“The stakes right now are really high when it comes to queer and trans life. I can say in terms of my own lifetime, I haven’t felt like it has been this dangerous ever,” says journalist Melissa Gira Grant. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with Gira Grant about right-wing attacks on trans people, Republican school board takeovers, and how the right’s “groomer” discourse has expanded to include queer people, drag performers and public school teachers.
Music by Son Monarcas and David Celeste
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about the escalating violence, harassment and demonization of queer and trans people in the United States and what we can do about it. In recent months, we have seen efforts to attack and dehumanize trans people reach new heights in the U.S. Right-wing characterizations of trans people as “groomers” — who are psychologically conditioning children for the purpose of sexual molestation — have expanded to include all queer people, drag performers, public school teachers, and increasingly, anyone who claims that queer and trans people are not a threat to children. The language of “contagion” is being deployed to suggest that trans and queer people are infecting young people with their desires and lifestyles.
On August 19, the Federalist ran a story with the headline “The Transgender Movement Is Not Just Intolerant. It’s Barbaric And Violent, And It’s Coming For Your Children.” On Friday, House Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced a bill that would make providing gender-affirming medical care to transgender minors a felony. While it would be virtually impossible to pass such a bill at present, given that Democrats control Congress, the idea of such a law serves as a rallying cry —and offers fascist voters a glimpse of how reclaiming the federal government might allow them to dominate and control trans people’s bodies.
Tucker Carlson has rallied his Fox News audience to harass health care workers at Boston Children’s Hospital by spreading lies about the supposed “mutilation” of young people who receive gender affirming care. Right-wing columnist and podcaster Matt Walsh, whose Twitter bio includes the phrase “theocratic fascist,” and the right-wing Twitter account Libs of TikTok have expanded the harassment campaign to include Yale New Haven Hospital and Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital.
Historically, this trajectory of demonization and dehumanization, paired with the kind of radicalized violence we have seen from Republicans, points toward atrocity. The fascist crusade to eliminate trans people from public life is one of the most urgent stories of our time, with frightening implications for us all, and yet, the corporate media has continued to neglect the issue.
One journalist who has remained committed to covering attacks on trans rights, as well as grassroots efforts to fend off those attacks, is Melissa Gira Grant. Her work on this subject is deeply important, in terms of helping us understand the crisis, and who the players are, and I also feel that her writing is an important contribution to the work of keeping history. As things escalate, some of us are going to take action, and some people are going to pretend, later on, that they had no idea what was coming, and that no one could have known. Because, historically, that’s what people say after doing nothing in times like these. But thanks to people like Melissa, there is a record of how these attacks are being waged, who is waging them, and who is fighting back.
While I do believe we will see continued escalations in violence, I also believe in our potential to prevent a great deal of harm, and I will talk a bit more about that later. But first, we are going to dig into the nature of our current situation and who and what we are up against.
Melissa Gira Grant: The stakes right now for trans folks are really high. I can say in terms of my own lifetime, I’m 43, I haven’t felt like it has been this dangerous ever. When you hear rhetoric about “grooming” or all of this more mainstream rhetoric about trans women in sports and trans girls in sports, it might seem like a backlash or a regression and I think it’s something more than that. I think we’re seeing an expression of ideas that I think could accurately be labeled fascist that go further than just a cultural pendulum swing from rights to repression. There’s a different character to the kinds of arguments that we’re hearing right now against queer and trans folks. And I think part of it is sometimes it comes dressed up as something like, “We’re just asking questions,” or “We’re just having a reasonable debate.”
And usually, at the heart of that framing is this idea that there’s only so many rights to go around. And if some people have rights, then others must not, this kind of zero sum game as if there’s a marketplace for rights. And I think there’s a lot of problems with a human rights framework like that being part of it right there that it gets lost in those debates, but it ends up pitting people against each other. So, we’re seeing this pitting against LGB and T people. We’re seeing feminists or people who are at least saying they’re feminists, whether or not they actually are, alleging that we can’t say “woman” anymore, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s so obvious and yet that’s their Great Replacement Theory dog whistle is the way that I’ve been looking at it. We, the “right” women, are being replaced by these people who have no claim to being women. That’s essentially what they’re saying, but dressing it up in this rhetoric where it paints them as the victim. It’s very insidious that way and it’s very hard I think for people who aren’t necessarily in these debates to challenge something that might sound innocent seeming or to even just do the basic amount of fact checking, because it’s all so preposterous. Some of these arguments, like the grooming arguments, you can’t win with facts necessarily.
