Ari Brostoff: Hi everyone and welcome to On the Nose, the podcast of Jewish Currents. This is Ari Brostoff. I’m a Senior Editor at Jewish Currents and I’m filling in today for our regular host, Arielle Angel. I have with me three guests. Jules Gill-Peterson is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child, and a historian and writer on trans issues and politics. Meaghan Winter is author of All Politics Is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States, and a magazine writer who has covered reproductive politics for many outlets. And Laurie Bertram Roberts is Executive Director of The Yellowhammer Fund, which is a reproductive justice organization that funds abortion.
We are here today because in the past few weeks, a new wave of bills has appeared in state houses across the country, from Texas to West Virginia, targeting both trans people, particularly trans kids and reproductive rights. The growing anti-trans movement in the US often seems to be drawing from the playbook of the well established anti-abortion movement. And we wanted to talk today on the podcast about how these movements are enmeshed, what it means that they are striking out with such force at the moment, and how to think about strategies for trans and reproductive justice work to come together.
So I wanted to thank all of our guests so much for coming here to talk about some really terrifying stuff going on and we’ll get started.
So I guess the first thing should be just to kind of give a little bit of an overview of what’s been going on these past few weeks, maybe Texas is the place to start. And I think I’ll ask Jules, um, to talk a little bit about the recent legislation there since Jules has written about this. So Jules, do you wanna tell us about what’s going on there?
Jules Gill-Peterson: Yeah, so I think, you know, there’s been a lot going on and I’m glad that we have, you know, folks kind of placed in different parts of the country to, to speak to really the kind of, you know, national context here. But, you know, in Texas, I think a lot of people were very caught off guard when the Attorney General for Texas, Ken Paxton, who’s facing a difficult reelection and also felony, uh, fraud charges, uh, issued a written opinion from his office in which he interpreted the existing Texas family code, the child abuse statute for the state to already, by his opinion, prohibit any sort of gender affirming care or even gender affirming parenting for trans youth.
And a few days later, the governor Greg Abbott, instructed the department of, I believe it’s Family Protective Services or however it’s called, to, you know, begin preparations to, to require mandated reporters to report the parents and guardians of trans youth to the state for investigation as assumptive, child abusers.
And then of course, in the state of Texas under the law, um, actually every adult is essentially a mandated reporter. And so there’s, you know, since then already been legal challenges at a, you know, a temporary injunction. Although it does seem like, I’ve just seen reports today, um, of course we’ll, who knows how things will have changed by the time this comes out, but that, you know, the state is not necessarily halting those investigations. They’re already families being investigated.
And so, you know, a really intense escalation and a use of administrative power by the state. This is not a bill. Um, there was a bill a year ago in the Texas Senate that, um, was passed, but didn’t make it out of the house that would’ve essentially done the same thing. But the important context here and why I’m so glad to be talking with you all today is that it really does have a lot to do with anti-abortion politics and particularly different mechanisms by which taxes and other states are trying to erase and stamp out all reproductive rights.
So there is, you know, this kind of way in which, um, the earlier, you know, sort of civil litigation bounty lawsuit model, um, for passing regressive authoritarian legislation is obviously the larger context in which all of this is happening. And we’re seeing a lot of kind of copycat legislation, uh, sort of around the US, right? So Florida’s so called, “don’t say gay” bill has like, you know, lawsuit kinds of components. There are other, um, education bills trying to ban the discussion of race and racism or LGBT content that contain these sorts of provisions.
And then there’s also that kind of aspect of what, what has come through in Texas, the idea that the state would also criminalize people who leave the state for things that have been outlawed like abortions, right? And so we’re also seeing that being adopted. Idaho is considering a bill that would ban all gender affirming care for young people, but also make it a crime to go out of state to seek it too.
And so there’s really kind of like, I think a big constellation of stuff happening right now, but I think it’s important maybe to start this conversation by saying like, however caught off guard people felt by what happened in Texas and how just sort of, you know, nakedly cruel and crass and vicious and violent the kind of administrative policy change is there on the part of the attorney general and the governor.
It does have a wider political and legal context and this kind of vicious escalation didn’t come out of nowhere. Uh, and in fact has like quite a substantial history, but also like a much bigger context, uh, and there are a lot of moving parts which can feel overwhelming. But I think from my perspective, that’s also really important for understanding that there are like multiple sort of fronts on which to pursue fighting back against these kinds of things.
AB: Laurie and/or Meaghan, do you wanna talk about some of the legislation that has come up in state legislatures around reproductive stuff? There’s Idaho, there’s Missouri, there’s West Virginia. It seems like this is really happening all over the place right now. Maybe one of you could jump in and just say a little bit about what you’re seeing.
Laurie Bertram Roberts: I mean, before we do that, can I just piggyback off of what Jules was talking about, about using just existing policy in laws to enact the policies that they want or the beliefs that they want to express. That’s already been going on around abortion policy for a really long time, right?
So I mean, a really fairly recent example of that would be how they were enacting anti-abortion beliefs and policies onto immigrant women, right, at the border by refusing to let them get abortions, refusing to let them see abortion providers, refusing to let them have passes, and even up to tracking their periods to see if people were pregnant. So we’re talking about like extreme control.
And like this has gone on within foster agencies too. Placing pregnant teens with known fundamentalists, so you know they will not consent to an abortion, so you know that they’re going to essentially be forced into carrying that pregnancy, and you know that they would have to then go through a judicial bypass.
So like these little, like, I don’t call them petty schemes, like in a, in that they’re like small, but they are petty as in, they’re like very micro, right? Like instead of them affecting hundreds of thousands of people or millions of people in the state of Texas at a time, it’s affecting like maybe hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. It’s just this very targeted, very minute, very precise thing. And like that’s something that the anti-abortion movement has been on for a very long time.
