In recent months, Republican legislators in state governments across the U.S. have introduced a torrent of bills that attack LGBTQ rights. If enacted into law, as some of them surely will be, these bills will cause both hardship and pain to hundreds of thousands of people. It’s easy to be disturbed about the trend — and yes, I’m disturbed. But it may be useful to address a deeper question.
The question is, what the heck is going on here?
As an armchair amateur pop psychologist, I’m an expert at analyzing the motivations of people I’ve never met, based on very fragmentary information. (Insert wink-face emoji here.) With your kind indulgence, I’d like to take a fling at answering the question.
A full list of these bills would take up many pages, and it would be wearisome to read. A good source for further and perhaps more recent information is the website of the American Civil Liberties Union. You can also find an attitude-laced list on Wonkette. Currently the ACLU is tracking more than 400 of these vile bills. Let’s hit a few of the highlights.
A bill in West Virginia proposes to prevent children from seeing or hearing about “transvestite and/or transgender” people. The language of the bill includes this paragraph: “For the purposes of any prohibition, protection or requirement under any and all articles and sections of the Code of West Virginia protecting children from exposure to indecent displays of a sexually explicit nature, such prohibited displays shall include, but not be limited to, any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display to any minor.”
The problem here lies, first and foremost, in the words “exposure” and “display.” The bill doesn’t simply prohibit in-school educational activities but relates “to the prohibition of obscene materials in or within 2,500 feet of West Virginia schools.” As a result, the language of the bill could easily be applied to prohibit a trans parent from dropping their child off at school in the morning or picking up their child after school. People would see the parent, and that’s exposure. Also worth note, this language would be added to a section of the legal code on “distribution or exhibition of obscene matter to minors.” In a nutshell, the existence of transvestites and transgenders is considered, by West Virginia Republican senators Michael Azinger and Vince Deeds, obscene.
In Nebraska, a bill called the Sports and Space Act has been introduced that codifies the meaning of “biological male” and “biological female” (with no reference to people whose anatomy is ambiguous or doesn’t match their chromosomes) for the purposes of limiting access to school restrooms and participation in school sports. It also opens the door to civil actions for people who feel “aggrieved” by violations of the act.
A bill in South Carolina, mirroring a similar bill in Oklahoma, would prohibit health care professionals “from making referrals for or providing gender transition procedures or services to anyone under twenty-six years of age.” That’s right, the bill says 26, not 18. Maybe there’s a Biblical justification for the number; I wouldn’t know.
According to the ACLU, “In 2020, 15 states introduced legislation that would ban — and in some instances criminalize — access to health care for transgender youth.”
Okay, that’s enough examples to give you the idea. To return to my initial question, what’s going on here?
At one time the Republican Party was deemed, at least in the popular view, to be the party that favored small government and upheld personal freedom. These anti-trans bills seem to stand that notion on its head. The bills clearly aim to use government action to regulate and prevent personal freedoms. Yet the party still favors the liberty to own firearms, so it’s not quite enough to say that the Republicans have traveled through the looking-glass and are now living in Opposite World. We need to dig deeper.
The social institution called “government” has always had a mixed bag of goals. Governments undertake measures to provide for the common good. This is normal governance, and not something to quibble about. They also restrict or prohibit private behaviors that are deemed harmful either to the individuals involved or to the social fabric. Not infrequently, governments also take measures to exalt and privilege members of the ruling class, and that’s a separate problem, but not one that need concern us at the moment.
For many years, Democrats and Republicans united in agreeing that homosexual acts, in private, were damaging to the social fabric and needed to be outlawed. They also agreed on laws criminalizing drug use and prostitution. So it’s perfectly comprehensible that Republican legislators today would try to regulate or ban behaviors that they deem harmful to the social fabric. That’s what legislators do.
But why attack trans people in particular? Is it just a witch hunt? Very few trans individuals are neo-pagan Wiccans (though I’ve known a couple), so the term “witch hunt” is meant metaphorically. Witches are usually hunted because they’re perceived as the cause of misfortune. For some people, the changes in gender norms over the past few decades are certainly perceived as a misfortune. This is ridiculous, but on that basis it’s legitimate to look at this type of legislation as a witch hunt. But a more fine-grained analysis is possible. We can look at the legislators’ bizarre and hateful actions in several different ways.
First, the legislators may be appealing to a specific part of their voter base, namely conservative Christians. This group is convinced (with here and there a bit of textual justification) that the Bible defines people as either male or female and leaves no room for waffling or wiggling. If you believe, with conservative Christians, that the Bible was inspired by God and contains accurate instructions for human behavior, you would quite likely view people who violate gender norms as defying God.