I mean, you can try to fact check them, but it goes deeper than that, because they’re about amassing of violent backlash in some cases when we’re talking about the way that this rhetoric has fueled targeted harassment of LGBTQ teachers and librarians across the country against venues that are doing drag events for all ages or for families. You can’t divorce this rhetoric of the groomer and alleging that people are grooming children from the way that it’s used in the real world.
We’re not just talking about things that are said on the Twitter account, Libs of TikTok, for example, which is a huge driver of this. We’re talking about how people then take that rhetoric, go out in the world, harass people, make threats to people face to face, and often record videos of that content, which then feedback loops back to somewhere like Libs of TikTok or even the Tucker Carlson Show. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.
KH: When it comes to bad takes and bad politics, these are dizzying times, but one of the moments I found most alarming in recent months was when some liberals began to characterize the use of gender-inclusive language like “pregnant people” as an erasure of women. I was honestly floored. I immediately thought of Marie Shear’s famous words, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” In 1986, the idea of being viewed as an actual person was aspirational for many women, who had experienced so much objectification and dehumanization in a deeply misogynistic society. In 2022, the idea of being viewed as a person, rather than specifically being referred to as a woman, in all cases, has been depicted by some people as a form of oppression that is comparable to forced birth. So how the fuck that did that happen? And how do we push back against it?
MGG: Yeah, one of the things that makes it difficult to push back on what is eliminationist rhetoric but coming in the guise of a liberal argument about rights and politics and debate and all those things is that it’s misstating what’s actually going on.
So, on the one hand, we’ll get something like this opinion piece in The New York Times from one of their new opinion columnists named Pamela Paul, who I’m not even sure if she would identify as a feminist. She’s certainly not a liberal, but the role that she plays across several pieces that she’s written now about trans rights is to launder a very borderline fascist in some of her pieces and I think now creeping into actually fascist ideas about gender and sexuality in one of her more recent pieces, which she alleged that the far right and the far left agree on one thing, women don’t count.
So, there’s two really scary things going on right there. She’s drawing an equivalency that doesn’t exist between the far right and the far left and she’s also claiming that we should be concerned with this more abstract idea that we can’t use the word “women” anymore when we’re debating. So, it drags what’s going on into the realm of debate and talk and op-eds, and it conveniently leaves the people whose lives are actually being put under threat right now. It takes people whose lives are under threat right now and pushes them out of the frame. They aren’t actors in this conversation. They certainly aren’t agents. They aren’t people with free will, but really the people that you have to worry about are people who want to have you state your pronouns.
On its face is that eliminationist? On its face is that advocating for “Great Replacement Theory”-type ideas like Tucker Carlson has mainstreamed? It is and it isn’t. What it is doing though is saying, “This is the realm in which we’re going to have this fight where we’re fighting in these abstract ways about who belongs and who matters as if they don’t have real world consequences.” And it’s also asserting their power to be able to say who counts as a woman, to say whose rights matter, people who actually, if they wanted to see their shared fate, cis women and trans women.
Cis women and trans folks generally have a shared fate when it comes to bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom, but this isn’t that, right? This isn’t somebody saying, “When someone harms you, it harms me.” This is someone saying, “When you get something, you take something from me.” That’s setting up something very dangerous.
KH: I think it’s very important to remember that the reactionary tendencies of fascists are further enabled by the biases of liberals, leftists, and others who may not be murderously resentful of trans people, but who may be pissed off about things like being expected to remember pronouns, or who are squeamish about trans kids playing on girl’s sports teams, or who would rather hear their gender identity emphasized, at all times, rather than being referred to as a person. If these beefs sound especially petty in comparison to what we are all up against, in a society where our bodily autonomy is under siege, that’s because they are. I don’t care if a trans person was ungenerous about you misgendering them. I don’t care what you think of any identity-based discourse, or conflicts you may have experienced organizationally. If you believe your politics are bigger than those petty concerns, then I am going to have to ask you to prove it. Opposing fascist attacks on marginalized groups should be our baseline collective response. When we stop fighting for people who are under siege, we are lost. Under such conditions, our enemies will thrive and they will cause a level of havoc and destruction that most of us have not yet imagined. So this is a good time to keep our priorities in order.
While liberals and leftists fail to adequately mobilize against attacks on queer and trans communities, the right has been honing its tactics of mobilization around digital content creation. Some right-wing groups are staging confrontations with targeted groups and individuals, and quickly turning those moments into viral posts and tweets, which then inspire online harassment campaigns and further popularize these aggressive, media-based tactics.
