By John D. Blackshire
Presently, there is an ongoing debate regarding the rights of transgender people in society. Whether a young adult on campus or a grandparent navigating new terminology, conversations regarding gender diversity abound; for some, the increasing presence of trans people in the public sphere is a startling turn away from traditional gender norms which they find more appropriate for the well-being and development of children. Over the last decade, to push back the presence of queerness more generally, legislative measures have been passed that impact public gathering codes, educational curricula, and healthcare policies. Supporters claim these bills help preserve the overall cultural fabric of our country. Conversely, their opponents outline the increased unemployment, physical violence, and social stigma directed at the LGBTQIA+ community due to such measures. With tensions at an all-time high, the exact outcome of this debate is yet to be determined.
While many note The Stonewall Riot as the start of modern-day queer protest, the present-day moral panic surrounding trans bodies can be traced back to Laverne Cox’s 2014 Time Magazine cover. As the first trans person to grace the cover, Cox donned a body-tight blue dress, wavy blond hair, and a confident gaze next to a headline, “The Trans Tipping Point.” Published during Obama’s second term, the cover reflected an America that saw itself driving down the fast lane of progressive politics with nationwide marriage equality on the horizon. Cox’s presence and the craze surrounding Orange Is The New Black presented the myth that the country was past its previous misunderstandings of race and gender, and a more enlightened and inclusive America was forming. So how did the country go from the time of Obama and Orange to 492 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in the U.S. at the time of this writing?
As we continue to create radical community, let us do so in a manner that genuinely centers trans-embodied expertise. Let us fight with the voraciousness that the times demand.
Cox’s cover was the culmination of an uptick in trans representation over the years. Media such as TransAmerica (2005), Dallas Buyers Club (2013), and Transparent (2014), along with Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness, all helped to introduce the nation to trans experiences in ways never seen before. Additionally, one cannot overlook the massive success of RuPaul’s Drag Race. While not exclusively about the trans experience, various communities see the show as a stable representation of gender and sexual variance. Moreover, there has been steady change regarding the usage of pronouns, gender-neutral bathrooms, and overall inclusion of trans and gender-nonconforming people. Supporters of these changes believe they give queer folks visibility and safety and foster advocacy from non-queer individuals. The explosion of queerness, along with racial and climate protests, caused many to feel overwhelmed by the cultural changes. Over time, this anger morphed into a general moral panic for anything deemed “woke.”
Not surprising as this country has always rooted itself in moral panics. We can look back to the Salem Witch Trials when some believed a few were doing evil against their neighbors. Or, more recently, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s when parents thought their children were being used for blood cults. The country’s concerns with witches and demons stem from colonial rebukes of any religion unrecognizable to the Church. This meant Indigenous and African traditions were categorized as demonic, always to be kept at a distance from white society. Whichever example you examine, it will have the common thread of conservative Christians attacking a small yet visible minority to maintain a hegemonic standard that does not exist. Presently, we see these same logics underpinning the treatment of trans folks. Opponents view transness as abusive towards children and overall atypical and immoral. While these claims have no scientific or moral basis, that does not eliminate the fear of those who believe them.
Instead, we should remember that this is not a conversation about trans rights, not exclusively at least. Instead, it is essential to highlight that targeting trans folks, who seem like a tiny outlier in society, attempts to unravel a well-knit garment from the edges, hoping the inner seams do not notice. Stated another way, it is coming for the most marginalized, hoping everyone else will not see they are coming for them, too. It is a way to normalize further the removal of individual bodily expression and medical autonomy. The moral panic against trans folks and the repeal of Roe v. Wade is a reminder that rights are not guaranteed. As we continue to create radical community, let us do so in a manner that genuinely centers trans-embodied expertise. Let us fight with the voraciousness that the times demand.
John D. Blackshire, Ph.D., is an educator, artist, minister, and social justice coach who helps individuals and organizations identify small yet mighty ways to accomplish radical community goals. He is the founder and executive director of There’s Room Ministries based in North Carolina. He feels best when empowering others to leverage their agency to transform their worlds for good. You can learn more about his work at jdblackshire.com.