The way that they write their policy is very precise. They’ve been working on this for longer than I’ve been alive, as I said on air the little night, right? Like they’ve been working on this stuff since 1973, 1974. I’m only 43 so, you know what I mean? Like these are all the same people, they’re using the same skills.
Meaghan Winter: Jules, thank you so much for framing the conversation that way because I totally agree and I think what’s at first glance seem like disparate fights are actually so interconnected. So I’ll start with what, um, Laurie was just talking about, about how some of these pushes seem like they’re about minutia, or I love that petty schemes.
Um, and we know that starting in the 1970s, the anti-abortion movement specifically decided that they were gonna take a very incremental strategy because then they wouldn’t rouse public opposition. You know, people would sort of, their eyes would glaze over because it seems like, okay, fine, it seems like rose intact who can follow this.
And one of the primary ways that they started was by looking at parental rates. And this was so brilliant. Um, and it’s the same thing that’s happening with trans kids and, and with critical race theory. It’s so connected because it, it makes so much sense. Like if some of the early anti-abortion bills were about minors and like whether a minor would have to tell a parent and get parental notification. And that from a legal movement perspective is so brilliant because you’re pitting parental rights against the right to abortion. And so many Americans, I mean, for reasons that make sense intuitively, support parental rights. So it pits these two rights that exist. And in the culture, it pits different things that people value against one another.
And that worked effectively for the anti-abortion movement. And it makes sense. That’s what’s happening with critical race theory where people are like, “Oh, well, do I want parents to be able to choose this and that?” And like, it can be so easily weaponized. But what I also find interesting is that, it’s also with the trans bills, it’s taking parental control away. Because if you’re a good parent and you wanna support your kid’s gender identity or exploration or whatever is happening within them and your family, there’s just a disconnect there in terms of how the movement is using this idea of parental rights.
But these movement lawyers have been so shrewd and calculating and for years have found these different ways to pit rights against one another. And it’s worked so well. So this has been going on for years, um, and what’s changed is for years they were using this incremental strategy. And then in the past year, since the change in the composition of the court, they just feel so emboldened, like off the rails. You know, my friends tell me I’m a pessimist, but I never could have imagined some of the things that have happened in the past few months. You know, we find ourselves in a different moment.
AB: Yeah, I think that’s really helpful. I mean, I would be curious to know too how you guys think the anti-trans measures have influenced anti-abortion strategy because I think it’s probably a little bit clearer the way that that’s happened in reverse, right, since the anti-abortion movement is so much older and so entrenched. I’m curious if you see a kind of reverse movement happening right now, since there’s so much, there seems like such a, a kind of like accelerating force going on within the anti-trans movement right now.
JGP: Yeah, it’s a super interesting question. I mean, you know, to save everyone else the horror of having to do this, I was reading the Texas Attorney General and, and governor’s letters yesterday for some writing I was doing.
MW: You’re a good person. Thank you.
JGP: I don’t recommend it. Right. Like it’s, you know, I have a weekly budget of like, you know, like harm tolerance that I’m willing to do in my line of work, but anyways, I’m not sure if there is a sort of reverse, like, you know, sort of effect, you know, back from anti-trans to anti-abortion. I guess I sort of see it more as mutual intensification. I think the larger political strategy here is building on these decades of incrementalism.
And I think there’s a sort of critical capacity now where people on the, on the right can sort of be like, “Well, what if we just fired every single strategy at once? And then we’ll see what sticks. And let’s hope that a stacked judiciary essentially will let one of these things stick, right?” And so if you go and look in the opinion of the Attorney General, it’s actually, like the logic is, is complicated, right? Because as Meaghan was saying, if you wanna assert parental rights in some spheres, but then, you know, the state of Texas actually wants to override parental and guardian rights here by, you know, setting the stage for pulling trans children out of their families and placing them in foster care in order to prevent them from, you know, being able to live and survive, right?
So the only way they can do that is they have to draw on a different arm of administrative law. And interestingly enough, or it’s not in, it’s disturbing, they draw on a sort of disability figuration. So in, in the letter, the Attorney General suggests that, you know, trans kids aren’t really trans. This is the language in the letter. Uh, he argues instead that trans children are an example of Munchausen by proxy, and, you know, basically invokes the idea that all the adults involved in a trans child’s life are pathologically insane and are forcing the child into quote unquote excessive medical care, right, which also has this kind of neoliberal rhyme that it’s wasting money and whatnot.
So what I think we see there basically, right, is that in order to override a notion of parental rights that is literally being used in other bills, right, like in other places on, in the same ideological constellation. Okay, well then you just mobilize a pathologized concept of mental illness and weaponize the vulnerability, right? The state has tons of power to hold people with disabilities out of their kinship structures, institutionalize them, take away their civil rights and break up families, right?
And so the state can actually sort of, I think, toggle back and forth. I don’t know. It’s almost like a game of whack-a-mole. Right? It’s like you, you throw away the bad idea that doesn’t work in one context, cuz the other one will just spring back up and be like, “Oops, like now we don’t want autonomy and parental. Okay, well we’ll just switch to like using this really inflammatory idea of mental illness. And then when we don’t need that anymore, we’ll switch back to parental rights to say that of course parents don’t want their kids to get abortions or don’t want their kids to know that anyone could ever be gay.”
But, but part of it is just that there’s so many moving parts and I do think it’s like a little overwhelming. So I’m very curious if, Laurie and Meaghan, if you see a different pattern than me, because part of what I’ve been sort of trying to wrap my head around is like, whether or not the kind of lack of clear pattern is the point. Like, if, if that’s what makes it efficacious is that you can just play whack-a-mole with people’s lives, but I’m not totally.
