The Right’s War on Trans Youth: What’s Behind It, And The Strategy To Fight Back

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At the end of October, two Florida public health boards voted in favor of new guidelines that, if accepted, will have a devastating impact on transgender youth in the state. Not only would these new guidelines ban gender-affirming health care for minors, it would pull existing treatments for young trans patients, forcibly detransitioning them. 

The public hearing for these guidelines was stacked against trans youth, with proponents of the ban given the floor first. “Experts” in testimony gave blatant misinformation, such as one who made the outrageous unfounded claim that 90% of transgender teenagers end up detransitioning. Vice News reported in August that 10 researchers whose work was cited in the Florida guidelines say that their research was misinterpreted or distorted to justify the ban. 

Just since 2020, 18 states passed laws mandating that trans students only play on sports teams corresponding with their sex at birth. This year, two states have passed bans on gender-affirming health care (including surgeries, which are rare for minors, as well as the more common treatments of puberty blockers and hormone therapy). Some right-wing governors have taken even more draconian action, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pulling coverage for gender-affirming care from the state’s Medicaid, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordering the state’s DHS to investigate parents of transgender kids for child abuse. 

For transgender people, it feels like there’s a war on our very existence.

Exacerbating this feeling of terror is the fact that Democrats have consistently melted in the face of the right wing’s anti-trans fervor rather than posing any real resistance. 

In June, President Biden released an executive order that he claimed would take steps to enhance access to gender-affirming care for trans youth. In reality, the order did little more than request sample policies from different federal departments for examples of inclusive state legislation. The issue, of course, is not that Republicans don’t know how to write laws that increase safety for trans people – it’s that they oppose that safety altogether. 

“My message to all the young people: Just be you,” Biden said at the signing of the executive order, clearly aiming to win an award for missing the point. “You are loved. You are heard. You are understood. You do belong.”

What’s at stake for transgender people is not a feeling of belonging. The right wing, as it mounts a frenzied culture war to politically dominate a chaotic and unstable era, is increasingly limiting transgender peoples’ access to healthcare and even moving forward to limiting aspects of self-expression. 

Queer youth have not taken this lying down. This year there have been encouraging walkouts of increasing size in states like Florida and Virginia against these attacks. But to turn the tide on the Republican onslaught, the movement to defend queer youth and marginalized people must be hundreds of times bigger and armed with a fighting strategy. How do we get there, what caused this situation in the first place, and how can we win a safe future for queer people? 

The Culture War Targeting Trans Kids

At Grant Middle School in Michigan last month, a student painted a wall mural depicting characters wearing t-shirts of different pride flag colors – the transgender and bisexual flag among them. The artist also included other cultural representations of students at the school, such as a Latino “painted hand” image. In response, parents relentlessly bullied the artist at a school board meeting, calling it “hate material” and discrimination against Christians.

Anti-trans sentiment in this moment has taken on a foaming-at-the-mouth quality that seems nigh on impossible to reason with, and it’s undeniably scary as a result. But it’s helpful to remember that while the transphobic culture war is particularly acute right now, it is only one part of a broader phenomenon – one that has concrete causes, and can be fought and defeated. 

Over the last several years, the right-wing cultural firestorm has taken aim not just at transgender young people, but at a multitude of issues that Republican politicians and news outlets have selected. For the better part of a year, Fox News ran endless stories railing against “critical race theory” being taught in schools – in June of 2021, Fox mentioned CRT a total of 901 times. By now, seven states have banned CRT in school curricula.

This scapegoating is a substitute for a program that benefits the working-class elements of the Republican base. In an era marked by the ravages of COVID, the destruction of climate change, and the ever-increasing cost of living, the Republicans don’t have to campaign on solutions if they can instead campaign on fear mongering. This relentless pandering to sections of the core reactionary base of the Republican party is key to their electoral turnout strategy. 

Three major factors have turbo-charged this wave of attacks on trans rights: left movements’ recent failures to win concrete victories, extreme social dislocation which leaves people vulnerable to right-wing fear mongering about “traditional American values,”  and the reactionary right’s jockeying for full control of the Republican party. 

Left Movements Undermined

In 2020, working-class and young people poured into the streets in the largest protest movement the country has ever seen: the Justice for George Floyd movement. This movement reflected a deep anger within U.S. society at racist police brutality and the hostility of the justice system, and demonstrated huge multi-racial solidarity against anti-Black racism. It also took the form of a more general youth revolt against inequality.