MGG: When we’re thinking about how attacks on queer and trans life are being immediately turned into content for right wing media, we have to talk about Libs of TikTok. That might be the place to start. This account that has, last time I checked, I think, upwards of 3 million followers, where their MO is to essentially troll the internet for the most outrageous gender nonconforming or openly queer and happy videos, better if they can say that they’re educators and share those and to try to put a target on actual individual lives.
The other kinds of things that they do are encourage parents and others to submit public records requests to schools to try to get any educational materials related to gender and sexuality, to then share those on that account without context and put whole school districts on blast. So, now educators are operating in an environment where any email that they send could potentially end up on Libs of TikTok putting a target on them. So, that infrastructure has now been weaponized by this group on the far right that I don’t think has gotten enough attention compared to maybe the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. This is the Groyper Movement. This is the Christo fascists. They’re Gen Z.
For the most part, they are going out and taking marching orders from an account like Libs of TikTok like, “Here’s the queer bar in Dallas that we’re going to protest today.” But then of course, the entire thing is about no offense, Gen Z, but content generation. They’re very savvy in knowing that any video that they make, any confrontation that they can provoke and capture. In the case of what happened in this one community venue in Dallas during Pride Month, those videos showed up on Tucker Carlson in around 48 hours. So, there’s a pipeline between who’s putting targets on communities.
Vigilantes then are going to run out and turn that into action and then that feedback loops back to someone like Fox News. When it appears there, it seems almost like this organic thing. Oh, my God. Did you hear in this community, there was an all ages drag event during Pride Month and these concerned citizens just happen to be there? It was entirely manufactured. And in the case of this event in Texas, then it takes one more step, which is we have state legislators saying, “We need to ban drag in any venue where minors may be present.” That was mentioned within two or three days as well.
KH: As we have previously discussed on the show, we have seen a dropoff in support for trans people, since the end of the Trump administration. In my opinion, the lack of pushback has played a powerful role in emboldening and empowering the right as they have escalated their attacks on trans people.
MGG: So, I’ve seen a real shift in the last year or so when it comes to how people are responding to this unprecedented wave of anti-trans legislation. And we’re talking about at this point hundreds of proposed laws, bills that do everything from requiring genital exams for children to play sports in a public school to correctly gender them or misgender them.
We’re seeing proposals that would bar access, not just to medical forms of gender-affirming care, but also social transition is being floated in Florida right now. We are seeing processes that aren’t really laws or even executive actions like we’re seeing in Texas, where the Governor and the Attorney General have instructed the State Child Protective Services Agency to investigate the parents of trans kids who affirm them. And that last one I think is if we want to think of something emblematic of what’s going on right now, that’s a really key one, because it’s complicated and that it wasn’t actually a law. It’s not like parents got to go to the state legislature as they often do in Texas and have been doing for years to push back on this legislation.
This was actually a response to the fact that that legislation couldn’t even get through the Texas state legislature as conservative as it is and as dominated by an America first, Trumpian expression of conservatism. So, when they couldn’t pass a law, they just did it anyway and created chaos and let the chips fall where they may. And I think we’re seeing a version of this and they’re maybe learning from a version of this around abortion bans and the complex ways that abortion bans that were on the books before Roe are now coming into effect and people are having to scramble to make sense of them. What we saw in Texas after this action by Governor [Greg] Abbott and Attorney General [Ken] Paxton is parents having to make a really cold calculus.Do we have to leave? Do I have to uproot my family?
I’ve talked to families a year ago, so May 2021, when the state legislature was actually in session who wanted to stay in fight and were committed to protect the positive communities that they created for their kids. They didn’t experience the entire state as a hostile place. They felt like they had created affirming community for trans kids and their kids in particular and didn’t want to have to give that up. All of this like, “Oh, just abandon Texas. Just move somewhere else. You’re asking a lot.” And they refused to do that. Most of those families that I met in 2021 during the legislative session in Texas have left the state or have plans to leave the state because of that executive action.
These are people who, because they testified at the state legislature, are out and known as the parents of trans kids. There’s active investigations of parents of trans kids and there’s legal challenges to this too. The ACLU is involved in these legal challenges. There is movement to push back, but in the meantime, as the court process winds on, people are having to pull their kids out of school, sell their houses, and uproot themselves. And to be honest, that was a really chilling moment for me personally, as a journalist, as a human being, to see people go in the span of a year from stay and fight to, “I have no choice but leave.”
