire among party officials to move on and restore the Party’s values.
In a conversation with the Harvard Kennedy School, Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute Yuval Levin expressed that “the Republican Party has gradually become hostile to American institutions. It sees them as possessed by the other party […] It looks at them through a populist lens as the source of the problem, rather than the source of solutions. The Republican Party has to recover its love for our institutions.” The institutions that Levin refers to include big business, education, science, and others, along with laissez-faire capitalism and conservative fiscal policies. The GOP has always protected these institutions as doing so has historically served their interests. In 2016, however, the party’s constituency’s composition shifted to the white working class who questioned the concentrated power inherent in institutions. Therefore, instead of addressing the ideological heterogeneity within its constituency, the GOP attempts to artificially render the illusion of ideological homogeneity by reinforcing social institutions like nuclear families and religion. We can observe this tactic in their responses to the proliferation of mass shootings. Senator Ted Cruz cited “broken families, absent fathers, and declining church attendance” as potential contributing factors. Instead of addressing how his receiving $442,000 from NRA lobbyists undermines the Republican principles of the free market, he instead plays to family values to mobilize his base. Similarly, Representative Lauren Boebert alluded to transgender identities and access to gender-affirming care as “signs of mental instability” that could later lead to mental illnesses and violent tendencies. Instead of acknowledging the unspeakable horrors of gun violence, Boebert establishes neurotypicality as an institution and names its threats to elicit paranoia.
Attack on the Status Quo
On March 25, 2023, former President Donald Trump promised during his first rally for his 2024 presidential campaign to “defeat the cult of gender ideology to reassert that God created two genders, male and female.” Later that year on May 17, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed bills that banned gender-affirming care for minors, restricted discussion of personal pronouns in schools, and forced people to use certain bathrooms, presenting a narrative of protecting parents’ rights and “letting kids be kids.” It is irrelevant to consider whether politicians’ motivations against the trans community stem from a genuine belief in their own rhetoric that adherence to social order is necessary. These two figureheads and their actions are a microcosmic representation of the greater GOP’s strategy of framing trans rights issues as an attack on traditional values in order to capitalize on their constituency’s moral absolutist beliefs.
No matter one’s dispositions or political leanings, there is a dominant perception of gender as identical to biological sex, binary, and fixed. This understanding upholds and reveals a culture that practices and perpetuates gender roles. Therefore, masculinity and feminity are assigned their corresponding genders, subsequently self-reproducing social meanings and expectations. Men become synonymous with dominance and women submissiveness. These roles go on to build other social institutions and constructions such as heterosexuality and the nuclear family.
To conservatives, transgender people represent a disruption to their established understandings. More importantly, the existence of the transgender community dismantles the power amassed from such social structures, joining the ranks of increasing rejections of other structures such as racial hierarchies and class systems. The right’s fundamentalist and unwavering commitment to preserve these structures ironically reveals the instability of their ideology. They fail to look forward and provide their own visions of the world, only ever defined by reacting with vitriol against the progression of society and political innovations of other ideologies. However, since we subconsciously reproduce social structures and take part in reinforcing their hegemonies, conservatives can find bipartisan success in spreading transphobic rhetoric simply by appealing to humans’ preference for the familiar and the known. They find even greater success in preaching to evangelical communities, evident in the millions of “dark money” they make from donations of billionaire families and religious organizations.
The spaces that transgender people occupy and their existences do not take away from those of social structures and established institutions, nor from the comfort of the familiar and the known. Institutions like marriage, family, and religion continue to hold whatever value one assigns them and be however sacred one renders them, as these are fundamentally private and individualized experiences. To universalize a definition and an understanding of these institutions in order to deny a group of people’s participation in them is an infringement on the right to privacy and autonomy, American values that conservatives allegedly hold so dear.
Authoritarian Structure of the GOP
This is no longer a hyperbole nor an alarmist claim. Watchful awareness and continued proactivity are crucial as the blissful ignorance of the creeping authoritarianism within the GOP has fueled its quick realization. In other words, we should prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
Authoritarianism is the antithesis of democracy. Fundamentally, this political system can be identified by its centralizing power to vilify scapegoats to avert public attention away from its own corruption. As much as democracy is a spectrum, so is authoritarian governance. Here, the GOP exhibits signs of competitive authoritarianism, a variant in which the coexistence of remaining democratic institutions and incumbent abuse yields an outward display of democracy to mask its decay.
LGBTQ+ youth (ages 13 – 24), especially transgender youth, are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ+ youth, estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ+ youth in the U.S. seriously consider suicide each year, and at least one attempts it every 45 seconds. Research further asserts that access to gender-affirming medical interventions and LGBTQ-affirming spaces reduce rates of attempt and depression. These interventions include puberty blockers, hormone therapy, gender-affirming surgeries, and social affirmation. However, Republicans consistently pass bills to condemn the practice and characterize it as “mutilation,” despite multiple testimonies of its safety and effectiveness by trained, credible medical professionals. They identify and isolate transgender people as pariahs while parading themselves around as martyrs for protecting this nation’s children. This chaotic, cacophony of sermons against the dangers of “gender ideology” conveniently covers up the GOP’s very own efforts in fueling gun violence, the legitimate leading cause of death for American children.
The Republican Party’s adoption of the practice of scapegoating predates demonizing transgender people. It has mastered the craft of cherry-picking and blaming unrepresented groups for decades now, from Muslims to gay people, from immigrants to “woke ideology.” This practice also predates the Party itself. Scapegoating transgender people is a common tactic among other infamous authoritarian regimes such as Russia, Brazil, Hungary, and others. In 2013, for example, the Russian government unanimously passed an administrative law to protect children by heavily fining those who spread “propaganda” normalizing non-traditional values, otherwise understood as prohibiting children’s exposure to queerness. This bill came at a time of prolonged pro-democracy rallies accusing Putin of election fraud and undermining the legitimacy of the Kremlin. Therefore, the legislation’s criminalizing queer and trans identities and framing them as “non-traditional” served as a subliminal message to Russian citizens to obey traditions and institutions, or face consequences. This scapegoating tactic can and will easily escalate from being simple rhetoric to inciting violent hate crimes and genocide against a marginalized community. The GOP’s militant attacks on basic human rights parallel those of historically antidemocratic regimes, and they are emblematic of further repression and erosion of rights to come.
Though identity can be unfairly represented in politics as it is entirely an individual experience, public perception has yet to catch up to this fact. Public discourse about identity and which ones are legitimate remain pervasive as we still strive toward a collective understanding, despite our alleged collective understanding of privacy and individuality. Nonetheless, open discourse is better than ignorance, silence, and subsequent erasure. Republicans have always polemicized identity politics, and yet their disdain and arguments against it are hypocritical. Their great country was built on white, Christian, landowning men coalescing to define rights and entitlements to voting and representation based on identity. They have since moved on to playing negative identity politics, or defining who doesn’t deserve rights, by disempowering and undercutting specific identity coalitions. Nonetheless, all identities have fought to be heard and seen, so why should transgender identities deserve any fewer seats at the table?
Not all hope is lost. The expansive outreach of modern technology and media has exponentially increased transgender visibility, illuminating the beauty and joy in unconditionally loving oneself and others as they are. It has connected generations of people and aided in realizing alternatives to a life of isolation and repression. The work of allyship, therefore, is now especially essential as our own liberation from whatever oppression is directly tied to the liberation of our peers and community.