LBR: I honestly think that they’re looking for their new wedge issue. I said this yesterday on air, on the BNC network or whatever, and the host was kind of shocked, but I said, “If you had asked me 10, 11 years ago, when I first came into abortion advocacy, are they ever gonna overturn Roe?” and I bet I’m actually quoted somewhere saying this, “they will never overturn Roe.” This was my bet. I said, “They will never overturn Roe because it makes them money. It is their big money maker. It is their big wedge issue. It is how they get people to the polls.” Like it is really the only thing that gets their people to the polls. It’s how they get all their old people to the polls, it’s how they get all their evangelicals to poll. It’s been, been their thing since the ’80s.
MW: It’s how they gerrymandered our whole country, how they created a structural advantage that puts us all in this position where we have to talk about these things.
LBR: Right. And they have a whole grift with crisis pregnancy centers. And like crisis pregnancy centers are also their gateway for adoption. Katherine Joyce is a whole nother conversation around the child catchers and Quiverfull, and like that whole building an army for God nonsense. Like that’s a whole nother conversation.
I just think the thing that scares me along the lines of all of this, like nullifying of parental rights is how that can be weaponized around reproductive rights. Especially if you’re talking eugenically, because once you’re talking about pathologizing someone’s behavior and taking away their rights and saying that they no longer have the right to think for themselves, you know, forced sterilization is still legal. I mean, like you can still forcefully sterilize someone who is mentally ill.
And so I just worry about where, where we’re going with this, because I honestly think, I don’t think, I know, I was raised independent fundamentalist Baptist, just so y’all know my background, like I know that they don’t see a place for people like us in their world vision. So I just, I have these feelings about like, where are they going next with that?
And the weaponization of child protection is extremely concerning. Child protection is already weaponized so much, especially against Black and brown communities. Dorothy Roberts said it best, I’m paraphrasing, but that child protection services is essentially just where our country decided to put their poor and Black and brown people when they couldn’t figure out what else to do with them ’cause we shifted our systems. Right? And so like, that is a system for poor Black and brown people exclusively. So the fact that they’re trying to add a new group for them to police should concern everybody.
JGP: Well, and I think Laurie, you, you made me realize, I think I do see now unfortunately, the answer to Ari’s question, which is the Attorney General’s opinion in Texas, for example, right?
Of course we could see, you know, this idea of inappropriate medical procedure being used to then override parental rights, you know, for, for helping, um, young people get access to, to abortion or, or other reproductive forms of healthcare, right? Like, you know, birth control, et cetera. But there is the, the, the legal fabulation that the, the Attorney General invented here is what he calls the right to procreation.
Right. And so the argument against trans healthcare for young people is this absolutely empirically incorrect assertion that it is sterilizing, which it, it just isn’t in any reliable way. And especially not for young people. But in any case, the Attorney General’s logic, right, is that we have to preserve children’s ability to procreate at all costs, uh, including overriding anything else that they want to do and that their parents and, you know, a whole army of adults is already basically signed off on. It’s not easy for kids to transition, right?
But what’s really invidious here. And the way we know that they’re already thinking about this history of eugenics is because they actually invoke it. So the Attorney General says, “Well, you know, sterilization was used against indigenous people, African Americans, and immigrants, and so, we’ve got to preserve their right to procreate.” Right. I mean, it’s like, anytime they do this, right. You’re like, oh, oh, I see you see, and what they’re doing is drawing on that history to be able to weaponize it yet again. Right. And of course the history of eugenics, isn’t just about, uh, sterilization, right?
It was always about the promotion of birth under certain racialized consideration. It was about the reproduction of the white race in the United States explicitly. And so I actually to see them basically continuing, like that never went away. They’re discontinuing it, but their right wing has gotten very sophisticated at pretense and very sophisticated at basically like logical reasoning.
Right. And so if you invoke and say, “Well there’s this horrible eugenic legacy of sterilization and therefore we’re going to promote procreation,” right? Well, of course that’s actually just eugenics, but, but within a sort of narrow American understanding, like public understanding of history, that looks like the opposite, right?
And so there is this kind of like careful rhetorical game going on. Even if we’re sort of all pointing to like the same common, legal, racial, gendered legal structures that are harming everyone. Does that, does that make sense?
MW: Absolutely. 10000%. And I think something that I’ve thought a lot about is those of us who came of age after Roe and who’ve lived in a different understanding. I mean, granted, there was so much homophobia when I was growing up. You know, of course there was very clear, certain injustices were very prevalent in our culture. But I think at least for myself and people I know, we have trouble imagining the actual implications of what’s happening and how bad things could get, because we’re used to growing up in an assumption where things are becoming more progressive or becoming more open or whatever, and that’s not necessarily the case and it’s not dramatic to point at what’s happening and to connect it to eugenics or to connect it to, you know, all manner of things that we, we don’t wanna believe are embedded in our law and culture and, and not necessarily going away.
LBR: Let me just say that they’re already doing the same thing with abortion. Like I did a response to one of our lawmakers here using Fannie Lou Hamer’s forced sterilization as an argument for why we could not allow abortion in the state of Mississippi. I was like, “If you don’t sit your entire ass down, like if you don’t have all the seats in the Senate shut the fuck up.” You do not. First of all, y’all white people don’t get to have Fannie Lou Hamer. Not ever, ever, ever. I don’t care how many things she said against abortion or whatever. Y’all don’t get to have her. She’s not yours. Go away.