I remember some of the conversations that were going on right after the election of Trump and I feel like that us was a lot more widespread, even if people weren’t in imminent danger, but amongst of liberals in general, the #resistance folks, there was a lot of sort speculation about, “Well, when would you leave? When would you know that things were bad enough to leave?” To see that playing out already in this community and it’s played out in other communities before now, but this particular community that was resolved to stay and fight a year ago, to see many of them feeling like they have no choice to protect their families but to leave, that is a line in the sand moment for me. It’s not the end, right? What’s going on in Texas is just the beginning of it.
KH: Melissa’s coverage of attacks on trans youth has also helped me understand the role right-wing mothers are playing in the larger panic we’re seeing about trans and queer people. And I really want to emphasize to people who haven’t paid attention to these school board wars that we cannot afford to ignore the impact that radicalized right-wing parents are having. In a piece called, “The Arizona Republican Primary Is Ground Zero for America’s Hysteria Over Critical Race Theory and Drag Queens,” Melissa chronicled the rise of Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, whose story I think is really important to understanding this moment. Lake is a political novice and conspiracy theory enthusiast whose credibility as a “fellow mamma bear” has channeled the political will of parents who have disrupted school board meetings to protest mask mandates, critical race theory, and any discussion of social justice. Lake has also championed the crusade against queer and trans people in public schools, posting, “They kicked God out of schools and welcomed the Drag Queens … They took down our Flag and replaced it with a rainbow. They seek to disarm Americans and militarize our Enemies. Let’s bring back the basics: God, Guns & Glory.”
In 2021, fueled by a moral panic about critical race theory, conservatives took over dozens of school boards around the country. In Colorado Springs, plans to diversify staffing and overhaul disciplinary practices were quashed by the right-wing takeover of school boards. These conservative takeovers have also led to the removal or resignation of dozens of school superintendents in the state. As Michael Thomas, a superintendent who chose to resign told the Washington Post, “Our schools are where social warfare is waged in America.” While communities in some states have rejected extremist school board candidates, Republican crusaders are often met with less resistance.
In California about half of the state’s 5,000 school board seats are up for election this year. In the San Francisco Bay area, at least 100 candidates are running unopposed. One of those candidates is known anti-gay extremist Dennis Delisle, who has written that descendants of slaves “are so much better off” than they would have been if their ancestors had been left in Africa. In Florida, Ron DeSantis has provided campaign funds, covered the cost of mailers and held rallies in multiple cities, in support of 30 right-wing school board candidates, even though such races are historically nonpartisan.
Libs of TikTok has also fueled parental hysteria around queer and trans people in public schools, often dictating the right’s talking points on the subject. By late April, a Media Matters review of the account indicated that Libs of TikTok had “tagged or named at least 222 schools, education organizations, or school system employees in 2022, often directing users to harass an individual school district or teacher.”
The power and potential of these parent groups is not lost on Republicans. As Melissa reported, one of the most prominent right-wing groups organizing against school boards, a group called Moms for Liberty, held a national conference in July. At the event, Republican Senator Rick Scott, who is leading Republican efforts to retake the Senate, emphasized the importance of school board disruption as a political phenomenon, telling parents, “If you guys run, you are going to make everybody else win.”
MGG: Motherhood is such a complicated part of all of this when we’re talking about mostly the moms in Texas, for example, who are coming out and standing in the way of the legislators who want to take health care and education away from their children. That was my introduction to these empowered moms. Especially after COVID, it seems like there was a wave of parents getting involved in school districts. But most of the time, what they were getting involved in was not about protecting their children. It was about weaponizing COVID to advance other right-wing causes.
So, what we saw in Arizona is indicative of something that’s happened across the country, but I narrowed in on the Scottsdale Unified School District, because you could see this develop very clearly from 2020, where we have mothers mostly, but not only, organizing themselves on a private Facebook Group to take over these meetings essentially and just filibuster meetings with comments that have nothing to do with what’s on the agenda, ostensibly there to reject masking and any other kinds of COVID precautions. And once that ball is rolling, then we find out they’re also opposing what they call critical race theory, which the educators there say, the school board there says, “Critical race theory is not actually being taught here.”
And I feel like I just have to sidebar for a second and say, who cares if it was, right? The problem isn’t like whether or not this is being taught. The problem is this is being weaponized by people who don’t even understand it and are tweeting about any discussion of race and racism in the classroom as something that they have the right to censor their children’s exposure to and all children in the school district’s exposure to. And then from organizing and the way that they are against masks, against what they believe is CRT, the grooming rhetoric then flowed in alongside that. And we see parents also alleging that children are being sexualized by any discussions of LGBTQ people, history, rights.
