There are several reasons why Republican “culture wars” today are targeting transgender people (along with people of color in general). The right-wing, egged on by its radical right Christian adherents, is showing us how it’s fixated on transgender people as it struggles to hold onto the power it thought was assured with the election of the former president to protect itself from the progress of larger cultural forces.
Hundreds of anti-transgender bills are appearing in state houses around the country because national right-wing think tanks are feeding them to Republican state legislators who’ve hitched their wagons to a regressive, radical, White, heterosexual male-supremacy agenda tied to the former president. And these bills aren’t going away because their assumption is that a radical right-wing Supreme Court Democrats won’t have the will or power to change and will uphold anti-transgender laws.
Their anti-transgender culture war agenda is, first of all, pretty much all that Republican party operatives have left because the majority of Americans no longer support right-wing policies. Major party leaders who’d rather focus on economic issues that further accumulate their wealth and that of their wealthy buddies recognize this and so, more often than not, refuse to counter the bigotry involved in the White supremacist, transphobic actions of the Party’s radical membership and leaders whose votes they court.
This makes for a real schizophrenia for big business. Business supports these politicians because they’re the ones who vote to lower corporate and wealth taxes and remove consumer protections (“de-regulating”). But at the same time business must appeal to the larger culture for profit-making reasons by waving rainbow and equality flags.
So corporate America has learned to talk a good line — to make gestures supporting equality while funding the legislators who threaten equality because those politicians are more likely to line corporate pocketbooks. Like Republican politicians, big business knows that keeping the GOP in power must not be threatened too much by moral issues.
The anti-transgender agenda is, secondly, fueled by threats to leadership, political and religious. There are leaders, especially in the area of religion, who’ve bet their lives, careers, power, and leadership — and their own pocketbooks — on the creed that there is nothing more than two fixed genders, only two, and that that’s exactly how their god wants it.
They portray it as a liberal (“atheist,” “secularist”) plot to destroy the sectarian views they’ve espoused. A long history of patriarchy in religious institutions has put power in the hands of males who have promoted the privileges of cultural masculinity.
Even the possibilities of female clergy feel threatening to that privilege. Instead, they’re used to being the ones who define who a woman is and controlling women and their ability to reproduce, as well as stifling women’s attempts at leadership and equal regard. Equal pay for equal work to these leaders is considered a radical idea, a “slippery slope.”
And concocting theories in response to women’s gains in order to act as if putting women back in their place is really an honor for women is one way they do that. Hence the recent reaction to Southern Baptist woman leader, Beth Moore’s apologizing for promoting “complementarianism,” the claim that while women and men are equal in value before their god, He has assigned them specific, unchanging, gender roles with women as support personal for their men.
A third reason, and most important, is that our society’s personal confusion and fears, and a clinging to misinformation about gender have made anyone who openly challenges any of that lightning rods for our culture’s gender dysfunctionality.
Portraying transgender and gender-role non-conforming people as sick and immoral is a way to protect that societal and personal gender dysfunction. As long as they are seen as ill and miserable, transgender people are no threat to it.
If transgender people are out among us, accepted, affirmed, and looking happy and proud to express themselves as who they are, just knowing that they are upsets notions of how so many define themselves using well-worn, safe, essentialist gender binaries. To assure oneself that one is a man or a woman by societal definitions, that there are not only two different, settled but “opposite” sexes,” has been such a default setting in their minds that being reminded that there are all sorts of questions around this feels like an earthquake destroying the solidarity of their footing.
And yet, if they were self-reflective enough, most people would see that they’re somewhat insecure in all this. They just aren’t as secure in the idea that they’re expressing their manhood or womanhood as clearly and publicly as they should be and unthinkably wondering how secure their gender identification is, and whether others wonder too.
Think how people who feel they’ve moved beyond gender rigidity talk about getting in touch with their “feminine side” or “masculine side” as if they’re clearly one gender who must search for traits supposedly assigned only in the other.
Transgender people aren’t the ones who’ve asked for any of this, and they’re not asking for it. Their goal isn’t to make some sort of statement about or be poster children challenging society’s sicknesses about gender.
Their desire is much simpler — to be in touch with, affirm, and just live their lives as who they understand themselves to be. In the midst of our culture’s broader sickness around gender, they just want to live as full human beings who define themselves.
And maybe that tells us of a fourth reason transgender people are targets of suppression and fear. In a society where most feel that gender performance and presentation are limited by a straightjacket woven of the fear that if we deviate from the gender roles, we’ll be denigrated and worse, the way LGBTQ+ people have been, there’s a hidden, inadmissible resentment of anyone who openly breaks out of it all to live in integrity by their own definition of who they are.
All the current attempts to suppress transgender people, then, tell us more about those whose own lives are stuck, and transphobia is really a fear that someone can’t live freely as they would want to be without embracing all that gender dysfunction. The problem is more than just ignorance; it’s emotional and psychological.
Transgender people are just fine; it’s society that’s sick and acting it out on them. And the Republican Party and right-wing Christians are spreading the contagion.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.