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The New Culture Wars: Republicans Attack Trans Children to Prop Up Their Electoral Hopes

The recent spate of terrible bills attacking trans rights are part of a larger strategy of the Republicans, who are relaunching the culture wars in an attempt to win back power.

Sybil Davis

April 10, 2021
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Photo: Luigi W. Morris

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There is a strange and unpleasant sense of déjà vu reading the news these days. Across the U.S. South, legislatures are debating that dramatically restrict the rights of trans people, specifically trans children. Some have already passed. Reading about these attacks, one could almost feel as if we are back in the early 2010s. Didn’t we already fight these culture wars and already won?

Beginning in the 1990s, the Republican Party took social issues to a new level in U.S. politics in what has been dubbed the culture wars — an attempt to paint progressive social phennomena such as increased visibility for queer people and greater numbers of women in the workforce as to their base’s “culture.” They sought to paint the Democratic Party as promoting these threats as a way to mobilize its own base. The essential idea is to use the fear of the “other” to scare and thus politically motivate the Republicans’ socially conservative base. In recent years, this shifted from being the Republican Party’s main electoral strategy to a more ad-hoc tactic, with Trump’s campaign against immigrants and the anti-trans legislation of the early 2010s as more recent examples. 

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The culture wars provide cover for the countless policies — put forward by both parties — that meaningfully worsen the material conditions of their voters.

Now this tactic seems to be back in full force, with this year already setting records in terms of anti-trans legislation. West Virginia, South Dakota, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee have banned trans women and girls from playing sports. Arkansas has outlawed gender-affirming medical treatment for trans youth, and Alabama is trying to outlaw gender-affirming care for trans youth and force teachers to out their trans students. 

A new North Carolina bill not only tries to force teachers to out to their parents any young person acting in a “gender non-confirming” way, and would ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, but also would ban gender-affirming medical care for trans people up to age 21. In other words, the state of North Carolina wants to ban adults from getting needed medical treatment. In addition, these states are placing some of the most intense restrictions in modern memory on the ability of doctors to do their jobs. 

What we are currently seeing is not a fluke. It isn’t simply the product of having bigots in government — although they are certainly there. Rather, it is an intentional and well-trod political strategy that the Republicans hope will sweep them back to power. They want to marry the “moral” concerns of the Religious Right with the reactionary identity politics of the Trumpist base. For their part, the Democrats are perfectly happy for these wars to restart because they see them as helping them keep their voting coalition in existence. 

The Republicans

These terrible attacks aren’t coming out of nowhere. The Republican Party suffered a crushing defeat in 2020. The Democrats won the White House and Senate and the Republicans face an increasingly difficult road ahead thanks to demographic shifts in states such as Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina that were used to be reliably Republican electoral strongholds. On top of these challenges, Donald Trump has been openly attacking the party, putting its establishment in a very difficult position. On the one hand, Republicans desperately need to expand their electoral base and win back the suburban voters who helped put Biden in power. On the other hand, they need to keep the vocal and powerful Trumpist wing in the fold. Losing those voters to a third party, or they just chose to stay home, would be disastrous for Republican electoral chances.  

All of this plays out within a Republican Party that is splintered internally into essentially three wings. Let’s call them the Trump, Romney, and Pence wings. 

The Trump wing is the right-wing populist wing. Its voters have “bread and butter” demands about wages, trade, and jobs, and they largely embrace xenophobic and racist approaches to ensuring those demands are met. These are the “America First” voters who blame — or, more precisely, have been convinced by their unscrupulous leaders to blame — immigrants and people of color for the failures of neoliberalism. They opposed the establishment (people like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell) and what they see as attacks on their way of life that are resulting in large part because of a U.S. population that is becoming less white. They perceive the Black Lives Matter movement and “cancel culture” as part of these attacks.

These voters are responding to an actual worsening of their material conditions through policies such as NAFTA (which also devastated the Mexican working class). Many of them are working-class people, but there are also large sectors of small business owners and farmers who also see their conditions worsening. While the Trump wing of the party claims to champion their issues, they are attempting to link the real demands of these voters to the interests of Big Business. How else could one characterize the massive tax give-backs of Trump’s regime and the huge financial gifts with essentially no oversight handed the ruling class as stimulus during his time mismanaging pandemic. For all of their rhetoric and posturing, this wing of Republicans are absolutely no friends to working people. 

The Romney wing, by contrast, is trying to build a kinder, gentler Republican Party. These more-established party leaders want to rebrand the Republicans as more diverse and socially “woke.”. This wing takes a softer stand on social issues and, instead, focuses its conservatism on economics. In essence, this wing is the neoliberal wing of the Republican Party, attempting to reclaim the neoliberal project for the Republicans while also trying — as the Democrats have done more successfully — to paint neoliberalism with a more diverse face. The Romney wing aims to win back a more middle-class base as well as bring sectors of capital have embraced other wings back into the more mainstream fold. 