In Florida, it even went a step further with any classroom discussion of gender or sexuality for kindergartners through third graders was potentially considered sexualizing and inappropriate with teachers subject to sanctions for that. So, these three things converged over the last two years. What we’ve seen now heading into the midterms in 2022 is candidates are seizing on this. So, in Arizona, probably the candidate who most actively aligned with these activist moms is Kari Lake who just won the Republican nomination for governor in that state and she amplified their conspiracy theories about being targeted.
So, the victimhood of rhetoric comes into play where after disrupting these meetings, after proposing things that are deeply unpopular and after doing so in such a way that is getting up in the face of people, making them feel uncomfortable, taking over the meetings, by the way, are tactics that could be useful in other situations, but what’s going on here is just trying to sink the entire process into chaos. The end game for them is no public education. Pull their kids out of schools, pull all kids out of schools. Everything moves into charter and religious education. What’s going on here is an attempt to crash a system essentially and you can’t reason with it.
And part of the reason that you can’t is it’s driven by these conspiracy theories about grooming or critical race theory or thar COVID is fake. And the latest one in this school district that found its way into campaign ads for Kari Lake is the idea that the parents were being surveilled by members of the school board, that a secret dossier was compiled against them. And it wasn’t. What happened there sounds pretty reasonable. Parents who were coming to school meetings quite often like the father of one of the school board members started creating a Google Drive documenting who they were and some of the stuff he put on there was unsavory and insulting to them. Some of it was just screen caps of things they said on social media themselves, but they took all of this to feed into this larger victim narrative of, “We are the ones who are under attack. Our values are under attack.” And then Kari Lake runs with this to say, “This is what’s going on in these schools. And if you vote for me, we’re going to put an end to all parents being put subject of investigation,” which they are not, but it doesn’t matter. She’s now the Republican nominee in that state and the school year is starting. Those parents are still active and people there that I’ve talked to are just stumped.
It’s like, “How do you disrupt this?” Because it isn’t happening in reality and yet it is, because it’s their kids and the educators who have to show up every day in this environment and the pressure that comes with that, feeling these groups are actually the one surveilling them. I don’t know. I don’t know where that ends. I’m still doing a lot of reporting on that. And I think what’s going on in Scottsdale is happening in a lot of other school districts as well.
Ron DeSantis and Kari Lake are not exactly the same, but I think you can think of them as a second generation post-Trump who share a lot of his base and use a lot of his flourishes rhetorically to try to distinguish themselves. We’re not those regular Republicans. We’re something else. Even DeSantis sometimes is treated as an opponent of Trump, regardless if he is running Florida, he is Trump. It’s a certain style of politics that he is very well versed in and I think one of the reasons people should be concerned about him is he seems to be better at it. He seems to actually be able to get his demands implemented.
And in Florida, that has included what I would say is an abuse of power targeting the state education department, health departments, trying to bake into their policies which aren’t necessarily getting as much airtime as things like the Don’t Say Gay legislation, but trying to bake into these policies trans exclusionary and anti-LGBT rhetoric that will fall on students, but also young people across the state. Sometimes I think this happened with Don’t Say Gay. It was treated as like, “Well, this is Ron DeSantis’s culture war. This is Ron DeSantis trying to appeal to the Trump base,” as if it didn’t have real material cost.
Even before the bill went into effect this July, the kind of environment that it creates, the kind of permission giving that it sets for how to treat queer and trans people in the State of Florida and your community, the level of pressure and fear that educators are under because nobody knew exactly how that law would be implemented. We’re already starting to see in the very early days that librarians are losing a lot of power over what books they can have in a library and even what kinds of story times they can offer. The law itself wasn’t meant to be clearly implemented. The law was meant to create this environment of fear and chaos and pressure. And I don’t think that’s incidental. He’s not just playing to his base. This is actually who he is and how he operates. The way that he operates is essentially to just abuse his power like it’s nothing, to say, “This state agency now has to fall into line with me. The state legislature has to do my bidding,” which theoretically, they’re not necessarily on the same page. We should have some division there. I’m trying to think of how to say it in relationship to Trump. I mean, there’s something about what DeSantis is doing around turning LGBTQ people into a scapegoat and then embedding that in state agencies under the rubric of protecting children, which is an old traditional conservative way of doing politics. This is all about protecting the children.
