The Anti-Trans Lobby’s Real Agenda

A new wave of legislation seeks to enshrine an evangelical understanding of the gender binary and exclude transness from the public sphere.

Jules Gill-Peterson
April 27, 2021
A church in South Dakota. Photo: Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo.

THIS YEAR, over 100 anti-transgender bills have been introduced in more than 25 state legislatures, the vast majority of them banning trans kids, especially girls, from participating in organized sports in school, as well as prohibiting or even criminalizing the delivery of gender-affirming healthcare. One of these bills was North Dakota’s HB 1476, which sought, in its own words, to “prohibit the state from creating or enforcing policies that directly or symbolically respect nonsecular self-asserted sex-based identity narratives or sexual orientation orthodoxy.” This long, wordy proposal categorized trans people, transition-related healthcare for minors, same-sex marriage, drag queens, and any sexual orientation other than hetero as expressions of a “religion” called “secular humanism.” 

Introduced on January 18th by a group of five conservative House members, and withdrawn from further consideration only three days later, HB 1476 generated no debate or commentary on the record, and triggered only a limited response from journalists and progressive groups. The bill depicts trans people as “faith-based” adherents to a religious dogma enacted through taking hormones, changing names, and other aspects of transition; by the same token, it recategorizes advocacy by trans people for their civil rights as an act of proselytization. According to the bill’s legal logic, the state of North Dakota is thus justified by the establishment clause of the US constitution in withdrawing legal recognition, protection, and state spending that would benefit trans youth and adults. Further, the bill claims that the state must discriminate against trans people to the point of expelling them from the public sphere by banning their ability to transition, change legal documents, and assemble and express themselves in spaces like schools, because “the state may not directly or symbolically create, enforce, or endorse a policy that respects or promotes nonsecular” beliefs. In other words, the bill uses the rhetoric of religious freedom to declare trans people unfit for public life.

The logic of HB 1476, however evidently forced, tells us much about how to understand the larger flood of anti-trans bills. Liberals have tended to see these bills as promoting a straightforward form of irrational discrimination toward trans youth that flouts the expert opinion of major medical organizations. Some more astute critics, meanwhile, have contended that the bills are in a sense not really about trans people at all, but are instead a cruel though also somewhat arbitrary effort to raise funds and appeal to the evangelical base of the Republican party in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections. In fact, the right-wing proponents of this legislative avalanche have greater ambitions than mere electoral dominance. As HB 1476 shows, this legislative tactic is an attempt to use trans people as a pretext for a broader reformation of civil life and citizenship to advance an authoritarian, Christian state policy on sex and gender. From this vantage point, it shares its strongest affinities with antisemitic, Islamophobic, and New Jim Crow-era anti-Black politics; it is also an example of settler colonial logic, since the state’s indigenous population would find its Two-Spirit cultures and practices disestablished under the law. 

On first read, many observers were struck by the apparently flagrant contradiction between Republican efforts to pass “religious liberty” laws to codify private discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender people, and HB 1476’s tactic of labeling trans people “a nonsecular sham,” framing them as adherents to a religion that the state cannot endorse. Rather than a fatal contradiction, however, this incongruity in fact points to a skillful manipulation of the ambiguous concept of state secularism. By promoting implicitly Christian policy in the name of religious neutrality, and advancing a notion of universalism that is in fact based in Christian particularism, the bill’s authors in effect characterize a range of non-Christian identities—transness, but also Muslim and Jewish identities—as incompatible with the mores of the public sphere. The apparent contradiction is not one that these laws aim to resolve, but to exploit.

What looks like legal amateurism is in fact the most open expression to date of the larger political strategy of anti-trans legislation, which trans activists have speculated is presently undergoing an authoritarian and evangelically-driven escalation. While a first wave of bills, which were signed into law in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas in March, ban both pediatric trans healthcare and participation in sports, the most recent slate of bills—advanced in the past month by right-wing groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, and the Family Research Council—proposes much harsher interventions. These new bills conform with the logic of HB 1476 whereby the state must aggressively attack, not merely prohibit support for, trans youth. A Texas bill would label supporting trans children child abuse, allowing the state to forcibly remove children from their homes and place them in foster care (where, presumably, they could be adopted by a Christian family). A North Carolina bill would force teachers to out any children who display what they perceive to be gender non-conforming behavior to school officials and their parents. And a recently passed bill in Florida opens the door to requiring physical, genital inspections of young children to assign them a sex for school sports under the law. While these bills are commonly cloaked in secularized language about countering allegedly unnatural “gender ideology,” they also importantly enlarge the authoritarian scope of the state to subject trans youth to forms of cultural conversion based in an evangelical understanding of the gender binary. Seeing these bills in the context of their larger political strategy, it becomes clear that simply insisting on trans kids’ right to inclusion and individual liberty does not constitute an adequate defense against the agenda of the Christian right.  

IF THIS YEAR’S anti-trans bills are emblems of a broader conservative, Christian political project, we can see them not as sudden and arbitrary aberrations but instead as developments in a decades-long process. The construction of an authoritarian Christian ethnostate is a project that dates back at least to the Reagan revolution, in which sex panics and anti-abortion politics converged with anti-Blackness—in the from of the war on drugs, the dismantling of welfare, and the expansion of mass incarceration—to rewrite the conservative playbook. In subsequent decades, sweeping political efforts from Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms to George W. Bush’s brand of “compassionate” Christian conservatism, which channeled substantial federal funding to Christian social service organizations, further shored up this political consensus. Legislators building on this foundation declared the state itself a heterosexual body (as in the Defense of Marriage Act), Christian (by prohibiting sexual content or enforcing abstinence-only sex education in school), and anti-Black (by cementing the use of police and prison to disenfranchise African Americans). Not only has this playbook enlarged the role of an authoritarian state in policing its citizenry based on race, gender, and sexuality, but that policing is also, crucially, the justification for the massive neoliberal abandonment of public health, welfare, and education. As the definition of the public has shrunk along these racialized, gendered, and sexual lines, the state’s mandate to materially provide for public welfare has shrunk along with it.