But secondly, like how dare you? The state of Mississippi was the one that sterilized her. Y’all ain’t never apologized. How dare you be like, “Oh, we can’t have abortion in the state because Fannie Lou Hamer was sterilized. We can’t tell women to ever go to Planned Parenthood, right, because they do abortions.” Oh, I’m sorry, are we telling people not to go to the health department now, sir? Because like the health department was in on this.
Like it’s just such bizarre thinking. It’s not even thinking. Right. It’s just like, we wanna tell you this horrible thing that was done to Black people, we wanna like remind you of this thing and then like tell you that abortion is the same thing. And by the way, they’ve done the same thing with slavery, right? Trying to like equate abortion to slavery, right? Like it’s always, they wanna try to equate abortion to some other horrific thing that’s happened in the past.
And now the latest thing has been, “Oh, we wanna talk about it, like as something that equates to eugenics,” but not talk about what eugenics in the US actually was, what it looked like, who was actually involved because we know it’ll shine a light in the corners of their connections, which whenever I bring that up, they don’t want to hear it. They don’t wanna talk about how it wasn’t just about race, that it was about disability, that it was about income, like that there was about ethnicity.
They always just wanna be like, “Oh, Margaret Sanger was out there trying to make sure Black people didn’t have babies. And I was like, and W.E.B. Dubois was right there with her.” Like we have to have more nuanced conversations around this stuff, otherwise they win. They’re already trotting that out. And I know that that signal’s not for people like me, or us. It is explicitly for white folks and also Black men, ’cause they’re trying to recruit Black men into their party.
MW: Yeah and I also just wanna like underline something that Laurie said back a few minutes ago. They need a new wedge issue. Like abortion will probably be, if not totally illegal, then like highly inaccessible in many many states after June. So they need something else to rile up their base to create these discussions and a sense of moral panic.
LBR: And regular queers won’t do it.
MW: Exactly. So we now need to marginalize and discuss like the critical race theory stuff and this trans stuff, I think, is the new abortion, um, filling that role for Republican candidates, especially on the state level, across the country.
LBR: The, the, the way that they’re shopping critical race theory. I mean, yeah, they’re getting like their little fury, but it’s not working for them in the same way. ‘Cause the people who vote that actually pay attention, which I know is not everybody, but like, even if they pay attention for five seconds, they know it’s bull. And in states that have worked so hard to become these like bastions of like Civil Rights tourism, like Mississippi just passed essentially a CRT bill, but we have a Civil Rights museum in Jackson, make it make sense, right?
Like y’all literally on the news about the bill was an ad for Mississippi, touting our civil rights historic tour or whatever. Like y’all can’t have James Meredith speaking at everything, right? And then be like, “No CRT.” Like we’re literally the start of the Trail of Tears and you’re gonna be like, “No, no CRT,” like, come on now.
And the thing about not a whole lot of people know trans folks. Or they think they don’t know trans folks, but then what they’re finding out is they do know trans folks, and they do know people with trans kids, and they do know people with queer kids, and they do know people with kids who might be trans. And so just like when everybody was like, “Oh, we hate gay people,” like not that people don’t still hate gay people, ’cause we know they do. But like, people don’t have that same hate necessarily, or that same kind of visceral reaction once they know folks.
And also let’s be real, most people, most people, are not trying to be cruel to children. It’s why they have to frame this stuff as a cruelty to children to get it to be passed. And let’s be clear, that’s the same tactic, like we were talking about same tactics, the same way that they manipulated women’s health to mean not women’s health, right? Like it’s all word play.
AB: Yeah, I was really just struck by that, too, by that confluence of the way that the, the language of care is getting deployed against both trans kids and people who want abortions. I mean, what Jules was saying about parents of trans kids getting framed as like Munchausen by proxy, you know, deviance, is so, so disturbing.
I mean, I guess the other thing I’m thinking about is, as you’ve all brought up, the kind of anti-CRT wave and just like this larger spectrum of real, like, uh, like base building fights that the right is building right now. I wonder how you would frame those at this moment in terms of kind of, what’s the end goal?
I think, um, Jules has done really great work, including in an article for Jewish Currents last year, making the case that it can be an easy out to say that anti-trans legislation, for example, isn’t really about trans people at all. It’s really about the Republican party trying to play to the base of like a very strident, but also small, group of Evangelicals who have like a total conscious hatred for trans people. And that it’s all a little bit, um, like super structural. And Jules has argued that actually that’s not the case at all, that all of this kind of legislation, um, is aiming at something much deeper, much more in the fabric of whether we live in a democracy or in a Christian authoritarian state. And I think, yeah, I’m curious how any of you would think about that in relation to this particular wave of stuff happening.
LBR: I would say I have to agree and I would say that it’s been, I mean as with everything that we’ve been talking about, it’s been a long time coming, right? I mean, yes, obviously they’ve been on to build their base. Yes, obviously they need a new wedge issue. In order to have authoritarian power, they have to do those things. But there’s definitely always been a larger agenda at work, and that larger agenda really is to roll back every significant gain for people who are not white, Christian, cishet folks. Period.
Put everyone back in their rightful places, quote unquote, poor people where they belong, Black folks where they belong, on the bottom, you know, everybody back in the closet, so we can all go back to the good times when it was the fifties. And the only thing I like about the fifties is clothes. I don’t need nothing else. Give me some music and some clothes and keep it pushing.
JGP: And here’s the thing, right? Like, I know, I, you know, it’s like, whatever, easy for me to say this as like a literal historian of the United States and, you know, but like, what is the vision of a United States in the wake of these kinds of political, legal upheavals, right?