Crucially, the movement went beyond demanding minor reforms like those that were characteristic of earlier forms of the BLM movement, like body cameras, and drew more far-reaching conclusions about capitalism’s allocation of resources to police, with an atrocious share of taxpayer dollars going to police departments to the detriment of desperately needed social services like school funding, affordable housing, and COVID relief. 

But without any grassroots organizational structure, and without any consolidated political form, the movement’s demands were placed in the hands of the Democrats, who were all too happy to echo slogans of the movement to capitalize on mass fury for votes. Meanwhile, the same Democrats who controlled (and still control) most of the country’s major cities, kettled and tear-gassed protesters. 

Democrats did not levy their power to wage an all-out war on racist police brutality, to tax the rich to fund affordable housing and necessary community services. Virtually every Democrat who postured as a “BLM ally” in 2020 has canned their promises to take measures to curb police violence, and in most cities they have introduced major increases in police budgets. 

In other words, despite taking up hollow “woke” antiracist slogans, the Democratic Party tossed aside the demands of the biggest protest movement in U.S. history, and the movement didn’t have the structures necessary to stay upright. 

In a similar vein, as recently as this summer, Democratic officials, candidates, and affiliated NGOs flooded abortion rights events, diverting traction from a promising protest movement into midterm voting momentum. 

Instead of taking on the Supreme Court with mass protests akin to the ones that won Roe v. Wade in the first place, Democrats diverted that energy to the midterms, a dead-end for the goal of winning back abortion rights. By taking up struggles against oppression in words (like Biden using the term “Latinx”) and then doing absolutely nothing to fight oppression (like Biden deporting and detaining more people in his first year than Trump), they actually make a mockery of these very struggles. 

This continual demobilizing of people fighting to win progressive demands is a massive boost for the forces of right-wing reaction. While a majority of people support progressive measures like abortion rights, if their path forward to win those things is constantly undermined, the right is left with all the momentum. For exactly this reason, queer student activists should be wary of Democratic Party groups and NGOs that will seek to corral momentum into acceptable channels.

Social Dislocation

Ordinary people are facing a crisis of social dislocation. Trust in major U.S. institutions has been on the decline for some time. In 2022, Gallup reports only 7% of people have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. Only 25% have confidence in the Supreme Court, and that figure has declined sharply since 2002. The presidency, the criminal justice system, and banks have all seen similar precipitous drops in the last several decades.

There is a general sense among people that society is in crisis. The 2008 financial crisis kicked off a tornado of world and U.S. events that have been enormously destabilizing. Just the last several years we’ve seen enough instability to fill 100 years. 

In this context, right-wing politicians, pundits, and news outlets have done what they’ve done for nearly a century: find an enemy. 

The right’s survival depends on their ability to tap into social isolation and direct it away from any sort of united struggle against the system. They’ve done this by scapegoating different groups who they can position as threatening “our way of life.” In the past they’ve pointed to feminists, gays and lesbians, Black radicals, immigrants, communists, and Jewish people, and now their primary target is the trans community. 

The weakness of the labor movement in actively taking up struggles against oppression contributes to the ability of these ideas to take hold. 

Republicans’ Strategy War

This feeling of crisis is a huge boon for the “X” factor driving this wave of attacks – insurgent Republicans, who are vying for full control of their party. While the GOP as a whole has been transformed by Trump, there are still figures like McConnell who, while having no moral or political opposition to these attacks on marginalized people, see this strategy as potentially dangerous to the Republican Party and to capitalism more generally. The insurgent reactionary right, exemplified by the 53% of midterm GOP nominees who endorsed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, don’t see these risks – and aim to use their scapegoating strategy not just for electoral success, but to supplant the more restrained characters in the Republican Party. 

This difference in strategy was clearly displayed over abortion rights. Even as many Republicans crowed about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the party’s top strategists were panicking – the right to abortion is popular, and 60% of people opposed the decision to overturn Roe. Many Republicans immediately pivoted away from hardline stances against abortion, seeing it as a threat to their electoral chances. But the insurgent reactionary right doesn’t see the same threat present in attacking trans rights. 

The result of these three factors is a dire situation: a reactionary section of politicians and pundits who believe wholesale attacking the rights of queer people is a road to electoral power, a populace who are vulnerable to divisive rhetoric as a result of distrust sown by decades of establishment failure to serve the needs of working people, and an opposition party that at best ignores attacks on trans people and at worst sells out movements that could decisively break the momentum of the right wing. 

The Antidote To Right-Wing Hysteria

Even with the anti-trans wave thoroughly demystified, these forces still seem larger than life. The reactionary right is moving quickly, and the Republican Party broadly is making no effort to pull back on the reins, like they have on unpopular abortion bans. 

