Brynn Tannehill

Conservatives and the Transgender Time Warp

Filed By Brynn Tannehill | July 25, 2014 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: anti-trans propaganda, anti-trans stereotypes, anti-trans talking points, conservatism, propaganda, religious right, stereotypes, time warp

scared-lady-1950s.jpgSince the TIME magazine cover story, "The Transgender Tipping Point," there has been a distinct whiff of panic coming from social conservatives. The idea of transgender people, and their issues, being taken seriously in mainstream culture was seen as some far-off, almost-too-horrible-to-be-believed future. As a result, when this moment came, the right was left without a coherent, pre-planned strategy.

As little as a year ago very few people saw the rapid emergence of a popular transgender celebrity as a possibility. As a result, conservatives are frantically rummaging through the junk drawer of anti-gay tactics and propaganda from the past five decades and throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks.

The most regressive of recent anti-transgender voices have actively called for deliberate systematic discrimination against transgender people in order to force them back into the closet. They see this as "helping" us by not cooperating with the "delusion." This is an idea that dates back to the 1960s. Similarly, in the '60s homosexuality was also still considered a mental disorder, and expected to be kept in the closet for the good of all concerned.

Another recent case revolved around Laura Klug, a transgender public school substitute teacher in Texas who was fired. There was no allegation of misconduct; some parents simply did not want children exposed to transgender people. This is eerily reminiscent of the fight that surrounded the Briggs Initiative in 1978, which would have banned gays and lesbians from being teachers in California.

Another 1970s throwback is the recently dredged-up octogenarian Dr. Paul McHugh. His personal agenda made him the Mark Regnerus of transgender research. As a result, McHugh hasn't been relevant since he closed down the gender clinic at Johns Hopkins in 1979.

This career trajectory is not unlike that of psychiatrist Dr. Charles Socarides, who spent the last 40 years of his life on the margins of science fighting to have homosexuality put back in the DSM after it was removed in 1972.

The majority of recent propaganda against Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance has been directed against the inclusion of gender identity, and very little with sexual orientation. The talking points against transgender people have been rooted in the sexual predator narrative that was so prevalent in 1980s vintage anti-gay propaganda.


Left: Anti-gay propaganda from 1986. Right: Screen capture of the anti-trans 2012 "No On 5" Campaign in Anchorage, Alaska.

The right is also pushing the thoroughly discredited "transgender people are potential predators in bathrooms" meme as hard as they can. This scare tactic is designed to appeal to paranoia and fears of rape in gender-segregated spaces, exactly the same way they did with their "gays will rape men in showers if we pass 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'" claims as far back as 1993. Oddly enough, conservatives also argued (and Jon Stewart lampooned) the message that gay men will become sexual predators in showers if we repealed DADT in 2010.

Likewise, the "ex-gay" myth of the 90s was repackaged to promote "reparative therapy" for transgender people. A few hardy (read: immune to all evidence) souls keep pushing the narrative that there are no transgender people, just gender-confused individuals who need to be "fixed" through therapy. However, the presumed causes of being transgender, and therapies they recommend, are either incredibly light on details, or are exactly the same as those they recommend for "curing" homosexuality. These apparently involve screaming and beating the crap out of pillows with tennis rackets.

Finally, one relatively new tactic against lesbians and gays has recently been employed against transgender people as well. In 2012 the Human Rights Campaign got ahold of internal National Organization for Marriage memorandums which outlined a race-baiting strategy of "driving a wedge between gays and blacks." This strategy has been very visible in the efforts to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, where opponents have relied heavily on appealing to black churchgoers to drive turnout at events which demonize transgender people.

There is more than a whiff of desperation here. It is somewhat understandable given that many conservatives literally see societal acceptance of transgender people as a complete descent into Satanism, anarchy, madness, and fascism. From a more Machiavellian perspective, conservatives need the transgender community because it's one of the last groups that it's socially acceptable to punch down.

Conservative strategists would likely hate to lose one of their best dog whistles.

Until recently, they didn't have to worry. Knowing a lesbian or gay person is highly correlated with acceptance, but only 9% of Americans have a friend or family member who is transgender. Laverne Cox -- and by extension, her character Sophia Burset -- paint a very human picture of transgender people to a wide audience. She also destroys the straw-man caricatures of transgender people that have been built up over the past few decades.

Hopefully, this shift in zeitgeist means that the bargain-bin tactics of the religious right end up being put right back there.

At least until the estate auction.

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