A man's arm holding a pitchfork in the direction of a trans flag.

Power Structures

The Moral Panic We Cannot Ignore

Fascists rely on scapegoating and stoking imaginary fears. Now Republicans have focused their hatred on trans people to deflect attention from their destructive policies, and it could cost us lives.

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There are a lot of things going wrong in the U.S. and the U.K. right now. Life expectancy is plummeting. Inflation spiked to levels not seen since the early 1980s. Real wages are stagnant, and our healthcare systems are collapsing. Democracy is in peril around the world as right-wing authoritarian regimes seize permanent power. COVID continues to mutate, and is the third largest cause of death in the U.S. for the third year in a row. Russia invaded Ukraine and roughly a 100,000 people have died in the biggest land war in Europe since World War II.

Instead of focusing on any of these things, the top legislative and policy priority of conservatives and the Republican Party is to deal with the scourge of <checks notes> transgender people. This makes absolutely no sense, unless viewed through the lens of moral panic. Historically, the media, law enforcement, and politicians have always cynically exploited such panics for their own gain.

First, let’s get the facts out of the way. Trans people constitute .7% of the population. Transgender athletes are extremely rare, and some states that have passed anti-trans athlete laws didn’t even have any at the time. Women’s sports can’t possibly be destroyed by a tiny number of people who never held any world records or won any medals. Similarly, despite the howling, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, there are only 4,000 trans kids on puberty blockers in the U.S. out of 25.1 million kids between the ages of 12 and 17. That’s .015%, for those of you playing at home. The fears that regret and detransition will cause a wave of lawsuits is similarly ludicrous: A study published in The Lancet found that 98% of youth continue to identify as trans after, on average, five years.

The response to transgender people has been both disproportionate and hyperbolic. Fox News has featured 170 anti-transgender segments in only three weeks in 2022. Matt Walsh called “gender ideology” “one of the greatest evils in human history.” Dozens of hospitals across the country have had to deal with bomb and death threats against their staff for treating trans youth, while anti-trans protests are frequented by violent far-right groups toting assault rifles and promising death to “groomers.”

Eighteen states have passed bans on transgender athletes, none of which had any trans athletes of note. In 2021, 22 states sought to ban transition-related care for trans youth, despite opposition from every major medical organization. This year is shaping up to have an even more aggressive push for bans, including a bill in Oklahoma to ban transition-related care for anyone under the age of 26. Numerous states are defining “drag shows” so broadly and vaguely as “adult entertainment” that trans people just living their normal lives would be shut out of public life. For instance, the proposed law in Texas would make it illegal to take your child to see the Dallas Symphony Orchestra if the clarinetist was a transgender person.

This is not a proportionate response to a tiny, generally impoverished minority, one that has no members in Congress, no one on the federal bench, no governors, and no explicit protections in the Constitution. (The Christian nationalists responsible have the First Amendment and SCOTUS at their back, however.) There is a massive power disparity here, yet those targeting the trans community don’t see it that way, because we are in the midst of perhaps the biggest moral panic of the 21st century.

The basic operating definition of a moral panic is “a public mass movement, based on false or exaggerated perceptions or information that exceeds the actual threat society is facing. Moral panic is a widespread fear and often an irrational threat to society’s values, interests, and safety.”

One of the seminal pieces of research into the taxonomy of moral panics is Stanley Cohen’s 1972 book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics.” Cohen defined moral panics as a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” The impetus of this book was when the U.K. media took a short series of tit-for-tat acts of petty vandalism between (drunk) mods and rockers in the early 1960s and convinced the public this was an out-of-control gang war. Over-policing and over-reaction ensued.

Cohen analyzed this incident and identified three intrinsic characteristics of a moral panic:  The media singles out a group of people and makes them “devils.” These “folk devils” are something all good people should despise. In a moral panic the actual threat is somewhere between little and none, and concern about the group explodes seemingly overnight. Cohen also saw four key groups within the taxonomy:

Folk Devils: Individuals who are alleged to be a threat to civilization. They are treated as completely evil with no redeeming qualities.

Law Enforcement: People with the power of government and law are expected to crack down on folk devils.

Media: Coverage of those labeled as folk devils is greatly exaggerated or distorted. It renders them more threatening to society than they genuinely are.

Politicians: Opportunistic elected officials present themselves as protectors of the moral high ground in society. They join the media and law enforcement against the folk devils.

Public agitation is the catalyst for all of this. A moral panic only exists when there is sufficient public outcry over the existential threat of the folk devils. The benefit politicians, media, and law enforcement get from the moral panic depends on how effectively they stoke the public’s fears. We can see each of these very clearly involved in the current panic over transgender people.

Later scholars built upon Cohen’s work and identified other characteristics of a moral panic:

Volatility: Sudden identification of a group of people as threatening “deviants.”

Hostility: The “deviants” are regarded with intense hostility and labeled as an existential threat to society.

Measurable Concern: The concern can be measured with polls. 

Consensus: A significant portion of the public believes the threat is real and serious.

Disproportionate: Reaction is disproportionate to the size of the group and the little or no danger they pose.