Deconstructing or debunking this view would take us far afield. It’s horseshit, but there’s no need to get into that here. Suffice it to say, these people really do believe it, and they mostly vote Republican. Doing what your constituents want you to do, at least when it’s convenient, is, again, normal behavior for legislators.
Second, some Republican legislators quite likely see trans rights as a wedge issue. If they can get these bills enacted into law and then supported by the Supreme Court, they’re in a position to apply the same legal reasoning to other personal behaviors that they would also like to control. The world has changed, and a lot of conservatives are not happy about it. This is typical of the conservative mindset, and always has been. They would like to return to an earlier era, or at least to what they imagine the earlier era to have been.
Jungian analysis might suggest that this is a manifestation of the Myth of the Golden Age — that the world was once wonderful before it began to decay: If we can only reverse the alleged decay, everybody (or at least our friends and neighbors) will be happy. Attacking trans rights can be viewed as a step in this impossible process. Jung might also suggest that trans people are sometimes viewed as the Shadow, the objectified Other onto whom unacknowledged desires are projected — the desire not to be locked into rigid gender roles, if nothing more than that.
Third, anti-trans legislation may be seen as a sort of payback. In recent years the liberals in governments, not only in the U.S. but in other parts of the world, have embraced social programs that depart from traditional norms. Gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, the teaching of evolution in schools, legalized abortion, programs of affirmative action, equal rights for women, and many other changes are seen, at least by some factions within the conservative community, as challenging their core values.
If you ignore and negate our core values, the thinking goes, then by golly we’re going to ignore and negate yours! Turnabout is fair play. Also, attacking trans rights is a way of taking a jab at liberals. They know liberals will be upset by these bills, and that’s the point — upsetting liberals.
Fourth, trans people are an easy target. The government of the United States is, in many ways, profoundly dysfunctional. Making actual improvements in your constituents’ lives is hard work, and often turns out to be impossible (if you even want to do it, which many legislators don’t). In order to create the appearance that you’re doing something that will be effective, you introduce a bill that’s easy to explain and narrow enough to appeal to voters. Actually improving the health care in this country, for instance, is a complex challenge. Instead, let’s restrict health care access to a small bunch of people in a marginalized community and then make speeches in which we loudly proclaim that we’re taking urgently needed action. See? That’s much easier!
Fifth, they’re building momentum. Republican state legislators already enjoy disproportionate power thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression. They’re looking forward to an era when the whole government of the U.S. will be Republican-controlled, in spite of the fact that only a minority of the public supports the values they espouse. The more they can whip up fear and anger, the more power they can accumulate.
Sixth, the legislators may be ideologues. Some of them have quite likely accepted uncritically the idea that men are men and women are women, and they feel no need to examine the idea or learn details that would undercut their assumptions. Like most ideologues on both the left and the right, they lack empathy. The real human impact of their ideology doesn’t concern them.
Another facet of the ideology is the notion that gender identity and gender-variant behavior are learned — that young people can be seduced into taking up these beliefs or activities. There may be some tenuous basis for this idea; I’d have to do more research, and in the end you and I might disagree. But even if there’s some basis for thinking that in some cases it may be true, it wouldn’t be a problem unless the legislator already felt, because of the ideology they’ve embraced, that these identities and behaviors are wrong and should be discouraged or prohibited. If somebody learns to play tennis, the fact that tennis-playing is learned behavior is not likely to upset anybody.
None of these explanations requires that individual legislators actually dislike trans people. They may, they may not. Calling their actions “transphobic” is too easy. Instead of slapping a quick label on it, you may want to step back and think more deeply about what’s going on.
So what can we do? It’s tempting, at this point, to fall back on the standard liberal trope about grass-roots organizing. Share your liberal values with your neighbors, contribute money to a social justice group, organize a protest march, and so on.
This just in: Protest marches haven’t accomplished anything since the Sixties. Against the Vietnam War they were a dismal failure, and I can’t see that much has changed since then. A protest march may make you feel good, and you may meet a few like-minded people, but do you seriously think Republican legislators will be swayed by your protest march?
I wish I were convinced that such actions would turn the tide, but I’m not. And I don’t think we can rely on our courts to set the country on the right path. The courts have become, not infrequently, part of the problem.
If there’s a solution, it starts with the admonition, “Don’t get mad. Get busy.” Run for office. Yes, you yourself. Can’t do that? Okay, then get busy as a volunteer for a candidate who has expressed your views clearly and unambiguously. And if you decide to run for office, take the time to educate yourself about the many problems affecting your community. Think carefully about the real underlying issues, and don’t be misled by pat slogans. Don’t settle for easy feel-good measures without looking closely at possible unintended consequences. You may need to compromise on actions, because in a political world nobody gets everything they want — but don’t compromise on your values.