This is the state that Anita Bryant is from, the orange juice lady who went on a nationwide homophobic campaign in the ’70s. These aren’t necessarily new tactics, but with DeSantis, we also see that we have openly far right and fascist groupings coming out to support him with him refusing to condemn them. When you have a governor who speaks at a convention, in this case, it was the Turning Point USA Student Convention in Florida. And the next day, a bunch of apparent neo-Nazis show up with swastika flags and also flags that say, “DeSantis Country.” Why is it so hard to just condemn that, just to say that is unacceptable?
I mean, some other Republicans at least came out and said that was unacceptable, but he hasn’t. We’re also talking about a state where we have Proud Boys working, if not on Republican state boards, county-level Republican party organizations. There’s a collapsing happening in Florida that isn’t just about this “culture war.” You can’t really separate out these two things and I don’t think that you can wage that fascist power grab without doing things like turning queer and trans folks into scapegoats. It’s part of the playbook. It’s part of how it has happened historically and it isn’t a side show. It is the thing.
KH: The nonprofit group Run for Something is helping to train and support Democratic school board candidates around the country to fight back against what the group calls “a coordinated right-wing attack that’s turning schools into the newest front in the culture wars.” But such groups are up against an avalanche of funding from Republican PACs and wealthy donors, who are pouring “staggering amounts” of money into previously “low-profile” school board races.
I also think it’s important to note that by making schools a primary site of contestation, politically, and by including teachers in the ever-widening category of “groomer,” these parents are enacting another known element of fascism, which is to attack unions and unionized workers. Public school teachers have been characterized as “groomers” for respecting the gender expression of trans children, educating students about sex and gender, and for completely made up reasons, like a hoax circulated by Libs of TikTok in April claiming that a second grade teacher in Austin, Texas was teaching children about “furries.” Teachers are at the forefront of labor struggles and are often the primary target of conservatives who vilify unionized public workers as lazy and overpaid. Unsurprisingly, the right-wing movement to overtake school boards has found strong allies among longtime opponents of teachers unions.
While many people are aware of right-wing attacks on school boards, most people have not closely tracked the political dynamics at work or the damage done by these groups. Having a headline-level awareness of such issues can prove dangerous, because it prevents us from developing better strategies of defense, and it also leaves us open to unpleasant surprises, because you cannot anticipate the next moves of people you are not watching closely — which brings us back to Ron DeSantis.
One of the many perils of Trumpism is that it has narrowed our political focus, in many instances, with people viewing Donald Trump as the ultimate evil — our political worst case scenario — when in reality, men like DeSantis are no less dangerous, and will benefit from the path that Trump has paved.
MGG: After the “Don’t Say Gay” law, I think some of the attention on DeSantis also faded. It’s not like he won and he’s no longer scapegoating queer and trans people in the state. He’s taking the fight into places of Paxton and Abbott, into these administrative processes that maybe not as many people pay attention to.
So, for example, setting policies at the level of the State Board of Education that say that we don’t have to follow the Biden’s administration’s Title IX guidance, which is queer inclusive and trans inclusive or using the State Department of Business and Professional regulation, right, boring, to go after an LGBTQ venue that had an all ages drag event, to just openly use that state agency to target a community venue. You can draw a straight line from that kind of targeting to what we saw on Libs of TikTok, creating controversies in communities around queer specific venues. And he cited a Libs of TikTok video in why he weaponized this agency to investigate one queer venue.
And then I think most dangerously, he’s using the state’s health care administration to exclude gender-affirming care from any kind of best practices and actually positioning the affirmation of trans kids as something that is dangerous to children, to the extent that now they are threatening these agencies, threatening schools and educators that if they don’t follow the DeSantis line, which says reject the federal guidance, which also is held weapon in things like the Supreme court case in Bostock [Bostock v. Clayton County], to just reject this. And if you don’t reject it, you risk violating the law, which isn’t true. The law says otherwise. That your school board could be subject to penalties or you individuals could be subject to penalties.
This is creating an atmosphere of suspicion and pressure and using any lever of power he has within the state to do so. As important as it was to stand up and oppose things like Don’t Say Gay, this is actually how that stuff is weaponized and operationalized in a much more insidious way. People like Chase Strangio, I think, said this at the time that Don’t Say Gay, it was almost like trans people who were affected by that legislation got lost. Other queer people who were affected by that legislation got lost and it was smoothed into the slogan that didn’t capture this full DeSantis project of scapegoating queer and trans people.
