The past few years have seen a flurry of proposals to restrict the rights of transgender people, especially children, across the United States. One of the most brutal just went into effect in Texas despite failing in the state legislature.
On February 18, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton published a “legal opinion” that gender-affirming medical treatment for anyone under eighteen constitutes child abuse under existing Texas law. It also compared the growing acceptance of gender transition to the opioid epidemic. Immediately, Governor Greg Abbott issued orders to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate the doctors and parents of minors receiving gender-affirming treatment for child abuse. Abbott threatened criminal prosecution for any teacher, doctor, nurse, or member of the public who fails to turn in the parents of a transitioning minor.
Pushback began immediately. One of the first targets for investigation was Jane Doe, a DFPS employee with a sixteen-year-old trans daughter. She was put on leave from her job, and two days later, DFPS showed up at her home on the sole charge that she’d supported her daughter’s transition. The Doe family has sued with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, and on Wednesday, they won an injunction, blocking the state from pursuing them while the legal battle continues. (Another hearing March 11 will determine if this protection will be extended to other Texans.) Five district attorneys immediately stated their refusal to prosecute these cases because they believe the order is unconstitutional, and the Austin school board told school staff to tell families they will not be reported.
On Wednesday, the Joe Biden administration finally joined the fray, with the Department of Health and Human Services arguing that the Texas policy violates the right to health care enshrined in the Affordable Care Act and that the state’s attempts to snatch medical records violates the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
But even if Abbott and Paxton lose the legal fight, damage will linger. One program providing mental health care to trans youth shut down last year after a protracted harassment campaign. The exceptionally public nature of the investigations — demanding medical files, showing up at parents’ workplaces and children’s schools — seems designed to inflict maximum damage, even if the investigators never manage to take any trans children from their parents.
Let’s be clear what we’re talking about when we talk about youth gender transition. For young kids, it’s purely social, involving changing things like their haircuts, clothes, and the names and pronouns they use. At puberty, adolescents can take temporary, reversible hormone blockers (the same ones given to cisgender children cursed with precocious puberty), and older teens sometimes start cross-sex hormone therapy using the same medicine prescribed to cis teens with hormonal disorders. (Texas has deemed these treatments abusive only for trans kids.)
These accommodations are hugely beneficial to their mental health. Forcing a child to go through the irreversible changes of an unwanted puberty is cruel, and the conversion therapy conservatives push as an alternative to self-acceptance is so ineffective and traumatic that experts believe it should be banned as a form of child abuse. The same could be said of taking a child from their supportive parents and placing them under the care of someone who’s expressly promised to strip them of their identity.
So, if not the welfare of young people, what’s driving this attack on trans youth? The current liberal explanation for every activity undertaken by the post–Donald Trump right is to shrug and say “the cruelty is the point.” They’re not wrong per se; the transphobic agenda is gleefully, extravagantly cruel. Politicians driven purely by public relations calculations wouldn’t risk the backlash from sending government agents to rip children from the arms of their loving parents. Nor could anyone with a shred of respect for trans people’s basic humanity consider this crusade an acceptable way to get ahead, even if they believed it would work.
Even so, pinning it all on the moral rot within Republican souls leaves a lot to be desired. To materialists, “they’re just assholes” is a pretty unsatisfactory explanation for large-scale trends, even when our political opponents are deeply unpleasant individuals. Besides, neither trans people nor mean-spirited reactionaries are recent innovations, so why is this happening now?
The answer begins with an acknowledgement that the Republican Party is a coalition held together by political horse-trading and careful strategy, and it requires a steady stream of moral panics and fresh culture war battles to sustain itself.
Despite generations of capitalist propagandizing, “fiscal conservatism” keeps getting more and more unpopular. The capitalists who benefit from these policies are a small fraction of the population; only 15 percent or so of Republicans are in it for the pro-business politics. To win elections, the party needs broader support, including a meaningful percentage of the working class. To attract these voters, the party has long relied on feeding “red meat” to its base — emotionally charged issues that make voters feel morally obligated to support the party, distract from wonky fiscal policy debates, and/or provide the thrill of bullying those they see as their political opponents and inferiors: people of color, immigrants, women, gay people, trans people, and so on.
