Anti-trans and anti-abortion protesters are trying to control the bodies of everyone who isn't a cis male. And they've proven they're willing to kill for it.
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A decade ago, while driving in the Chicago suburbs, I saw a sign I’d never seen before or since: “Warning: Graphic pictures at protest ahead.” Sure enough, a mile down the road, I was greeted by anti-choice protesters holding large graphic signs of what they claimed were aborted fetuses. Since I’d done my research, I knew that many of the photos were obtained without the consent of the person having an abortion, while others were fished out of dumpsters after a couple of clinics in the Chicago area improperly disposed of fetal tissue in the 1980s.
These photos are intended to shock and provoke a purely emotional response. Any photo of a surgical procedure is going to look grisly, with its bruises and dried blood and fetal tissue, which is exactly why protesters use them—because it elicits a visceral reaction and can motivate people to anger.
So it’s not so surprising that anti-trans protesters in New York City and the Seattle-Tacoma area are deploying the same tactics, posting graphic photos of post-operative masculinizing chest surgery (and without the consent of the subjects). Anti-trans activists often use stolen photos from social media or surgeon’s websites and recontextualize them to protest what they claim is “mutilation” of “healthy women’s bodies.” They deliberately select these photos to elicit outrage against transition. What they actually reveal about these anti-trans activists is their greatest fear: Healthy people who were assigned female at birth taking control of their bodies to determine for themselves what they want.
This isn’t the first time anti-trans protesters have borrowed from the right-wing anti-abortion playbook. They posted a map online of informed-consent clinics that prescribe hormone therapy and perform surgeries on demand, bypassing the red tape of a medical establishment run by cis people who gate-keep by maintaining extremely strict requirements on who can access health care. Anti-trans protesters believe, like many in the anti-abortion movement, that there is a large, lucrative trans “industry” raking in cash for “Big Pharma”–conspiracy-level rhetoric bent on ratcheting up the stakes and dehumanizing individual doctors as mere cogs in a machine. Like anti-abortion protesters, they argue that evil doctors are mutilating children, deliberately forcing perfectly “normal” kids to transition. The threat is obvious: “They are coming for your kids.” In one deviation from the anti-choicers, however, the anti-trans people sometimes argue that they are defending gay people and preventing them from being trans.
These anti-trans protesters use the veneer of “protecting gay people” to cover for a movement that is more than happy to both borrow tactics from and work alongside the religious right. Being against “gender ideology” is all that matters.
In her 2020 book Irreversible Damage, anti-trans journalist Abigail Shrier warns of the effects of medical transition on fertility, lamenting that young trans men (whom she insists on calling “young women,” or even the coldly clinical “females”) are giving up young healthy breasts and atrophying their vaginas with testosterone. Shrier argues: “The dangers are legion. Perhaps the greatest risk of all for the adolescent girl who grasps at this identity out of the blue … [is] that she’ll wake up one morning with no breasts and no uterus and think I was only 16 at the time. A kid. Why didn’t anyone stop me?” (emphasis Shrier’s).
This line of questioning recalls the pro-life and purity culture rhetoric I was steeped in when I was growing up in the deeply evangelical Midwest. As a teenager, I was taught that young women could not possibly make such a serious decision as having an abortion, because of its potentially lifelong side effects. Warnings about breast cancer (not true), depression, regret (also often not true), and damage to one’s fertility (not true) peppered arguments about how young women wouldn’t need abortions if they just behaved better. I came of age amid the moral panic of rainbow parties and pregnancy pacts, when my evangelical church warned that comprehensive sex education did not emphasize abstinence strongly enough. When I was in high school, my girl’s small group took a tour of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, where I paid $16 for a black shirt that read “Pet Your Dog. Not Your Date.” Evangelical purity culture, anti-choice activism, and homophobia were all tied up in one neat little movement that all centered on depriving young women of the ability to make informed choices about their bodies and their lives.
I was so immersed in purity culture and anti-abortion rhetoric that I had a rather disturbing reaction when I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time when I was 20. There’s a subplot in the movie, set in 1963, that features a young woman named Penny, who has become gruesomely injured from a botched back-alley abortion. Instead of viewing Penny as a sympathetic, humanizing portrait of the dangers of illegal abortion, I found myself laughing at her, and saying, “Well, isn’t that what she deserves?” I look back on that moment in horror. In this one small way, I was justifying her suffering and pain because I viewed a medical procedure as evil.
