In the days that have followed the 2022 midterm elections, much of the coverage has focused on the balance of power in Congress, which, days after the election, was still up in the air. And though, for Democrats, the failed “red wave” has been largely celebrated as a success story, there is much to be concerned about in the wake of the 2022 elections: Some of the most rabidly anti-trans politicians won reelection, paving the way for another year of anti-trans bills in state legislatures and a national landscape of anti-trans rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. In other words, this election all but guaranteed the continuation of the most insidious governmental attacks on trans life at the state level.
Come January, states will begin to reconvene for the 2023 legislative sessions and lawmakers will put forth new attempts to criminalize trans lives, bodies and survival opportunities. And with Governors Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, Kevin Stitt, Brian Kemp and Bill Lee, among others, all winning reelection, these bills will be pushed aggressively from the executive branch in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee, respectively.
Executive branch officials in Texas and Florida have already maneuvered outside the legislature to attempt to ban health care for transgender adolescents through executive agencies. In 2021, neither Texas nor Florida passed bans on health care for transgender people through their state legislatures, but in 2022, both Abbott and DeSantis utilized their power to prioritize attacks on trans youth.
In Texas, Governor Abbott directed the so-called child welfare agency to investigate the provision of gender-affirming care for adolescents as a form of child abuse, opening up families to investigation by the state.
In Florida, Governor DeSantis’s appointees on the state’s Board of Medicine are in the process of promulgating new standards of care that would ban all prospective treatment for transgender adolescents in a process that has silenced trans advocates and leading experts in pediatric medicine.
So long as Abbott and DeSantis remain in office, these types of attacks will continue and likely escalate.
Following the 2022 midterms, Chris Rufo, a conservative polemicist and Manhattan Institute fellow who is most known for building the national attacks on “critical race theory” in schools and more recently, for pushing the “groomer” narrative about LGBTQ adults, tweeted, “The culture war is good policy and good politics. Republicans need to lean in.”
Though progressives and the center-left have thankfully begun to more effectively mobilize around abortion, climate and guns, resistance to anti-trans narratives among progressives and liberals is limited and often altogether absent. And worse still, in many contexts, even self-proclaimed liberals and progressives have joined the right in demonizing trans young people and pushing forward the types of dangerous narratives about trans bodies and health care that fuel anti-trans bills in state legislatures. Look no further than the pages of the New York Times for yet another feature-length attack on the legitimacy of health care for trans adolescents to kick off the start of Trans Awareness Week as an example of how deeply ingrained the surveillance of trans bodies remains among liberals. The day after the election, lawmakers in Tennessee pre-filed two bills targeting the trans community. The first, SB1, bans medical treatment for adolescents with gender dysphoria. Modeled after legislation that was passed in Arkansas and Alabama (though thankfully blocked in court in both states), SB1 was the very first bill filed by lawmakers in the state. For context, that means that in the midst of ongoing climate collapse, pandemic, overcrowded pediatric ERs, unemployment and shootings in schools, lawmakers in Tennessee prioritized a bill that would take away health care from young people who need it over all other issues they could focus on leading up to the start of session in January.
Forget that the banned health care is supported by every major medical association in the United States, that it is supported by decades of clinical experience and data, that it saves lives. Those facts are easily cast aside in light of the tagline fabricated by right-wing commentator Matt Walsh: “stop the mutilation of children.” This concerned trolling about health care for trans adolescents is, of course, disingenuous — and one need look no further than the other types of legislation that the state has already proposed two months before the legislature even convenes. Lawmakers are not trying to “protect” children, they are trying to control and punish gender variance and nonconformity.
The same day that SB1 was introduced, Tennessee lawmakers also pre-filed SB3, a bill aimed at criminalizing drag shows. The bill makes it a crime for performers to engage in “male or female impersonat[ion]” that appeals to a “prurient interest.” Given the wide latitude afforded to police and prosecutors to harass, arrest and charge individuals with crimes, this type of vague and broad legislation could be used to shut down drag shows, harass trans people, and further empower the state to use the power of the criminal law to enforce gender norms. Criminalizing “male or female impersonation” also harkens back to the anti-cross-dressing laws that were used to criminalize trans and gender variant people for decades.
These two bills are just the beginning in Tennessee and across the country. Lawmakers have made it clear that they intend to ramp up the rhetoric and political attacks on trans people and the left has not met the moment to come forward in defense of trans lives. Instead, trans people are subjected to ongoing reporting and think pieces questioning the legitimacy of our care and the potential threat of our bodies. In a matter of five years, we went from a political discourse and set of policy attacks that focused on use of restrooms to the current climate where medical care and drag shows are being criminalized, mention of trans people in school is being banned, and child protective services threaten to remove young people from loving and affirming homes. This escalation should alarm anyone paying attention.
From Stephen Miller to Chris Rufo to DeSantis and Trump — the purveyors of right-wing discourse and rhetoric have, across the board, made it clear that attacking trans people is a priority in the lead up to 2024. And these types of attacks are used to mobilize a right-wing base to put far right officials into positions of governance and to expand the power of the state to constrain bodily autonomy for all of us.
This is a critical moment in mapping the contours of resistance. Will we heed the lessons of the past and build movements grounded in solidarity, or will our potential comrades continue to distance themselves from trans people and the liberatory potential of a political discourse that rejects binary thinking?
This election was not a victory, but it could be an important jumping-off point. Now we must shift our focus to the states and stop the types of attacks that will pave the way not just for the eradication of trans life but also for the ushering in of fascism.