The current wave of bills attacking trans children follow this playbook. A close look at HB 1476 suggests that there are two steps to this process. The first is to declare trans people uncivil, aberrations from the desired norms of the state and the law, and therefore unworthy of the status and privileges accorded to citizens. (In this case, trans people are accused of adhering to the religion of “secular humanism” in violation of the political contract for participating publicly in the secular state.) This would effectively mean the state deeming trans people incapable of belonging to national life, leaving them without access to the public sphere, state benefits, or the ability to challenge discrimination and violence. The second axis of the bill’s logic justifies the state’s withdrawal of public welfare in arenas like healthcare, education, and civil rights for all but the Christian ethnostate’s privileged ruling class. In this light, Republican religious liberty bills do not contradict legislation like HB 1476, but complement it. While the state imagines emancipating itself from trans people by defining them as unfit for citizenship, religious liberty bills enshrine Christianity as the de facto state religion. In doing so, they reframe the openly eugenic policy of banning trans children’s healthcare as a positive claim about whose lives are being selected by the state as most valuable.

Trans children are particularly useful props in this argument, as the figure of the child has long been the sentimental stand-in for the nation and—by extension, in its most extremist manifestations—the “race.” Since at least the antebellum period, as historians have detailed, the racial innocence invested in the figure of the white child has served as an anchor of proper American political feeling. Statecraft and governance often invoke the hypothetical child’s welfare and protection as a justification for dismissing real people’s political demands. The politics of “protecting” the innocent white child have rationalized the disposability of entire populations, like immigrants, the descendants of enslaved people, criminals, people with disabilities, and so-called deviants. Today we are witnessing trans children’s addition to this list. The resulting eugenic arithmetic is far from hidden: Trans children, according to this ideology, are not innocent due to their supposed corruption by “gender ideology” and medicalization, which are in reality indictments of their self-knowledge and active trans desire; they therefore must be ejected from the boundaries of the nation in order that “women and girls” be protected from them, or protected from transness. This is how a bill that claims to promote safety or ensure fairness can save itself from the obvious objection that in fact it does the very opposite. 

The rhetoric of “saving” children from transition might imply that the goal of these bills is to make children cisgender, or at least stop them from being transgender. In Arkansas, for instance, a bill banning healthcare for young people was literally titled the “Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act.” In practice, however, these bills would not so much stop children from being trans as they would push them out of public life altogether by explicitly denying them access to healthcare and education. This would not amount to making trans children cis, of course, as over a century of torturous and failed conversion therapy already reminds us in grisly terms. Whatever the stated goals of the bills, they cynically bet on the unwillingness of trans children to suppress their identities, then take the added step of declaring trans childhood uncivil by stipulating that the state will only recognize and serve cis children—a policy that could be still further exploited to punish any child for their perceived failure to pass as cis. Indeed, the North Dakota bill’s fantasized outcome is not merely formal discrimination, but the total privatization of transness out of the state’s care and out of the public sphere. In his essay “On the Jewish Question,” Karl Marx argued that the modern state privatizes minority groups, defining them as “free” from any relationship to the state, in order to exclude them from the terms of citizenship. We see a similar logic at work here: The state is aiming to push trans people out of public life and citizenship to emancipate itself from them, or from their political power. 

It is no coincidence, then, that Islamophobic, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, antisemitic, evangelical Christian, and white nationalist groups all find themselves on the same side of this issue, especially online, where disinformation campaigns and violent language, death threats, and fantasies involving the abuse of children are hurled at trans advocates and the parents of trans children. The only response in the liberal playbook—an appeal to the state to recognize trans children as the naturally innocent property of their parents, as in a viral video tweeted by the ACLU of a Missouri father pleading for tolerance from state legislators—fails to contest the broader political strategy. We have seen elsewhere the way that appeals to universalism can cement Christian cultural norms as requirements for citizenship and participation in public life—as in France and Quebec, where the state policy of official secularism, or laicité, is viciously Islamophobic and antisemitic, banning the hijab and all personal displays of religiosity by public officials. So too, now, trans children are deemed nonsecular as we watch the state declare itself universally cisgender.

Ultimately, if there is more at hand here than a culture war, the response to these bills needs to shift beyond lukewarm affirmations that trans children have an inalienable right to exist. That much ought not to be in dispute. It’s true that these bills carry life and death implications—that “children will die” if they pass, as one Arkansas doctor told the state legislature—but what’s under threat is just as much the quality of trans children’s lives, the political conditions placed on those lives, and the larger authoritarian and Christian political structures in which they have become ensnared. If these bills are emblematic of our authoritarian and neoliberal moment, our opposition to them needs to meet the real threat they represent with an equally strong vision for more than narrowly conceived freedom from discrimination. The public sphere and the very qualifications for participating in democratic life are at stake.

Jules Gill-Peterson is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child, a general co-editor at Transgender Studies Quarterly, and an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.