The other major wing of the Republican Party is the Pence wing, which includes the Christian Right. Unlike the Romney wing, which is trying to move away from social issues, this wing sees them as the main concern. The Pence wing reaches the supposed “single-issue voters” — abortion, in particular — we hear so much about every election cycle. But there’s really no single issue; this wing has been dedicated to opposing just about every socially progressive policy of the last hundred years, preferring to plunge the country back into the “simpler times” of the 19th century, when there were slaves, women couldn’t vote, and so on. Because this wing is more concerned with “moral” issues than economic ones, its social base is a lot more eclectic than the others — it includes everyone from uber-rich capitalists to poor working-class folks. 

Regardless of their politics, all three of these Republican Party wings are bankrolled and driven by the interests of big capital. 

The contradictions of holding these wings together are clear. On a national level, opposition to the Biden agenda allow Republicans in Congress at least the illusion of unity because they don’t have to propose any actual alternative policies. But it also means opposing policies that have overwhelming support, including among Republican voters — such as the coronavirus relief bill. At the state level, where Republicans do hold power, they can actually do things in an effort to keep the party together and stop the bleeding that demographic shifts in these key states is causing — at least things they think will work. Enter “let’s target trans children.”

Oppressing Minorities: As American as Apple Pie

The Republican Party has faced similar problems in the past. From the era after the Civil Rights movement, through the Bush era, and into the Obama years, the Republicans often found themselves “on the wrong side of history” with respect to social issues (not to imply, of course, that the Democrats are necessarily on the right side) and rather than embrace “progress,” they have reverted to targeting marginalized sectors and viciously attacking them. Nixon’s talk of a “silent majority” was the suggestion that most American opposed the cultural shifts taking place in the 1960s and early 1970s. Reagan demonized “welfare queens” and queers. Bush Sr. ran against the racist caricature of Willy Horton, while Bush Jr governed against Muslims, queers, immigrants, and women. Trump’s campaign and presidency were explicitly racist and xenophobic. 

It is little wonder, then, that today’s Republicans at the state level are resuscitating the issues that were successful for them in the past. Indeed, by targeting trans children and the right to an abortion, some sectors of the Republican party hope to unite the Trump and Pence wings under a single banner. They want to marry the “moral” issues of the Pence wing with the fears about losing “our way of life” of the Trump wing. The message is, essentially: “Vote for us and we’ll make sure the queers and Blacks don’t replace you, and that there are no trannys in your bathrooms. We are the party of the real America, and we’ll make sure no one takes that real America away from you.” 

This strategy is the direct opposite of the Romney wing’s efforts to diversify the Republican Party. “We are the party of the real America,” this wing says, “and America looks different than it did a hundred years ago.” In other words, they want to copy the Democrats’ playbook and put a diverse face on neoliberalism — which has largely worked well for the Democrats so far. That is why Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson initially vetoed the anti-trans law. It wasn’t out of any moral objection to the oppression of trans youth but, rather, a tactical concern about the best line for the party at the current moment. The fact that the state legislature overruled his veto shows how deep the crisis in the Republican Party goes. 

Hutchinson clearly subscribes to a different strategy for building the Republican Party than do the members of his legislature. That the wings can’t find consensus is sure to become more problematic as the mid-term and then presidential elections near.

The Democrats

The Democrats, as they are wont to do, are putting on a performance as the best friends to the oppressed, and speaking out against anti-trans legislation. While Biden himself has been notably silent on the bills, he is the first president to mark trans Day of Visibility officially, and he nominated a trans person for a high-profile position in his administration.

“We’re on your side,” the Democrats are telling us. “We are your allies.” 

Aat first glance, this may appear to be the case. After all, it isn’t the Democrats that are enacting dangerous and probably deadly bills that keep children from gender-affirming care — even though some Democrats are openly on the wrong side of history, including two Democratic Alabama state senators who voted for one of the worst anti-trans bills in the country. But the Democratic Party isn’t beating the drums about keeping trans people out of sports or bathrooms. 

Nevertheless, while Democrats may not explicitly support trans oppression, they continue to protect the structural oppression of trans people. To put this another way, access to gender-affirming care means little if it is completely unaffordable because of our privatized health care system. The right to participate in sports means little if you are freezing to death on the street because social services have been completely defunded. And being able to use the bathroom you choose means little if you’re locked up in prison or murdered by the police. So while the Republicans and Democrats may differ on the specifics of how to oppress trans people, they are in lockstep over the structural oppression of trans people. 

