Editor’s note: Jack Turban is an assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, where he is director of the Gender Psychiatry Program. He is also affiliate faculty at the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at UC San Francisco. His writing has appeared on CNN and in The Washington Post and The New York Times. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Conservative legislators made substantial progress this month in their attempts to curtail the rights of transgender children and their families.
The governors of Indiana and Idaho signed into law bans on gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors despite opposition from major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association and American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Kansas Legislature overrode Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto and banned transgender girls, from kindergarten through college, from playing on girls’ sports teams. And just last week, the US House of Representatives passed a federal anti-trans sports bill (though it’s unlikely to pass the Senate, and President Joe Biden has signaled his intention to veto the legislation if it did). According to some GOP politicians, such legislation is essential to ensure “fairness” and protect children.
But these bills do no such thing. If some of these arguments around fairness and protecting children from LGBTQ people sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same ones used against gay people in the 1990s. These Republicans have simply repackaged old anti-gay rhetoric and scaremongering to target transgender people.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, some cities in Colorado began passing laws prohibiting anti-gay discrimination. Frustrated by this progress, social conservatives in the state created an organization called Colorado for Family Values.
Worried about more localities passing anti-discrimination laws, which it saw as endorsing non-Christian values, the group came up with a bold strategy: Start a ballot initiative to amend the Colorado Constitution to prohibit state and local government bodies from passing more. The question was: How would it convince voters, who were increasingly tolerant of gay people, to support it?
The group developed two primary tactics it thought would appeal to different types of voters. The first was a more palatable “fairness” argument. It created the false narrative that anti-discrimination laws would give gay people preferential or “better” treatment than straight people. It ran with the catchy slogan “equal rights, not special rights.”
The second was a bit more grotesque — reverting to age-old accusations that gay people were sexual predators and “groomers” who posed a risk to children. The strategies worked, and what was known as Amendment 2 passed.
Colorado for Family Values used the fairness argument in the 1990s to capitalize on a growing discomfort among some Americans regarding affirmative action. Civil rights groups had made great progress, and some Americans feared that affirmative action would help racial minorities at the expense of White people. The anti-discrimination laws in Colorado didn’t take anything away from straight people, but that didn’t matter.
We’re seeing the same repackaged rhetoric play out in transgender sports bans. Social conservatives have argued that these bans are about fairness and paint transgender people as taking things away from cisgender people.
In the court case Soule v. Connecticut Association of Schools, the socially conservative legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom worked on a lawsuit to sue the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, asserting that two transgender girls competing in the state’s track meets were infringing upon the rights of cisgender track athletes. (Is it a coincidence that the transgender athletes they targeted were African American? It’s unclear, but there’s a history of trying to segregate sports on racial lines, based on presumed biological advantages.) The plaintiffs essentially argued that if transgender athletes could compete, cisgender girls couldn’t win, and this was unfair.
Once again, the facts didn’t matter. Transgender people aren’t taking anything away from cisgender people in sports. In fact, two days after the lawsuit was filed, one of the cisgender girls from that lawsuit won the Class S 55-meter dash title at a state championship race, and the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals eventually upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the case.
Trans people are underrepresented in sports titles, and many politicians proposing these laws can’t even name a single transgender athlete in their states. At most, they’ll find a single successful trans athlete such as Lia Thomas, working on the presumption that sports are only fair if trans people never win.
The sports bills aren’t really about fairness. They’re about capitalizing on an electorate that social conservatives know they can rile up with disingenuous arguments and the notion that members of minority groups are taking things away from them.
We’ve also seen a resurgence in social conservatives labeling LGBTQ people as dangerous to children. When advocating for Colorado’s Amendment 2 in the 1990s, Colorado for Family Values distributed 750,000 copies of a pamphlets saying that “sexual molestation of children is a large part of many homosexuals’ lifestyle.” Things are much the same today. US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted this month that “Democrats are the party of pedophiles,” a comment she doubled down on in a recent interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Some conservatives have turned this rhetoric into public policy, arguing that laws are needed to force transgender people to use bathrooms of their sex assigned at birth, suggesting that otherwise sexual assault rates in bathrooms will rise. Though research shows that such policies are linked to transgender youth facing higher rates of sexual assault, I worry that facts won’t win out.
In the 1990s, Colorado for Family Values won in large part because it had carefully crafted, emotionally inflammatory rhetoric, and its opponents didn’t. It didn’t matter that facts weren’t on the group’s side. The same is true today.
In recent years, this rhetoric has been most effectively applied to attacks on gender-affirming medical care. Some conservatives have labeled it “mutilation” and in some instances “child abuse” despite endorsements by major medical organizations.
Those working to support the rights of families and adolescents to access gender-affirming medical care have developed no such effective rhetoric. Subsequently, bills banning gender-affirming care are being introduced and increasingly signed into law.
If we don’t know history, we are doomed to repeat it. It’s vital that people recognize today’s anti-trans attacks for what they are: recycled strategies from the 1990s to spread misinformation and fear toward LGBTQ communities.
The US Supreme Court ultimately struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2. Given the composition of today’s high court, this backstop is unlikely to work. If people don’t wake up to this reality and continue to be drawn into the GOP’s false and emotional rhetoric, we are in for a horrifying period of US history.