KH: When we talk about unseen, right-wing political strategies, and people who get erased from popular narratives, I am reminded of how disconnected most people are from the day-to-day realities of what’s happening to trans people. The media is to blame for a lot of that. But I feel like there’s a lot of important work to be done, at the community level, to overcome that disconnect and bring us together in meaningful ways around this issue.
Over the weekend, I co-organized a direct action in Chicago that called on our community to support our trans neighbors. We spelled out the words “DEFEND TRANS LIVES” in lights on an elevated train overpass, above the Glenwood Avenue Arts festival, which is a popular annual event in the area where I live. We believed a lot of people at the fest would be supportive, so we designed and printed up a lot of posters to hand out, bearing messages like “We Will Defend Trans Lives” and “We Will Defend Our Trans Siblings.” We were betting that if we offered the signs to onlookers and invited them to join the moment, they would, and many people did. The people who joined us held their signs high and cheered for the folks holding light boards on the platform. There were a lot of hugs and tearful thank yous from people who were moved by the experience. But I want to say a few words about a guy who was decidedly unhappy about the action.
When I spoke through a bullhorn on the street, below the train platform, I identified myself as a queer, non-binary person who feels safe in my community because I believe that my neighbors will defend trans and queer lives. I talked about the arcane laws being passed around the country, about fascism, and the need for acts of solidarity. A man who was apparently displeased with the whole spectacle, and about what I had to say in particular, started to approach me while I was addressing the crowd. Another man stepped in his path, and said a few words, and the man backed up. While I continued to speak, I noticed the unhappy man acting like he might move toward me a couple of times, but he kept hesitating. When I finished speaking, he finally made his move, scurrying past me and uttering a laughably weak “fuck you,” as he sort of power walked away. My friends and I laughed. We laughed because we were safe and the man who wanted to trouble us had fled, because he was afraid. He was afraid of our numbers, of our solidarity, and of the people standing around him chanting, “All genders, all voices, our bodies, our choices” while they held signs vowing to defend trans lives. In that moment, those people were my safety.
I think it’s really important to remember that most of those people had no plan to attend a protest that night. They were handed signs and invited to join a moment of political communion, and they did. They were invited to make a commitment, emphatically, together, in public, to defend trans lives, and they did. They were invited to remember their collective power, and they did. And in that moment, they were not going to allow any of the trans or non-binary people involved with that action be harmed. I am moved by the fact that we have the power to issue such invitations, and that people are willing to accept them.
I also want to emphasize that this was not some politically uniform group of people. I am sure that some of the people who paused to hold signs and chant and weep and experience joy with us hold some views I might object to. They might use language I don’t appreciate, and I doubt they all share my view that we should abolish police or prisons. But none of that mattered in the street that night. Because whatever differences may have existed between us, all of those people would have thrown down to protect me. They would have protected any trans or gender variant person involved with that action, and they would have protected each other. I could feel that in the energy between us and I could see it in their faces. And as an organizer operating on a politically siloed and sub-siloed landscape, I will tell you, that moment of shared purpose was really fucking special.
That collective willingness to defend one another, and a refusal to abandon anyone to the fascists, or whoever might be attacking us, is what it’s going to take to survive these times. I’m not saying that solidarity will come easily, or as beautifully as it did at our action, but it is entirely possible — and it is where all of our hopes lie.
I also want us to remember the power that crowd had, because I want us to think about how we can leverage that kind of strength. As I recently heard Robert Evans discuss on his podcast Behind the Bastards, determined people can sometimes prevent atrocities. Evans noted in his show that, historically, when we look at places where atrocities were likely or about to occur, but did not happen, solidarity and pushback made the difference. Fascists are not uniformly bold or sure of themselves. Many will not proceed without the promise of impunity. Even the vague threat that someone might “get them in trouble,” or that a crowd might turn on them, might be enough to stop some people. If we want to give these people pause about causing harm, we have to generate that hesitation by establishing that we will defend one another. I saw some of that hesitation being created in real time on Saturday, and I will tell you all, it feels good to be safe.
I think it’s also worth noting that some people have refused to participate in attacks on trans people, and I think we should all take inspiration from their actions. According to a recent report by the Houston Chronicle, “nearly 2,300 employees have left the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services since the beginning of the year.” Reports of staff leaving the department over Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to investigate the parents of transgender children have been circulating for months, but the exodus of 2,300 employees demonstrates the magnitude of resistance to these policies. I am so grateful for those workers and for the sacrifices they have made —and I am also grateful for the hope their actions have inspired. Because we need that kind of hope right now.
