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The Anti-Trans Panic Is Rooted in White Supremacist Ideology

Gender-affirming care poses a challenge to the reproductive imperative imposed by white supremacy.

Protesters and counterprotesters square off outside a drag makeup class for teens taught by a local drag queen at the Peabody Institute Library of Danvers on May 10, 2023, in Danvers, Massachusetts.

In March 2022, the Idaho House of Representatives, like legislatures in 13 other states, voted to criminalize providing gender-affirming medical care to transgender youth. When asked about the bill’s threat to the lives of trans youth, Republican State Rep. Julianne Young replied, “I see this conversation as an extension of the pro-life argument.… We’re not talking about the life of the child, but we are talking about the potential to give life to another generation.”

On the one hand, we want to emphasize that Young’s assertion, suggesting that trans people never have or raise children, is false. Not only do trans people have and raise children, they often do so biologically, using their own gametes. On the other hand, it is important not to reproduce the implicit logic of Young’s statement, that adoption, fostering, extended family and kinship networks are somehow less important than biological reproduction. By reducing the definition of family and care to biological reproduction, Young is participating in the increasingly common “great replacement” discourse, a rhetorical framework grounded in the belief that society is structured first and foremost as a set of competing groups jostling for biological superiority.

So, whose group matters to Young? Using the basic demographics of her state, its clear that she is concerned with white trans youth. Looking beyond demographics, we have to think about who “counts” as a child in the United States. As scholars like Jules Gill-Peterson and others suggest, whiteness and childhood are co-constructed. Children of color are rarely described the way we describe white children, as something to be protected, nurtured and supported. Instead, they undergo “adultification,” being treated legally and socially as adults. White children, within this framework, need to be protected from the “social contagion” of transness. In comparison, children of color are already contaminated because of the historical connections between race and sexual and gender transgression.

Her comments not only point to common ground between anti-trans and anti-abortion movements, but are reminiscent of neo-Nazi David Lane’s infamous 14-word white nationalist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The similarities point to the profound interconnectedness of transantagonism, sexism and racism. And the parallel proliferation of anti-trans, anti-abortion and anti-critical race theory bills isn’t a coincidence, either: They, too, are ultimately rooted in racism and white supremacy.

The bills flow from a fundamental belief that whiteness — both the category and those who occupy it — is under threat. The validity of this belief is less important than its influence; studies demonstrate that white Americans tend to see racism as a zero-sum game they are now losing. White people, as a category, tend to think of themselves as victims in a “winner-take-all” battle between supposedly “natural” racial groups, in which survival (and reproduction) of the fittest determines the dominant group. From this perspective, any advance made by non-white racial groups is seen as a direct attack on white supremacy and the ongoing ability of white people to reproduce — not just children, but the power and privilege of whiteness itself.

This social Darwinism produces two other rationales for violence: fear of demographic shifts which place white people in the numerical minority (“great replacement” theory), and fears about declining white reproduction (“white genocide” theory). These anxieties are deeply rooted in the collective American psyche and enshrined in its legal traditions.

White fears over Chinese immigration, particularly after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, restricting all Chinese immigration to the U.S. and developing a legal point of reference for anti-Chinese pogroms and town burnings across the West Coast. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act continued this tradition by completely closing off immigration from Asia and limiting all other immigration to 2 percent of each nationality as measured in the 1890 census.

More recently in 2003, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department was created as part of the racialized fearmongering around Muslims following 9/11 and the advent of the so-called “war on terror,” around the same time as Fox News was spreading fears of a so-called “Reconquista” plot to turn over the Southwest to Mexico. In the 2010s we saw this fearmongering utilized to great effect by former President Donald Trump, whose efforts to “build the wall” and stop immigration “from shithole countries” represented an effort not to stop all immigration but to limit immigration from particular racialized countries. Regardless of who is president, U.S. immigration enforcement is rooted in white supremacist demographic demands.

Gender-affirming care poses a challenge to the reproductive imperative.

Alongside immigration anxieties is the dread that white people are being destroyed biologically and culturally (the “white genocide” theory). This theory is linked to fears that white Americans’ ability to reproduce is under attack by non-white people. We can see the reaction to this fear in early child welfare programs put in place to support white women’s reproduction; in lynchings targeting Black men who were accused of sleeping with or making sexual advances toward white women; and in anti-miscegenation laws established to ensure white babies were, in fact, white.