Again, we see all of these in the current discourse about transgender people, who have been part of the national consciousness since actress Christine Jorgensen transitioned in the 1950s. Trans youth have been treated with blockers since the early ’90s, and it’s been the standard since the 2000s, but now it has people incredibly angry and obsessed. The NCAA has had a policy for trans athletes since 2011, and yet only now have people decided that this is the political issue of our time. (Never mind that swimmer Lia Thomas—the first trans athlete to win an NCAA Division I championship in any sport—wasn’t even as fast as the person who won the swimming event the previous year, and that seven-time Olympic gold-medalist Katie Ledecky’s record is in zero danger of being broken.)

In retrospect, most moral panics in the U.S. look ridiculous. Dungeons and Dragons, violent video games, rap lyrics, rainbow fentanyl, checking Halloween candy for razor blades (ask any Gen X’er about this urban myth), the evils of pool halls and jazz and innumerable other things seem quaint by modern standards. Incidentally, D&D is more popular than ever, and the sky hasn’t fallen.

However, the lingering panics revolve around LGBTQ people and child sexual abuse. LGBTQ people have long contended with being labeled as “deviants” and “groomers” who are a “threat” to both girls and boys. Some of the Satanic panic surrounding daycare centers in the 1980s targeted lesbians. Historically, these panics can do immense harm. The witch burnings of Europe killed over 50,000 people by some estimates. The internment of Japanese Americans is an enduring national shame. Moral panics also caused the Red and Lavender scares of the 1950s, which destroyed innumerable lives, and are now generally regarded as low points in American history—in 2017, the State Department issued a formal apology for the Lavender Scare.

The worst possible outcome occurs when an authoritarian government comes to (permanent) power on the basis of some sort of moral panic. This creates conditions ripe for genocide. This is why the timing of a massive moral panic over trans people couldn’t come at a worse freaking time. It’s no coincidence that the same people calling for turning the U.S. into a Christian Republic are also flogging the trans panic. Rod Dreher, of the TradCaths for Fascism, president for life of the Victor Orban fan club, and a secret admirer of Putin, basically confirms the taxonomies described above with his belief that the panic is warranted because trans people are such devils.

Of the entities cited by Cohen, the media and politicians have the most to gain from this current moral panic. It’s not just far-right outlets promoting anti-trans narratives. “Centrist” media outlets like the New York Times, The Economist, Reuters, and The Atlantic publish “both-sideism” articles that are effectively concern trolling, perpetuating the lies of omission practiced by far-right outlets. For instance, the New York Times compared cis teen boys and trans teen girls bone density in a misleading article meant to scare readers about puberty blockers. They then feigned shock when they discovered it was lower in trans women than cisgender men. If they’d compared cis women and trans women (you know, people with estrogen), then they’d have seen there wasn’t a difference. But they needed the clicks.

And this is the heart of the matter for the media involved in perpetuating the moral panic: Fear and anger get more eyeballs than reassurances that these things are being thought through carefully by professionals who deal with this constantly in their professional lives. It’s like the 15-second bumper for local news that tells viewers: “This new fad sweeping the nation could end up killing your teens. Tune in at 10:30 to find out all about it,” only to find out it is reporting on the urban myth about teens and Tide Pods.

Or how about all those breathless articles about trans being a fad, or hordes of people who regret transitioning? They got lots of attention and stoked a moral panic. You know what got almost no attention? The research that showed the moral panic stuff was baloney. The five-year longitudinal study of a cohort of youth who socially transitioned found that only 2.5% ended up identifying as cisgender. This didn’t make the cover of the Times or The Atlantic, because it’s not profitable to tell people, “It’s okay.” Or to admit that it was an exaggeration all along. If the research is mentioned at all, it often gets buried in one of the last paragraphs.

Republican politicians benefit from stoking moral panics because it plays to their base, keeps them safe in the primaries by deflecting attention from their failings and unpopular policies. In Texas, it doesn’t matter if the public is freezing to death in the dark due to long-neglected electrical infrastructure, as long as they’re going after those supportive parents of trans kids. Similarly, we’re going to see an increase in attacks on trans people even as the national Republican Party zeroes in on taking the debt-ceiling negotiations hostage to slash Social Security and Medicaid. There are some Republican strategists who understand exactly what they are doing. Christopher Rufo admitted he had no idea what Critical Race Theory (CRT) is, and that he knows drag shows aren’t really full of “transgender strippers.” His goal is simply to make people so scared and outraged that they will vote Republican against their own interests. To him, it’s just another tool with which to gain power. For much of the rest of the public, however, we are dealing with Dietrich Boenhoffer’s Theory of Stupidity, which postulates that ignorance is more dangerous than malice, because while “one may protest against evil; it can be exposed and prevented by the use of force, against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here. Reasons fall on deaf ears.”

According to Bonhoeffer, fighting back against moral panics with studies, reason, and logic is doomed to fail. So far, he seems to be right. The outlook is even gloomier when you consider that a political party with more money than God has identified this moral panic as their ticket to power. It’s also even harder when “centrist” media outlets are incentivized to keep stoking the panic for the sake of profit. 

Thus, it will go on until it reaches its logical conclusion, which is going too far and then realizing that we’ve made a horrible, horrible mistake as a country. This is all so dangerous. One could make the argument that the Holocaust was the result of a confluence of a moral panic stoked by a political party, which simultaneously managed to seize permanent dictatorial power. Already, transgender people and parents of trans youth are fleeing to states which are passing sanctuary laws.

How far will we go before we realize that we were acting on moral panic? I don’t know. I don’t like to think about it for long. But history tells me that it could be that 90% of trans people are dead or have fled before the situation reverses itself.


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