In the early 2000s, it was Republicans who made same-sex marriage a national issue. Faced with the need to legitimize the George W. Bush presidency by winning at least one presidential election, Republicans seized on the nascent movement for marriage equality and placed eleven initiatives banning gay marriage on the ballot in key states to draw their voters to the polls. It was a spectacular success: all eleven passed, most of them overwhelmingly. After the election, Republican Party leaders credited the bans for increasing their share of the vote and helping win tight Senate races. It would take until 2015 to undo the damage.
By that time, most reactionaries realized marriage equality’s power as a usefully divisive issue was waning. The path to reinstituting the bans became precipitously steep, requiring either a drastic change in the Supreme Court (uh-oh) or a Constitutional amendment. Public support for same-sex marriage kept rising steadily as photos of happy couples filled the news, and the promised sodomitic hordes failed to rip heterosexuals from their happy suburban homes. So the right pivoted almost immediately to pestering trans people instead, whipping up panics about public bathrooms and trans soldiers in the military.
Meanwhile, feckless Democrats abandoned the judiciary at the worst possible point in the Federalist Society’s generational project to take over the courts. Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, notoriously admitted that he “didn’t give a fuck about judicial appointments,” and the administration showed it by letting any lone senator hold up appointments indefinitely, dawdling on nominations, and eventually bequeathing a Supreme Court seat and 108 lifetime federal judgeships to Trump, who rapidly stocked them with healthy young zealots. Where previous generations assumed the courts would block blatantly unconstitutional laws, like total abortion bans, and treated their passage mostly as a publicity stunt, those laws can now often be enforced.
Back in Texas, Abbott and his allies may see their persecution of trans children as a much-needed distraction from the rest of their record. Texas has long presented itself as a low-tax, low-wage, low-regulation haven for businesses, promising citizens economic growth in exchange for their putting up with austerity-starved public services. The state is now becoming a victim of its own success. The state has succeeded in luring some big companies to relocate to Texas, but without rent controls or social housing, rents have exploded over the last decade. Low union density and a worker-hostile state government mean Texans’ paychecks are not rising with the tide.
Meanwhile, loose oversight of the powerful oil and chemical industries has lead to a steady supply of industrial explosions. And not only did Texans suffer tremendously last year when a winter storm knocked out their deregulated power grid, but news also broke last week that Governor Abbott personally asked the grid operator to spike prices sky-high during the crisis, leading to $26.3 billion dollars in extra power bills.
For his part, Ken Paxton is six years into securities fraud charges and facing a second federal investigation for bribery; this drew unusually stiff primary challenges from fellow Republicans who smelled blood. At press time, he’s headed to a runoff.
Between Paxton’s and Abbott’s reputational problems, it’s no coincidence this policy was rolled out days before the Texas primaries. A guest on Steve Bannon’s podcast bragged about spending $750,000 to pressure the two to issue this policy before the election. Abbott’s campaign strategist told reporters that the investigation of trans children’s parents is “a 75 percent, 80 percent winner.”
Liberals have it wrong, then. The cruelty is not the point. Winning elections to continue to generate lucrative opportunities for themselves and the richest people in the state is the point, and cruelty is the path to victory.
The liberal response to Republican culture war attacks has been profoundly useless. Adolph Reed has described liberalism’s goal as “bearing witness to suffering” rather than doing anything to ameliorate it or confront the perpetrators. That’s on full display when red states curtail the rights of their trans residents and all liberals can muster is symbolic gestures of support, which fan the attention economy of the culture wars without providing any tangible help.
Liberals can no longer content themselves with bearing witness to Republican cruelty and the suffering it engenders. Too many real lives are at stake. Instead of passively playing our part in the culture war, it’s time to devote ourselves to a political strategy that unites the vast majority of Americans around a program of meeting our shared basic needs rather than dividing people along lines of cultural difference. Only then can we end the dangerous charade once and for all.