Reports of a soon-arriving shift in which whites become a “minority” have sparked the Buffalo, Christchurch and El Paso mass shootings, “white genocide” billboards, and movements like QAnon’s #SaveOurChildren campaign. An organizer of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally claimed that abortion is a Jewish conspiracy that aims to kill white children, Truthout reported, echoing conspiracy theories that trans people are a Jewish conspiracy to destabilize so-called Western society. Sen. Lindsey Graham once said, “[Republicans are] not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” These examples are some of the most overt instances of this narrative, but they reflect a more general white anxiety.

Once we grasp these motivations, we can understand the logic behind abortion bans. They reflect a demand for increased reproduction among white people. Women’s role within white supremacy is to raise white children — even when they are not white themselves, as shown by the history of enslaved Black women serving as wet nurses and by the care labor performed by immigrant women today. Banning abortion is essential to spreading the message that women’s purpose, nature and duty is reproduction, especially within monogamous marriage. As the Supreme Court said in its 1873 Bradwell v. Illinois decision, “The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother.”

This reproductive imperative is consecrated in biological conceptions of gender, which see reproduction not only as a duty toward society or the nation but also as a nature bestowed upon us at birth by gender. We caught a glimpse of the racial logic behind anti-abortion movements when Illinois Republican Rep. Mary Miller claimed that the overturning of Roe v. Wade was a “historic victory for white life” at a rally with Trump. She later backed away from the statement, claiming she misspoke in what would be a telling slip of the tongue. Along parallel lines, we also see white men’s role in the family reinforced through the proliferation of insults such as “cuck,” which attack their masculinity by suggesting that they let other men — especially Black men — sleep with their wives.

By contrast, reproduction is stigmatized among women of color through racist tropes like the “welfare queen” and forced sterilization targeting Black, Latine and Native American communities. Although abortion bans may increase births among communities of color, the criminalization of birthing parents and the foster-care-to-prison pipeline ensure that many people of color impacted by the bans are denied the right to vote and treated as “surplus populations” that can be eliminated or whose influence can be removed from society.

Racism is foundational to reproductive control, and the United States eugenics movement shared and inspired much of the Nazi philosophy of “racial hygiene” that sought to maintain the dominance and “purity” of the white race. Today’s conservative reproductive agenda is little more than racial hygiene’s modern iteration.

Transgender people pose a grave threat to this agenda, because they resist the idea that women are defined by an innate female essence rooted in reproductive biology, and that being mothers is, therefore, their nature and destiny. If someone born with ovaries and a uterus can escape the call of motherhood and if someone born without can be a woman, the white supremacist message falls apart. If gender is “just a feeling,” as some conservatives put it, then how can we say that women’s purpose is to bear and raise children? If people can “mess with” their reproductive organs, how can reproduction be the pinnacle of human life? Gender-affirming care poses a challenge to the reproductive imperative. It must be suppressed to sustain white supremacy, or, in the words of Conservative Political Action Conference speaker Michael Knowles: “For the good of society … transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

By rigidly policing gender norms and sexuality, anti-trans legislation reinforces the message that the proper and natural role of women is to bear children within a nuclear, heterosexual marriage. That is why the same bills that would ban gender-affirming care expressly allow nonconsensual surgeries on intersex newborns, because those interventions reinforce rather than undermine gender essentialism.

To white conservatives, womanhood is rooted in the reproductive body, and its achievement is motherhood. That message, in turn, serves to encourage reproduction with the aim of maintaining white demographic dominance. In other words, transphobia is a by-product of misogyny, which is a corollary of white supremacy. Anti-trans laws trace their roots back to racism.

The interconnectedness of these systems of domination makes some people much more vulnerable to them than others. Even before these bans were proposed, access has been unequal based on who can afford insurance access. These bans will deepen this inequality, particularly along the lines of race and class. Non-white families disproportionately lack the financial resources to move to other states to avoid criminal bans on gender-affirming care or mount a legal defense if investigated by child services for accepting their child’s gender. As athlete Caster Semenya’s experience demonstrates, Black women are at greater risk of being subjected to dehumanizing gender checks in sports, including proposed genital inspections on children, because they do not satisfy white ideals of femininity.

When Republicans like Illinois Representative Miller and Idaho State Representative Young reveal their political agenda, we must listen. Understanding the entwining of transphobia, misogyny and racism is critical to fighting anti-trans legislation like Idaho’s House Bill 675, which threatens medical doctors offering gender-affirming care to minors with life in prison — using many of the same carceral tools used to police, suppress and disenfranchise non-white communities.

Trans folks cannot fight these bills alone. Nor can mainstream trans organizations let themselves be tempted by politics of respectability that center whiteness as a way of finding popular acceptance. Only through a coalitional politics rooted in solidarity across difference will we find liberation from transphobia, misogyny and racism.

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