A deeply fractured country where some proportion of states, right, there’s no abortion, there’s no transition, right? There is a well-developed police state investigating you, uh, and punishing you for even trying to flee. And then there are, you know, supposedly liberal states where you can get some of those things, right?
Or, um, a country where, uh, a racial minority has legally enshrined its uh, you know, inflated, majority power. Like yeah, that’s called the United States. That’s like literally continuous with the entire past two centuries, is nothing, there’s no fundamental break from like the, the constitution was set up that way. It’s the story of the early Republic, it’s the story of the lead up to the Civil War, it’s the story of Jim Crow, it’s the story of segregation. Like we’ve already done this so many, so many times, right?
And so I think part of what I feel so frustrated about is that like, it’s really hard, I think, in the American liberal political imagination, that’s so invested in a 20th century narrative of progress and of American exceptionalism and actually this kind of naive fantasy of universalism.
MW: Yes, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
JGP: Look, I, you know, I never wanna conjure a sort of like, straw person, you know, that is like unwilling to move. But I think like a lot of us who have been in the struggle, we’re just like, “I don’t know what it would take for the liberal middle of the country to care.”
Like if you don’t care that people, the majority of the population, right, the majority of the population needs, uh, like abortion access, right? There might not be a ton of trans people out there, but the kind of horrific things being done to them in your name, right? And the ch, and the thing I like to say about Texas is like, hey, everyone in the state of Texas is a mandated reporter. So if you don’t actively oppose this implementation, you’re complicit with the abuse of trans children. You are actively harm, we are being recruited to harm them. We are all harming them right now against our will, right? And the erosion of democratic norms. I think like it’s really tough for folks though.
And I would put this in the context of the pandemic. I think it’s been really hard for people to understand that the logic and the outcome of right wing movements can be irrational, right? I think people, like this is why I think it’s important to have this conversation about what would happen if overturning Roe is no longer an object.
Yes. That is maybe bad for the movement, the right wing movement, from a political perspective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not gonna happen, doesn’t mean it’s not already happening, right? And the point is, right, the right wing, you have to at some point take right wing politics at face, you have to listen to what they’re saying. They’re not, there’s nothing being hidden here.
LBR: They will tell you what they’re doing. They put it on their websites. Even when they were killing doctors, they told you what they were doing. They put out wanted signs.
JGP: And what evidence do we just have that there is a kind of death spiral or a kind of death drive in American political life. We have just all sat by while 1 million people have died. This country is built on the sacrifice of human lives. Like yes, there is a kind of disturbing element, I think, from a sort of liberal political perspective to imagine the outcome of these transformations in politics and law, where it’s like, but I don’t get it. Why would they really wanna hurt themselves that much, right? It’s like, well, that, because it can be irrational, right? And I think that’s part of the problem.
What I see holding people back from acting is this kind of sense of disillusionment, which like, okay, that’s fine. Like I understand the entire education system, et cetera, is set up to make you believe that there is some sort of juridical goodness in the US, and that like, it was either Ruth Bader Ginsburg was supposed to save us all and now Chase Strangio has to litigate 3000 lawsuits to save our asses, but that’s not, like at a certain point, you have to understand that you, that very fantasy of like the liberal American political establishment is complicit with the right and the right is up front with us.
MW: Yes, I love it.
JGP: Well, I just feel like, you know, all of us who have been doing this kind of organizing and thinking for years, I mean, there are vibrant political movements that have alternatives and like, you know, there are ways to stop this kind of future, but I guess my bottom line, as a historian, is the idea, like I’m just tired of people being like, “I can’t believe this is happening,” and “It can’t really happen,” right? It’s like, that’s, that’s, that could be the slogan of the United States, “It couldn’t happen here.”
LBR: I’m literally seeing this in abortion.
MW: I just, I 10000%, Jules, thank you for saying that. And before I forget, something I’ve been wanting to say for a few minutes is, we know that yes, of course, that they’ve used these issues to build structural government advantages. But at the same time, yes, I totally agree that it’s about something much deeper, which is about a Christian theocracy, and in enshrining that, and making that both a dominant culture and deeply enshrined in our laws, which is already starting to happen.
And I know that not because this is some fantasy I have, but because anti-abortion activists have directly told me numerous times. So it’s not, this is not some subtle secret. This is not something that’s, you know, hidden in the tea leaves. It’s something that people directly say.
And yet I think, again, doubling back to what Jules was saying about this, you know, liberal imagination about progress. I think it’s hard for people to fathom that, because we do have this notion of ourselves, of living in a representative democracy that is largely secular and bending towards progress. Like that’s deep in our imaginations and on one hand, I respect some of that value, but on the other hand, like it’s, it’s, it is really holding us back from seeing what’s actually happening.
LBR: Yes. But I think the part of that quote that people forget is that Martin Luther King said “the moral arc of the universe bends slowly towards justice.”
MW: And it’s not some, it’s not some passive thing. It’s when people do things, then we can fight for it. It’s not like it’s an inevitable state of physics.
MW: It’s also interesting, like saying things like, “The end goal is a Christian theocracy,” even though people have told me that directly, it, depending on the context, is gonna seem like I’m either being hysterical and, or I’m being dismissed because I’m a woman saying something that seems extreme, or it is gonna seem like I’m editorializing. You know what I mean?
JGP: Well, and I, you know, the flacid understanding in the, in, on the left, like at least in amongst like the relatively liberal left or like, mainstream politicians and like the kind of corporate elite that has taken over the idea of progressive work, right? Like, so around the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill, like the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill is not just like a symbolic attack. Like it’s part of this whole ecosystem that we have just been talking about.
