Editors’ note: In this archival piece, Zein Murib explains how the burgeoning array of U.S. state anti-trans laws is rooted in racialized gender laws. It was originally published at the Washington Post on March 23, 2022, as Florida passed one of a series of state laws banning any mention of LGBTQ lives in schools.
On March 8, 2022, the Florida Senate passed HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, or what critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It will soon head to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who will probably sign it into law. If adopted, the legislation would prohibit instruction “on sexual orientation and gender identity” for K-4 students in the name of preserving the “fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding upbringing and control of their children.”
Laws and executive orders like Florida’s are rapidly being introduced across the states as the midterm elections approach. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) recently published an executive order that defines providing gender-affirming medical care as child abuse requiring state intervention by Child Protective Services. (A judge blocked enforcement while lawsuits challenging the order are underway.)
Just two years ago, states were similarly busy with legislation targeting transgender, gender nonconforming, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths. Is there anything different about the 2022 bills or are they more of the same?
My research finds that proponents of these bills tap into a general lack of knowledge about transgender people to portray them as threats to girls and women, and use that to advance agendas that secure racialized gender norms promoting white families headed by one man and one woman.
New bills are introduced or passed every day attacking transgender youths
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and Texas’s executive order join other recently passed legislation that targets a vulnerable minority, banning transgender girls from sports and prohibiting transgender youths from accessing health care.
Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, recently signed into law a total ban on transgender women and girls competing in high school and college sports, which advocates argue preserves fairness in girls’ and women’s athletics.
And the Idaho House passed legislation that would criminalize providing gender-affirming care to transgender people younger than 18.
These are contradictory goals: on the one hand, claiming to safeguard non-trans girls in sports; on the other, preventing transgender youths from accessing what the American Academy of Pediatrics argue is vital health care. Instead of protecting youths, proponents of these bills aim to exploit what political scientists find to be a general lack of knowledge about transgender people to provoke fears of a threat to the prevailing gendered social order. They accomplish this by claiming that they are protecting vulnerable women and girls and, in turn, preserving “traditional family values” as well as the heterosexually led nuclear family unit.
Feminist scholars and queer theorists like M. Jacqui Alexander argue that political actors criminalize and stigmatize nonnormative sexuality and gender to build a nation that promotes white reproductive citizens at the expense of all others. These sexual and gender norms consequently prop up white supremacy. For example, defining white femininity as weak, nurturing and in need of protection by white men can imply that white, heterosexual, able men are the ones who most deserve rights.
Perceptions of childhood innocence deployed to disguise discriminatory impact of laws
As with the “bathroom bills” that came earlier, those who promote this wave of bans are portraying white girls and women as uniquely vulnerable and in need of protection. These are familiar tactics. Historian Robin Bernstein’s 2011 book Racial Innocence traced how political figures have used white to represent childhood innocence and vulnerability that has to be protected from various threats. In this way, they can promote political agendas as self-evident and natural, such as keeping transgender youths out of social and athletic spaces.
These constructions of childhood innocence as implicitly white and female are propped up by contrasting myths about Black boys as inherently violent. Sociologist Ann Arnett Ferguson’s research into public school systems shows how Black youths, especially Black boys, are disproportionately punished, which reinforces the image of Black masculinity as naturally threatening.
If white girls are innocent, uniquely vulnerable, and in need of protection from implicitly and explicitly racialized threats embodied by Black boys, then they are especially in need of protection from — in the newest version — Black trans girls. Proponents of bans on transgender athletes regularly mention (and consistently misgender) Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, arguing that they are dangerous to girls’ sports, as my forthcoming research examines in more detail.
A significant number of comments on YouTube videos of the two high school track runners justify excluding Yearwood and Miller from competition by arguing that they are biologically male and, thus, possess an “unfair biological advantage.” They then compare Yearwood and Miller to elite athletes such as Mike Tyson. For instance, one representative comment satirically states, “Breaking news: Mike Tyson came out as a female. Now he is competing on a female boxing tournament. Me: wow what a massacre.”
The repeated references to Tyson, with his fraught history of violence against women, draw on very old and dangerous stereotypes of Black boys and men as inherently violent and white girls and women as perpetual victims to argue that two trans Black girls should not compete on their track team. These myths about Black masculinity and white women’s vulnerability assigns what Lisa Marie Cacho refers to as the “presumption of white innocence” to all white non-transgender women athletes. Politicians and other advocates of these bans argue as if all other female athletes are being harmed by transgender athletes — even when no transgender athletes are on their teams or opponents’ teams. Given the implicit racial construction of the opposition to transgender athletes, it may be no surprise that a photo of Reynolds signing Iowa’s ban on transgender girls from sports shows her surrounded by white girls and women.
These bills aim to erase transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and to exploit the midterm elections as an opportunity to invite voters to weigh in on their existence. They also promote harmful racialized and gendered stereotypes about who, exactly, constitutes a proper girl, and which boys are considered threats.
Note: Zein Murib offered more recent information in a summer 2023 TMC newsletter, “Why so many anti-trans laws?”
Note: This piece was updated on Sept. 8, 2023.
Image: (cc) RisingThermals