There is a dangerous escalation of transphobia happening right now. The political right in the United States and the United Kingdom are rolling back civil rights for trans people specifically and LGBT people more broadly. This is being driven by an amalgamation of mainstream conservative parties, the far right, Christian fundamentalists and right-wing shock jocks and tabloids.
Almost every U.S. jurisdiction currently has at least one piece of anti-trans legislation before its legislature. According to the website Trans Legislation Tracker, 471 bills targeting trans people have been put forward at a state level across the country since the start of 2023. The bills are wide-ranging, aiming to roll back anti-discrimination protections for trans people, exclude them from public life and deny them access to everything from healthcare and legal recognition to education, bathrooms and sport.
Fifteen anti-trans laws have already passed Republican-dominated state legislatures this year. This follows 26 passed last year. The most infamous is Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a serious attack on free speech that effectively bans discussion and acknowledgement of LGBT people in public schools. Since then, the Florida Department of Health has issued official guidance that trans children should not be allowed to wear clothes or use pronouns that align with their gender.
Tennessee goes even further. The state will now police gender expression in public under the guise of banning drag performances. Its latest bill, which passed into law on 2 March, defines drag performers as “male or female impersonators”—an insidious way of criminalising simply being trans.
Many of the bills aim to criminalise the provision of gender-affirming healthcare, such as puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy, to trans children. A number of them would open to child abuse charges parents who support their children accessing care. Unless blocked by the courts, an Alabama bill passed last year will come into effect on 8 May making this a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison. Health practitioners who provide, or in some cases even just recommend, gender-affirming care also face imprisonment and having their licences revoked. More than a third of trans youth live in states that have already restricted access to gender-affirming care or are currently considering bills that would do so, according to a 2022 study by the Williams Institute.
Until recently, most bills restricting transition-related healthcare have applied only to people under the age of eighteen. Republicans are trying to extend these bans up to the age of 21 in several states. An Oklahoma bill goes the furthest by seeking to ban access to those under 26—well above any commonly accepted threshold for adulthood. Republicans are also attempting to de facto expand these bans to trans people of all ages by blocking insurance coverage for gender-affirming care and preventing publicly funded facilities from providing it.
The current wave of anti-trans legislation follows the rolling back of legal protections for trans people under the Trump administration and the so-called “bathroom bills” that ban trans people from using gender-appropriate public toilets. More of these bills are being proposed, including one introduced in South Dakota last year that would require public facilities to be segregated on the basis of “biological sex”. This is defined by the bill as “the person’s genetics and anatomy existing at the time of the person’s birth”, meaning that an updated birth certificate —already difficult to access in South Dakota—would not provide an exemption.
In the UK, proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which would simplify the process for trans people to legally change their gender, have also come under attack. In particular, the proposal to move away from a medical approach that pathologises trans people by requiring a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria”, towards self-identification, or allowing trans people to decide their gender without the involvement of medical professionals.
Since the changes were proposed, sections of the media and new anti-trans lobby groups such as Woman’s Place UK have mounted a vitriolic campaign against them. Other organisations, including Standing for Women, which was founded by far-right transphobic activist Kellie-Jay Keen, are campaigning to repeal the GRA altogether and prevent trans people from being legally recognised as their gender.
In January, the UK government invoked never-before-used power to block Scottish legislation amending the GRA, which would have made it easier for trans people to change their legal gender. The Conservative Party has historically been divided on its approach to the GRA; this unprecedented move indicates a hardening of its position.
The ability of trans people to medically transition has also come under fire in the UK. In April last year, Tory Health Minister Sajid Javid announced an inquiry into the treatment provided for trans children. Speaking in parliament, he claimed that the current approach is “overly affirmative, and … bordering on ideological”. This came two years after legal action against the National Health Service and a High Court decision resulting in no trans people under the age of seventeen being referred for treatment for almost a year. Aside from the legal battles, gender identity clinics are struggling to keep up with referrals in a health system that is chronically underfunded and in a state of perpetual crisis.
It’s not surprising that this campaign against trans rights has been taken up with such enthusiasm by conservatives and the far right; transphobia fits with their sexist belief in biologically or divinely determined gender roles.
The right is not the only political or social group that enforces gender roles. Women’s and LGBT oppression play an important role for capitalism as a whole by creating and reinforcing a social system in which the family unit, and particularly the woman within it, takes care of reproducing, socialising and caring for current and future generations of workers. Otherwise, it would come at a substantial cost to the wider economy—the global value of women’s unpaid domestic labour was $11 trillion in 2020, according to an Oxfam report. That is more than the combined revenue of the 50 biggest companies on the Fortune Global 500 list. A complex web of gendered stereotypes, social expectations and economic pressures maintains this system.
But the political right pursue the oppression of women and LGBT people with an extreme ferocity because of its particular vision for what society should look like: strictly hierarchical in all spheres, in which social roles are narrowly defined and with the nuclear family as its foundation. Within the family, parents rule over children, women take care of domestic life and men are breadwinners and “head of the household”. Deviations from this family “norm” are viewed as an attack on the very fabric of society.
Trans rights have become the thin end of the wedge for the right’s broader homophobic and sexist agenda. After voting to overturn Roe vs. Wade, conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear that he also wants to overturn past decisions that guarantee access to contraception, decriminalise sex between men, and enshrine marriage equality. Since then, more than three-quarters of House Republicans have voted against federal legislation protecting the right to same-sex and interracial marriage. They also overwhelmingly voted against enshrining a right to contraception and abortion access. More than 72 percent voted no to all four bills.
The current attacks on trans rights are being justified on the basis of defending children and women. This has long been a talking point of the right, who have in the past cynically invoked women’s rights in their attacks on other oppressed groups such as Black people and Muslims. The hypocrisy of this is clear. In the U.S., these are the same political forces that have denied women access to abortion, and criminalised those who try to help them. More recently, the Wyoming Republican Party has even defended child marriage.
Much of the current anti-trans rhetoric is an extension of old homophobic tropes that view LGBT people as paedophiles undermining traditional family values and grooming children. Opponents of LGBT rights generate moral panics around children (because who on Earth is against protecting children?) to gain a hearing and advance their agenda, which has nothing to do with protecting children. They’re finding that this strategy is having some success, especially in the U.S.
Attacks on trans people have been particularly useful for Republicans such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is trying to cement his position within the party in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. Republicans are using the issue of trans rights to appeal to their electoral base, capitalising on the conservative “parental rights” movement that emerged in opposition to school policies around remote learning and mask wearing, which were introduced early in the pandemic.
This movement soon targeted progressive curriculum related to race, sexuality and gender identity, as well as which bathrooms trans students use and their participation in school sports. Many of the current anti-trans bills are framed around parental rights. One proposed in North Carolina, for example, would have required teachers to immediately inform parents if their child “exhibits gender nonconformity”.
It’s no surprise that these attacks are increasing at a time when capitalism is getting more brutal and unequal for working-class people. For the ruling class, attacks on trans rights encourage ordinary people to fight among ourselves to distract us from our common enemy. Creating a climate of extreme hostility to trans people encourages people to rage about drag queen story time and worry about the possibility of encountering a trans person in a bathroom, rather than the cost-of-living crisis.
Although Australia is not facing the same onslaught of attacks as the U.S. and UK, we’ve already seen echoes of it in the transphobic campaign of former Liberal candidate Katherine Deves and the far-right Christians who marched against World Pride in Sydney. Thankfully, extreme anti-trans politics is still the preserve of the fringe right in Australia. The left has an important role to play in ensuring that remains the case.