There is something a little eerie about seeing a party and its members who were absolutely opposed to queer rights just a few years ago now drape themselves (proverbially and, at times, literally) in the rainbow flag, as if they always have been our allies. Vice President Kamala Harris, who referred to herself at California’s “top cop,” once personally argued against incarcerated trans folks having access to care and led the fight to make sex work even more precarious,. Do we really think her party is now down with trans liberation? 

The Democratic Party’s trajectory with queer liberation mimics what it’s done with Black liberation and feminism: oppose the movements tooth and nail until they’re too popular to ignore, and then offer supportive words and tiny reforms in hopes of presenting Democrats as allies. But the Democratic Party is no more a friend to queer people than it is to Black people and women. You cannot vote against a minimum wage increase, support prisons, fight against giving sex workers protections, and keep private healthcare and then pretend you care about trans people. Such “progressive” neoliberalism has brought nothing but despair for the vast majority of oppressed communities, even if certain members of those communities are elevated as tokens. 

In the context of how Democrats have approached social movements and oppression over the decades, the current spate of anti-trans legislation is one of the best gifts the Republicans could offer. The Democrats can keep playing their “lesser evil” card for another election cycle, despite offering essentially nothing but symbolic “support” for trans people devoid of any substantive action. The tenuous Biden coalition just got a little more to hold it together: “we have to unite around the Democrats to fight back those evil bigots, the Republicans.: Never you mind that the Democrats have no actual solutions for the plight of trans people. 

History Points to Our Winning Strategy

Liberals love to claim that things only move forward and that progress is inevitable. This linear idea of history assumes that the fight for liberation moves in a straight line, from oppression to liberation — a liberation that is granted by laws, grand statements, and individual leaders. However, as the current fight , that couldn’t be further from the truth. What is taking place right now gives the lie to liberal conceptions of history and specially that queer liberation is something to be won in Congress and the courts. The resurgence of anti-trans legislation underlines that the fight for liberation will never be over until all of us are free and that we can never trust a system to liberate us that was set up and persists specifically to oppress us. 

The capitalist state and capitalist parties address demands for liberation first by denying and erasing us and then, once we force them to pay attention, by throwing us some crumbs and seeking to co-opt us. That’s the playbook of the Democratic Party described above. “Look,” we’re told, “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. Eventually, we’ll get it right. Put your faith in us. After all, we gave you gay marriage.” But this ignores that the only reason we won anything was because we fought for it and because they were afraid we’d fight for more. 

From Stonewall to ACT UP to the current moment, only struggle in the streets — the threat of or actual struggle in our workplaces — compels the state to make concessions. Our rights aren’t given; they are won.

Once they’ve successfully co-opted and demobilized a movement, the capitalists are perfectly willing to roll back the concessions we won. After all, they were never really on our side. They don’t care about us. If they give us anything, it’s only enough to keep us quiet and accept the exploitation capitalism forces us to undergo. That’s why we must be crystal clear: no member of any capitalist party or state institution is our ally, even if they are a member of our community. Their first allegiance will always be to the institutions of capitalism and to the system that oppresses and exploits us by design. Oppression isn’t a bug in this system. It’s a feature.

This is key: capitalism is a system built upon exploitation and oppression. It is impossible to create a non-racist, non-queerphobic, non-trans exclusionary capitalism. That isn’t how capitalism works. It’s the very system itself that oppresses us; its politicians and others are just doing the daily work. 

The path ahead is difficult but clear. We won’t win our liberation by running more trans people for Congress or begging state governments to treat people as humans. We won’t win our liberation by working within their system. We have to overthrow it. The Republicans may seem to be the more obvious villains at the current moment, but the Democrats are no less dedicated to our oppression — they are just quieter about it. Capitalism’s parties and state offers nothing for working-class and oppressed people. 

To fight back these current attacks, the trans liberation movement must unite with the Black Lives Matter movement and the working class to fight all the dangerous restrictions being proposed and enacted. Uniting the struggles of the oppressed and the working class under one banner will be key to developing the fighting force needed to stop these attacks. 

Specifically, teachers’ and health care workers’ unions and organizations must play a major role in resisting. Both of these groups have been some of the most militant sectors of the working class over the past year in resisting unsafe practices during the pandemic. 

The Alabama and North Carolina bills would require teachers to out students to their parents if they display “gender non-conforming behavior” (whatever that means). That is both dangerous and has nothing to do with the jobs teachers must be allowed to focus on — teaching students. Teachers must refuse to comply, and they and their unions must take militant workplace actions both to protest these laws and protect any teachers or students these laws affect. 

The same is true of health care workers. That it is now illegal for doctors to provide medical treatments that they and their patients (and their patients’ parents!) feel are necessary is a labor issue, and must be fought with labor’s firepower. 

The rank-and-file of these sectors must demand that their unions and associations live up to the statements of inclusion and solidarity they are putting out. It’s time to fight these laws with the power of the working class.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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