And when I tell you that I have been just like pissed to see that, like, apparently the reigning idea on social media is that if you just literally post the word gay on Twitter or Facebook, like that’s somehow like defying, Florida. No, it’s not. That has nothing to do with the bill. I understand that it’s important for, you know, public figures to like, you know, to proclaim that they have a stand on issues, but it’s like, no, you’re literally misdirecting because you’re making it imply that this is some sort of culture war where if like the, you know, the so-called cultural establishment is like saying gay then we’re and like, you know, I don’t know.
I just like saw the John Oliver spot about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill yesterday, which spent a lot of time talking about Disney, which I certainly understand since Disney’s headquartered, you know, there, et cetera, but like, there seems to just be this kind of like weird emphasis on like, “We’ve gotta get Disney to come out against the bill and stop donating to the politicians,” like yes, to stop donating to the politicians, but not like, Disney’s not going to bail us out of this situ. Disney’s not gonna make a movie about a trans kid getting an abortion. And even if they did, that’s not going to help actual trans kids who need abortions.
Like it’s just like the, there’s a level of sort of fantasy, I think, about like how the political operates that’s very much. And I, and I don’t mean this in a dismissive way. I think that this stuff has changed in recent years. And I do think like social media is an important like public sphere. And I do think that like, obviously representation has a role to play in material politics, but like, I just feel like the left has lost the script so badly on this where I’m just like, I don’t even, like, what am I supposed to do?
Like, I think there’s like this kind of question that we’re, we’re coming towards in this conversation about sort of how to, to think about what the left has sort of given up in the way that all of this, you know, basically the political economy of neoliberalism that separated so-called cultural issues from so-called economic issues, how the left has obviously, finds itself when we’re trying to mobilize a majority of voters or just like large blocks of people to do things like protest, right?
Like how much pressure did it take to get the Biden administration to do more than actually just say words and to actually start using the Department of Justice to do what it’s supposed to actually do under the, you know, under that constitutional order, like it took so much work. I hate to say that I had to watch the state of the union because why would I even wanna do that? But, you know, I was watching the most recent one to see what he would say about trans kids ’cause I suspected they would throw a line in there. And of course, they did. And he said it and you know, I just saw a lot of people online being like, “Wow, this is so important.”
And I was just sitting there, ripping my hair out, being like, “No, it’s actually not just like, not important, it’s almost anti important.” If you actually support trans kids, please do not think that the president reading one line in a state of the union address is going to do anything. He, like, the Department of Justice needs to go and file lawsuits, which they then did. Okay, thank you.
But like, that is the result of the work of activists. Not like, sorry, I’m going on some weird rant, but you know, there’s something I think that we’re really trying to understand here, which is like that, that this incremental push and also this vast scale at which the right is operating here, I continue to think means that progressives need to operate at the same vast scale, right?
Like I think you asked a really incisive question earlier, Meaghan, which is like, How do we see our response to this not being akin to, “I’m going to fight a 40-year incremental righteous campaign for progressive issues”?
JGP: Because like my political compass isn’t based on a kind of, Messianism where I believe one day that my side will prevail. Biden is much more realistic and materialist. So like, you know, I’m trying to understand sort of, in this moment, what a broad based movement looks like that is sophisticated enough or simply matches the scale of the political violence being done against us. And I think that. There are ways to think about that, right? Like it is actually a majority of the population that is now under attack, right?
If we add up all the people who need abortion access, all trans people, all queer people, all people of color, all African, I mean, that’s like beyond a majority of the US population.
MW: So many of us.
JGP: But what kind of politics, what kind of strategies are sufficient for mobilizing in particular? The kind of sleepy liberal middle or the terrified, anxious liberal middle, which, you know, I am perilously close to, to libeling here by conjuring as you know, just like such an obstacle. But I really do think there is a huge obstacle here. And I just find myself really exasperated often at the end of the day, where I’m like, well, I feel like, you know, there are, there’s a huge segment of us who do this movement work, who are really critical and kind of see what’s going on. But I have felt increasingly sort of disconnected from, you know, the kind of hallways of, of the liberal center of the country.
MW: Well, totally. And I think one way to think of it that’s, is not thinking of it as the people being the obstacle necessarily, but their assumptions and/or this like imagination you talked about. It reminds me of, not to get like too nerdy or whatever is, do you have you guys read that book Cruel Optimism, where it’s that idea that if you’re
MW: Yes. It’s like we have a cruel optimism about the idea that we live in a functioning democratic society and this like avenues of act, like quote unquote, activism, like even tweeting are, are gonna amount to anything. And that it is, like you were saying earlier, so tied into all these neoliberal ideas.
And then of course it’s tied into the basic constraints we all have just to like get up and support ourselves and all, you know, to go work. Whatever’s occupying our attention, whether it’s families or friends or carrying ourselves through the day during a pandemic. But I do think we need like some sort of major reckoning in terms of what’s possible, exactly like you were saying before, we can actually think about how to repair any of this.
And it’s really, to me, I am having a lot of trouble coming up with solutions or, or ways movements can be effective in these big ways that they need to happen, given the lock that the conservative movement has put on the courts, on state governments, and our lack of representation. And, and by our, I mean like anyone who’s not a conservative white person’s lock on congress.
Like, I don’t know. And I don’t wanna be someone who, I don’t wanna give up, or I don’t wanna think that it’s hopeless, but I, there needs to be some sort of like unified conversation about what we can do that’s effective in really like material electoral ways and in the cultural messaging, which is why conversations like these are great, is like helping to talk about the ways in which these things are connected and the ways in which. I hate the word distracted, because it’s not true, these, this is about life and death, like these issues. But noticing that these, you know, these incremental, awful policies are about life and death. And at the same time, seeing how they operate in a system that we need to push for bigger democratic reforms so that we, we don’t have to fight against these kind of state level laws.