Which is the takeaway I was supposed to have—to be judgmental and disdainful of those who seize their autonomy to live their authentic lives, and believe they deserve to be punished for doing so. This is how anti-abortion activists justify the attacks and bombings of abortion clinics and assassination of abortion providers since the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. We see it happen over and over: Recall the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the medical director of Women’s Health Care Services, in Wichita, Kansas, on May 31, 2009 by Scott Roeder, a man radicalized by anti-abortion rhetoric. Roeder walked into Reformation Lutheran Church, where Tiller was worshiping, and fatally shot the physician in the side of the head. In 2015, another anti-abortion extremist named Robert Dear shot up a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three and injuring several others—at his trial, he called himself a “warrior for the babies.”
In late October, the BBC published a spurious article—which has been critiqued heavily)—highlighting the experiences of several cisgender lesbians who had been in abusive relationships with trans women. A week after the article came out, one of the cis women they interviewed, porn actress Lily Cade, published several screeds on her personal website that called for the lynching of certain famous trans women, and referred to their trans identities as an “evil,” a “shadow persona.” After outraged readers wrote in to the Guardian about her posts, Cade published a statement to the publication claiming that she was writing about personas, not people—a rhetorical move that casts trans-ness as a thing from which people must be saved, by any means necessary, including violence.
Her screeds, which have been met with either silence or whataboutisms from leaders in the gender-critical movement, distinctly echo the rhetoric and actual violence of the anti-abortion movement—and indeed we should heed it as a warning. We’re already seeing elements of those tactics being used by the gender-critical movement, with rhetoric about evil and sin being forces that must be stamped out at any cost—even if it means going to prison for murder.
For example, over on Ovarit, a discussion hub for the gender-critical community after they’d been kicked off Reddit, users argued that sidelining Lily Cade was part and parcel of socialization as women: “Many gender critical women are putting stock in appearing rational, reasonable, nonviolent and passive as a political strategy. The idea is the state and society will side with women speaking calmly and nicely in a specific accent against men who are screaming sexualized threats. Sidelining women who are truly angry and use vulgar language is part and parcel of the strategy.” Another user commented that, “Lily Cade might need an editor and maybe her mouth washed out but she told the truth.” Some worried that the focus on Cade makes them look bad, and another user admitted that they found her rage soothing. By and large, the impression in gender-critical circles seems to be that Cade went “too far” in her rhetoric but that the rage in her writings and essential message are correct and understandable.
Such thinking has already translated to brutality, and fatalities. In 2020, the United States had a record number of fatal attacks on transgender people and 2021 is set to match that record. In the U.K., transgender comedian Jen Ives was verbally attacked and threatened at a conference, where she had been explicitly told she would be welcome. Following a viral video alleging a trans woman undressing in a spa in Los Angeles this past June, two people were stabbed by anti-trans protestors in the ensuing protests. In 2020, a trans woman in Birmingham was brutally stabbed when she opened the door to a person she had met online. Police called the attack “truly horrifying,” classifying it as “a targeted hate crime.” Most of the victims of such attacks are Black, brown, or immigrant trans women.
And that is the physical violence exacted on trans people. We also have state-sanctioned violence in the form of laws being passed around the country restricting trans girls from competing in girls sports, restricting physicians from providing proper care to trans adolescents, and, in Texas, threatening parents with the removal of their kids if they affirm their trans kids’ gender. This attack on the trans bogeyman is part and parcel of the right wing’s overall attacks on anyone who is not a white cisgender man. The conservative Supreme Court, currently poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, is also disinclined to protect trans youth under those same principles—that they are “saving the children” from devastation and heartache by denying medical care.
Judith Butler, the renowned gender theorist at UC Berkeley, affirmed this point recently when she argued in an op-ed for The Guardian that the animating force behind the “anti-gender” movement is a fascist approach to reinforcing heteronormative family structures in order to preserve a white ideal of the nuclear family. Like conservatives arguing against abortion, these anti-gender activists believe “informed consent” should mean graphic descriptions and specific language about what happens to your body, warnings about potential side effects that are medically incorrect (cf. breast cancer risk from abortion, increased risk for prostate cancer for trans women). They are also increasingly beginning to accept rhetoric that calls for the quashing of trans identity by any means necessary, including violence.
The central theme here is control. So often disguised as concern for women and children’s welfare, the anti-trans and anti-abortion agendas couldn’t be further from it. They’re exercising control over the bodies of young people assigned female at birth (AFAB), control over their reproduction, control over their decisions in medical care and in their social lives. Adult trans women are cast as the evil, pedophilic influencer masterminds who are tempting children into transition, causing young, fertile AFAB people to mutilate themselves and destroy their families. And as their rhetoric ramps up, trans women in particular are increasingly viewed as the enemy in a holy war for the fertility of the young, white AFAB person. As we learned in the 1990s when abortion clinics were bombed and destroyed, this isn’t just rhetoric—it leads to violence against clinicians, doctors, and patients in their ongoing holy war.
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