Queer students have provided an admirable lead fighting these attacks in “red states,” and have been joined by large groups of sympathetic straight and cis students. Large walkouts in Florida against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and in Virginia against the Department of Education’s new discriminatory policies show just how many young people are willing to go to the mat for queer rights. Students in Ohio scored a concrete victory against a draconian policy proposed by the state Board of Education that would have forcibly outed trans students by packing the public hearing, stealing momentum away from the right wing with an undeniable show of strength. 

In order for this resistance to grow and spread, these student organizations and demonstrations need to build out a broader movement not just among students, but among working-class people generally and organized labor.

The right-wing culture war firestorm surrounding queer youth has also swept up teachers and nurses – many of them queer and trans themselves – in its wake. Anti-trans and anti-CRT bills have targeted what teachers can include in curriculum, and healthcare providers like nurses are being targeted for providing the services required by their patients. In both cases, the right wing has relentlessly politicized and polarized the act of educators and healthcare providers just doing their jobs. 

But attacks on the rights of transgender people also signal something fundamental at risk for the working class broadly. As Socialist Alternative wrote when the Equality Act passed the U.S. House last year, the ease with which transgender workers and students can be legally discriminated against, our healthcare and even rights to use public spaces stripped from us, demonstrates how little is protecting cisgender and straight workers and students who threaten the status quo as well. As corporations fire trans and cis employees alike for the crime of wanting fair wages, as the Supreme Court prepares to potentially gut labor laws alongside anti-discrimination protections, the need for a unified movement is more present than ever. 

Labor unions should endorse, build, and mobilize to walkouts and demonstrations against these discriminatory attacks. We need a common program to fight anti-trans hysteria and protect the jobs and livelihoods of working-class people caught up in the right wing’s culture war.

We also need to use the tactics of the labor movement – strikes, pickets, and mass demonstrations – to put a halt to these reactionary attacks. Mass action is the best antidote to right-wing momentum. Student groups fighting attacks on trans youth should communicate to call a national day of action around a common program, and labor unions and left organizations should mobilize to build these mass demonstrations.

Crucially, working-class people and queer and marginalized people broadly need a political party of our own based on this method of struggle. The Democratic Party has spent decades undermining our movements and wholeheartedly serves big business, putting their interest decisively at odds with the interests of workers and queer people. While there are well-meaning queer activists who run within the Democratic Party, this effort would be much better served building an independent party accountable to our movement, one run by and for working-class people. 

Building The Common Struggle

Since before even the Stonewall era, queer and trans people have had to grapple with what kind of approach and strategy it takes to defend our existence. Like the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement, no advancements in our standing in society have been given freely by the system – we’ve had to fight for every one.

For exactly this reason, it would be a mistake to limit ourselves to an approach that’s acceptable to the establishment – the Democratic Party, the corporations who sponsor Pride events, and the NGOs that take corporate donations while treating this life-and-death battle for our existence as a problem of boardroom diversity. 

Queer rights are a working-class issue, and it’s the methods of working-class struggle and solidarity that show us how to move forward and win. A united program for the rights of queer and trans people stands not just to defend us from the right wing, but to win improvements to the lives of all working-class people. 

This common struggle points toward what is ultimately necessary to win a world where our rights aren’t constantly at risk. Autonomy over our bodies, safety in public spaces, free and accessible healthcare, high-quality and affordable housing, safe workplaces and living wages – this is the reality that queer and transgender people are desperately seeking, but it is also the world that the working class has long been denied. In the face of the capitalist system that is determined to keep that world from us, we owe it to ourselves to build the movement necessary to win a socialist world.

We demand:

  • Safety At Work And School!
    • A union in every workplace – common struggle is our best defense against attacks from the bosses and the right
    • Build fighting student organizations to protect marginalized students from harassment and discrimination 
  • Free Healthcare For All!
    • No one should go bankrupt from medical care! Tax the rich to fund Medicare for All & take our health out of the hands of the bosses
    • Free and accessible gender-affirming and reproductive care
  • Legal Recognition & Equal Rights!
    • Trans people have the right to use our chosen names, chosen pronouns, and participate in activities corresponding to our gender identity, at work and at school 
    • Protect trans people from discrimination in healthcare, housing, work, and public spaces
    • Legalize abortion across the country
  • A Party For Our Interests!
    • Democrats have stood by for decades while queer rights balance on a knife’s edge. Workers, young people, and the marginalized need a party that fights for us
    • Build a new party independent from corporate money, accountable to the movement