JGP: Well, I mean, it occurs to me part of what you’re getting at is the question of scale, right?
JGP: And there is reason to distinguish different scales. And, you know, I want to gesture to, to Laurie who, you know, due to internet technical difficulties, it, was sort of kicked off of the recording. So just to, you know, pull back the curtain for, for listeners. Um, but one thing that’s really helpful right, is like to distinguish scale. So like the work that Laurie is doing, right, um, on the ground kind of work, helping people get access to abortion. And when I think about this as a trans person too, we’re facing a kind of what I have called like the state declaring itself “cisgender,” which is to say that for the very first time ever, the state would say, “You have to be cisgender to participate in public life,” and so trans people would be excluded as a class and kicked out of public life. That’s what it means. That’s what adds up.
Right? If you add up all of these legislative and legal reforms, can’t go to school ’cause you can’t play on sports teams, can’t go to the bathroom. The state is investigating you and your family. You can’t go to the doctor. So if you manage to survive childhood, you’re not gonna really have any chance to go to college, which means you’re not gonna be able to enter the formal labor market, which sucks anyways right now, but you’re not going to, because you also can’t change your ID documents, right, and you’re going to be pushed into the informal economy.
The thing about that is like, just from an empirical perspective, most trans people have historically lived in the informal economy. That was the defacto life for most trans people, especially poor people, especially trans women of color, um, and trans women in general, right? So it’s not like, that’s not a fundamental new experience, but it would be coerced and become state policy. So no one would be able to escape it.
And so part of how I wanna, you know, respond to that in my thinking, right, is to say like, well, when it comes to trans people ourselves, like, we actually have very substantial experience surviving under those conditions. So like trans people will not actually be eliminated, you know, by, by any of these policies. There is a long history of DIY transition and other sorts of things that, of course, we will fall back on. Just as there are, you know, feminists in DIY histories of abortion care. I mean, they’re not necessarily as safe or easily accessed, but like people who are directly affected will take care of themselves as best as they can and will organize and will fight back.
That’s clearly the, you know, lesson of history. But that’s just one scale, right? I think there’s like, there’s that scale. And then there are these bigger scales of like, well, to the extent that people who are most harmed, that their lives are not being taken on by larger progressive projects. Like that seems to be the place where things are stalling out, right? And so I think there is this sort of question of how do we scale up from the expertise and political acumen and just tenacious drive for survival and flourishing that those of us who are most harmed have long maintained by necessity?
Like we already have all the tools we need to fix the situation. The, the, the better world that we all want exists latently, the ingredients are all assembled. We have the experts, everyone knows. Like the people who are most affected know what to do. The question is whether or not, you know, the other constituencies and sort of like bastions of, of power and, you know, the kind of ruling class or interests and capital that, you know, sort of are holding that scale back. What, like, what do we do to get there? Right? And so I think that’s one thing maybe.
You know, I’m, I’m totally a deep cynicist and like pessimist, so like I’m not gonna like take us to a place of optimism necessarily. But I guess what I do wanna say is like, the question to my mind is not like “the what.” I think we, it’s very easy to oppose all of this. It’s very easy to imagine a freer, more democratic, less capital, like whatever, you know, it’s easy to, I think, imagine a better version of the world. Um, and it’s easy to know what is wrong about what’s happening right now and what would be right. I think what’s much harder is just the “how.”
So, so I hope that is helpful to people though, who feel caught off guard and are like, “I don’t understand what’s happening right now, how is this all happening?” It’s like, well, maybe part of the, the stretch is simply to say like, you know what it is happening. It’s already been happening. There’s no like, secret to figure out about why it’s bad or like what we could do differently like that stuff’s actually pretty easy and well settled. And you could just, if you feel unsure, trust the expertise that the people who are being directly harmed by these, these political movements. And then donate your time and energy to the to organizing, to supporting people who, you know, have plans and think about sort of your role in helping to scale us up.
Um, and I think that’s, that, that’s sort of my incipient sense of maybe like the bigger picture. Um, that being said, I truly am not like a political scientist or like a large scale political organizer. So, you know, that’s just my 2 cents, but I feel like it’s at least gotta be a little bit heartening that, I think as this episode kind of shows, if you get four people together and start talking. Like we all kind of, you know, it’s like it wasn’t hard to pick apart what’s happening or to understand how we would like to respond. The question is merely about how to mobilize people as political agents on a mass scale. So there’s a place to go from here. It’s not just a conversation.
AB: What do you think it would take, or what do you think it could look like for there to be a mass mobilization around these kinds of assaults in a way that we really aren’t seeing? You know, it seems like, uh, a lot of what you’re analyzing here is why there hasn’t been that kind of mass mobilization, the sense of death by a thousand cuts and the intensely kind of like local and targeted nature of this legislation and the kind of misunderstandings around where cultural politics play in and exemplified by something like, you know, like let’s just like go say the word gay on television and like, imagining that being like an actual, like a fuck you to DeSantis or something like that.
I mean, like all of this takes us to the question of like, well, if that was to really change, what would that look like? I mean, would that come from the organized left, as we know it right now? Would it come from the like network of organizations and organizers working, particularly in red states that have gone the furthest in eroding reproductive and trans rights? But that would just kind of, uh, scale up? Like if Roe is overturned, like, will that be a moment that there is like a kind of national reckoning that doesn’t just look like a return of like pussy hats on the capital or whatever? You know, like, yeah. I’m just curious if you, if you have any like fantasies or visions for this?