As Melissa and I rounded out our conversation, we also talked a bit about abortion access. Efforts to restrict abortion are obviously tied to efforts to criminalize gender-affirming care, but Melissa wanted to raise another concern for our listeners, and it’s one I feel very strongly about as well: that we must expect information crackdowns in the coming years, and that we have to do all we can to preserve and spread knowledge about self-managed abortion as widely as we can, while we can do so without legal intereference.
MGG: My pitch everywhere right now is while you can, please share information about medication abortion. One of the scary things that I uncovered in my reporting over the last couple of months after Roe ended and in the lead up to that anticipating that there is legislation right now on the books at the federal level which prohibits talking about abortion online. It’s a law that’s passed as part of a broader telecommunications act in 1996. That at the time President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno said, “We will not prosecute people for this. This is unconstitutional.” And hence ever since then, it hasn’t been used, but it’s there on the books and it was recently cited by the attorney general as rationale for criminalizing medication abortion.
That hasn’t happened there yet, but just the existence of this law is being used to say that this is fair game. And in fact, another administration coming in potentially in 2024 with a different Department of Justice could start enforcing this prohibition on talking about abortion online, which comes with jail penalties and financial penalties. So, it’s something that’s gotten lost in both the internet policy world and in the reproductive rights world, I’m trying to put more attention on. We could basically kill this entire thing if Congress was willing to repeal the Comstock Act of 1873, which created these prohibitions on communication about abortion, but also birth control, porn and prostitution through the federal mail at that time, because it’s 1873.
So, in 1996, it was just updated for the internet era and again, hasn’t been enforced. People should not be concerned that it’s going to be enforced tomorrow, but it would be very, very easy to get this off the books in a normal Congress, if there’s ever been such a thing. I don’t think there’s that many people who think that you should be banned from talking about abortion online. I mean, this would ostensibly also hit anti-abortion groups too.
So, given that we are in a moment where we can feel a little more confident about talking about medication abortion online, sharing that information, making sure that information is archived in communities in such a way that we aren’t reliant on going online to get it because there’s lots of reasons people might not want to access that information online when it comes to leaving a digital trail, I think it’s really important right now to get well versed on what medication abortion is, how to do it, where to get pills, and to share that information widely, destigmatize it and make it accessible to people who might not even know it’s an option.
If you don’t know if medication abortion exists, you’re not necessarily going to know to Google it. This has to just become common knowledge, especially as we go into this next phase of what a world without Roe looks like with potentially Attorney General Ron DeSantis.
KH: We talk a lot on this show about what’s wrong and what we need to be afraid of, but I hope our listeners and readers are also coming away from these episodes with some inspiration and ideas about how to take action. This week, I would really like folks to think about how they can assert their willingness to defend trans lives, if they are in fact willing to do so. How can you enact solidarity in your community? How can we all make it clear that trans and queer people will not go undefended? What beautiful visions of solidarity can we dream up together? And how can we invite each other into moments that strip away concerns about our petty differences, and make the work before us clear? Let’s dream on it.
I would also recommend that people who need ideas about how to support trans people during this dangerous time check out our previous episodes with Chase Strangio and Dean Spade, which you can find linked in the show notes of this episode.
I also hope folks will heed Melissa’s advice and preserve information about self managed abortion, and help to make that information common knowledge — which is a topic we will be returning to soon. I want to thank Melissa Gira Grant for joining me today. To learn more from Melissa, you can check out her work in The New Republic and follow her on Twitter at @melissagira, and that’s Gira spelled G-I-R-A. You can also find links to some of Melissa’s articles on the topics we have discussed today in the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. And remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Previous episodes you may want to check out:
- Trans Youth Are Facing Right-Wing Attacks and a Solidarity Shortage with Chase Strangio
- Attacks on Trans Youth Are a Fascist “Moral Battering Ram” with Chase Strangio
- Attacks on Trans Rights and Abortion Rights Are “Bound Together” with Shane Burley
- Dean Spade Is Asking Activists, “How Much Bolder Could You Be?” with Dean Spage
Self managed abortion resources:
- If you are self managing an abortion and need support, you can call the call the Miscarriage + Abortion Hotline at 1-833-246-2632.
- If you or someone you know finds themselves under scrutiny for a miscarriage of any type, you can contact If/When/How for legal assistance.
- Plan C provides up-to-date information on how people in the U.S. are accessing at-home abortion pill options online.
- Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and HowToUseAbortionPill.org have created this video series for anyone looking to learn more about an abortion with pills up to 13 weeks of pregnancy.
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