Content note: racism, sexism, transphobia, violence
When President Biden was safely inaugurated in 2021, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The four years of checking my phone before getting out of bed to find out if Trump had done another horrible thing to the trans community overnight were finally over. As Biden quickly demonstrated, he would start making things right for us, even if it took a little time to unwind all the knots.
With my radar turned down, I missed the early rumblings of the anti-trans legislation in the states. Then FORGE was funded for two anti-trans hate crimes projects and I began paying attention. 2023 dawned, and the bills started raining down by the hundreds. I was combing the internet daily to identify as many new articles as I could, but even so, I know I am not the only one who was overwhelmed by it all. Why us? Why were they interested in our healthcare? What was up with the book bans? Or the drag queens, for heaven’s sake? And what in the world had gotten the Proud Boys interested in us, when they clearly had bigger ambitions?
Searching for any life preserver to help me stay afloat, I grabbed two new history books that I thought might have usable insights. The Woman They Could Not Silence: The Shocking Story of a Woman Who Dared to Fight Back by Kate Moore (Sourcebooks, 2022) is a biography of Elizabeth Packard, whose husband committed her to an insane asylum in 1860. I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War against Reconstruction by Kidada E. Williams (Bloomsbury, 2023) takes place just a few years later and covers the nighttime raids (sometimes called Ku Klux Klan raids) Southern white men inflicted on their newly-freed Black neighbors.
Both books proved to be incredibly painful. (With apologies to the authors, FORGE is not recommending them to survivors because of their likelihood to retraumatize.) In The Woman They Could Not Silence, Elizabeth Packard was initially incarcerated in a mental institution for years. Sane and smart, with a level of will I’ve never seen before, she ended up spending decades trying to right what was done to her. The whole way, she had to battle both her husband and the administrator of her original asylum, and the lengths she was willing to go to try to save herself from them were sometimes excruciatingly painful to read.
Not as excruciatingly painful as the stories in I Saw Death Coming, of course, which is filled with details of what attackers like the Ku Klux Klan did to individual families, and how survivors tried to cope afterwards.
I put both books aside. Weeks went by before my mind began to recognize connections between aspects of the two histories and our current anti-trans hurricane. So I re-read both books and now have some insights to share.
We’ve been here before. This is obvious, but also worth reiterating. Americans have tried to oppress/confine/frighten/kill their neighbors from the very beginning. This discussion will be about slices of the women’s rights and civil rights movements, but it could just as well be about the genocide of Native Americans, opposition to immigrants, anti-Muslim campaigns, or dozens more. Trans people are only the latest target, and we surely won’t be the last.
Push-back campaigns flourish during social change. This may also feel obvious, especially since social change is constant. Elizabeth could be institutionalized against her will by her husband because the laws gave him total control over her. After five children and decades of marriage, she had begun to think for herself and, worse, share her thoughts with others. Some of those thoughts were theological, and went against the new beliefs her pastor husband had brought to his church. She didn’t know it, but those new beliefs were imposed by a benefactor who upheld slavery and wanted the church to do so, too. She therefore became a threat that had to be eliminated, so to the psychiatric institution she was dragged.
A History of Terror explains the night riders started after enslaved people were freed and began to vote, hold elected office, establish their own homes, and become economically successful. All of those were so problematic for many of their white neighbors that they decided to terrorize and kill them to try to re-establish white supremacy.
In our time, individual personal decisions are quickly eroding the bases on which much of society is constructed: the division of humanity into two innate and immutable genders governed by all-encompassing binary norms. Clearly, this evolution is highly threatening to the many who have taken it upon themselves to oppose the emerging identities.
Supremacy beliefs motivate. In every one of these cases, the clash was initiated by people who have been taught they are superior to others. When they perceive their “inferiors” are challenging that superiority, they attack. Elizabeth did not agree that she should adopt her husband’s religious beliefs and abandon her own; she believed God gave her a brain to use. Her husband used that belief to assert she was insane, because of course men’s superiority over women was ordained by God.
The formerly enslaved people victimized in the night raids were targeted for believing they had the same right to vote white men did and/or because they were succeeding economically when not all white men did.
Trans people challenge cisheteronormativity: we have marriage rights now, and nondiscrimination laws are gaining public acceptance. We also threaten cis people because we represent choice. In a nation that imposes gender roles in every possible way it can – you can walk wrong, dress wrong, hold your arm in the wrong way, use the wrong deodorant, etc., etc., etc. – literally everyone has experienced gender role policing. Trans existence says adhering to the binary gender rules is optional. That can be highly threatening to those who had to struggle to fit the gender role demanded of them.
Power and financial gain are the goals. In addition to the psychological boost feeling superior brings, a primary goal in both the historical and current campaigns was and is keeping a monopoly on the power to shape the political, social and economic environment. In Elizabeth’s time, of course, women could not vote, and one of the reasons “uppity women” were put in asylums was to silence and divert them from pressing for more rights. There were other results, as well. Moore notes about the asylum Elizabeth was confined to: “Powerful people had pecuniary interests in its continuing to operate as it always had.” (p. 424).
Terrorizing Black men was explicitly done to keep them from voting and holding office. Williams notes in addition that, “Extremists, and their abettors…never backed down from their belief in the justness of their cause of perpetual white supremacy and Black subjugation. They had no reason to, as they reaped the political rewards of the assassinations, the economic rewards of stolen property and land, and the social rewards of broken families, sabotaged institutions, and corroded communities.” (p. 216).
In our case, the politicians pushing anti-trans legislation are almost exclusively from the political party that is no longer in the demographic majority and so is having to resort to non-democratic ways of holding power. One might think trans people are too small a minority to make much political difference, but is it really a coincidence that they are primarily focused on stamping out trans kids, who are coming out trans and nonbinary in exponential numbers? More direct financial benefits are also being generated by the anti-trans campaign. The handful of “experts” traveling the country testifying (lying) about gender-affirming care to help pass or defend the bans are all making decent money for their advocacy.
Establish and constantly reinforce inferiority and/or dangerousness. Superiority can’t tolerate equality, so aggressors constantly reinforce ideas of their targets’ inferiority. This wasn’t hard to do in the cases of women and Black Americans; these groups had been viewed as inherently inferior to white men for centuries. Even more potent than deeming groups of people as inferior is painting targets as dangerous: that justifies the use of violence as “self-defense” without even needing a first strike. The night raiders claimed Black people were menacing powerless white people, and that Black elected officials were guilty of “misrule” and “wasteful management” for using taxes to establish public school systems, asylums, parks, orphanages, and homes for the elderly. (Like some politicians today, the objectors were not adverse to making use of the new social structures they were denouncing.) Eventually the lie of the Lost Cause was invented: investigating Congressmembers wrote in an official report that white southerners had been and were continuing to be “defamed” and “put at the mercy of semi-barbarous negroes of the South, and the vilest of white people.”
This is why backers of anti-trans legislation have decided to claim we are “pedophiles” and “groomers.” Not only do these paint us as dangerous, but dangerous to children, which is even more reprehensible since children are viewed as unable to defend themselves. We are also, of course, somehow dangerous to women in bathrooms, locker rooms, and even sports teams. Increasingly, we are also hearing that implementing “woke ideology” (by which opponents seem to mean a belief in equality and respect for diversity) is pushing aside more important work such as real education and actual military readiness.
This part 1 of 2.