MW: I feel like I’m gonna be a downer. Laurie’s not here, so I wanna just say like, she is a hero and so are the reproductive justice advocates on the ground who are helping people who are pregnant get the resources they need. And as Jules was talking about, it comes out of a need to survive, not some sort of abstract notion. Um, so one concrete thing that people who are concerned about pregnant people in states where they have minimal abortion access can do is give an donation to an abortion fund. Um, and abortion of funds have existed for years. And they’re like truly heroic people who are putting their time and energy into helping people get access to funds. And I’m sure listeners are aware, but just to underline it, if you’re on Medicaid or Medicare, it doesn’t cover abortion. So that, that means that people who are the lowest income don’t have access to abortion. That’s why these abortion funds have been so necessary even before states were closing their clinics.
Anyway, so that’s just a plug for that, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But to me in my mind, there are, it’s like sort of what, similar to what Jules was saying earlier. I think, I see the most opportunity on like the opposite ends of the spectrum. One, it’s like if you have an extra 10 bucks, send it to an abortion fund. That is useful and will help someone. And on the other total end of the spectrum, I see, and I don’t really think this is gonna happen, but it’s, my dream would be expanding the Supreme Court and making major democracy reforms on the federal level to protect the right to vote, to make sure that gerrymandering’s not as possible, and to make our federal judiciary less partisan and something closer to fair.
That’s the two avenues of change and moving towards fairness that I think make sense. And here’s the other thing. Because of what the anti-abortion movement has been so successful in so many ways, in June, when Roe most likely will be overturned, it’s totally possible that news outlets are gonna report that as not a total overturn of Roe, even when it is. And it’s gonna seem like a quote unquote compromise because it’s not the six weeks that Texas has.
And so that’s what I’m afraid of too, is that even no matter how extreme things become, it’s gonna be framed as either a compromise or not the whole thing or whatever. But again, as I’ve said, I find myself in a place where I’m like, really not sure what, what could work. Um, but I do hope there’s a public outcry and I hope there’s a culture change. I hope these kinds of conversations that we’re having become, you know, more quote unquote normal. And I hope that reproductive justice advocates get sustained help because they need it. And you know, and all the advocates of, you know, various diff, disenfranchised people. But I hope that they’re recognized for being how, as important as they are and well funded.
JGP: Yeah. I mean, I think enthusiastic agreement with everything that you just said, you know, I believe in a sort of “yes, and” strategy and answer to your question, Ari, like, well, let’s try it all out. Right? And there are different scales at which to work. Why not work at all, on all of them, right? And some of them are more immediate. Some of them are harm reduction oriented. Some of them are more under the radar. Um, and some of them are all about the radar, right? And I think that mass movement is hard for, for historical reasons and due to the real limitations on first amendment rights in this country.
But, you know, maybe I’ll end with saying, we could think about places where recent mass movements have been more successful like in Poland, right? People turned out, uh, in defense of abortion rights. And then we might again, just draw that contrast between movement based politics and procedural kind of state facing politics, right? You know, Black Lives Matter and Black Freedom Movements continue to really, really, really transform the sort of broader political imaginary of the country. Even if they are also, maybe for that reason, they are under such severe attack. You know, it’s like libelist claims about defunding the police and, you know, anti-CRT legislation in some ways also inversely remind us how successful Black Lives Matter has been in getting people to, getting white people to think about certain things that they would otherwise be happy to ignore.
And then I guess the last, you know, example, I often find myself going back to is the actual direct action organized in response to the Muslim travel ban, um, early on in the Trump presidency, a moment when enough people went to actual airports and actually, you know, strategizing, right, were able to interrupt a process of legal and administrative violence.
And of course, ultimately the Supreme Court gave its legal blessing to that logic. And so I think to me, the lesson there isn’t necessarily a pessimistic one, right? That, oh, well the Supreme Court actually determined that we have an incredibly racist immigration system and an executive power that is like totally allowed to do this. Well, sure. But again, I think that sometimes when the, the reaction is so vicious, it’s because it’s, in verse two, the perceived threat of people’s power in mass movement, right?
And so I’m not a prescriptivist, so I won’t, I’m not gonna prescribe any particular action here, but I think, you know, any and all is welcome and, and thinking about how to maintain our energy across scales and to know that we’re able to demand things bigger than the ridiculous ideological parameters, which they’re force fed to us is sort of an important thing to keep up. And, you know, the good news is it’s not, it’s not super complicated. I just think the bad news is it’s really exhausting and, and risky and vulnerable work. Um, but I’m grateful to know that there’s so many people in that work.
And I, and I think that, you know, some of the toughest days are yet to come, but, um, I guess the last thing I’ll say is like, there is nothing that gets me up in the morning, quite like knowing that I’m spending my time in the service of trans kids, in the service of reproductive rights, in the service of abortion access. Like I know that I’m doing something that I am proud and committed to pursuing in my life. And so it’s also not as hard for me to feel motivated. And I hope that that’s true for a lot of other folks too. We do this because it’s our lives on the line. We do this because it’s the lives of the people we love on the line and that’s not gonna change.
So, you know, they can come at us with whatever they want, but, uh, here we are, speaking back and, uh, and also, you know, with a pretty strong sense of where to go from here. So I guess I do feel a little bit heartened and also, you know, I love a good narrative closure, so I hope that was, I hope that was helpful, um, for, for the purposes of, On the Nose, Ari.
AB: I also love a good narrative closure and I think we just got one. Um, so we will wrap up here. Um, thank you so much to our guests, Meaghan Winter, Jules Gill-Peterson, and Laurie Bertram Roberts, who we lost mid conversation, uh, for internet reasons, but obviously left us a ton to think about. This has been On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. Please subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts and we’ll see you next time.