Trans People Are Being Demonized for Demanding Equal Dignity: A Conversation with ACLU's Gillian Branstetter
Heteronormative status anxieties are driving the right-wing backlash against their quest for justice
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell. This is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. The ongoing moral panic and sweeping legislative changes aimed against trans people aren't just a tremendous assault on the liberty, autonomy, and dignity of peaceful Americans owed the space to live their lives as they choose. They're also the latest example of the way ideological ideas about traditional and natural gender roles have long been a tool authoritarians use to justify and maintain social and political control.
To talk about these critical issues, and what we can do about them, I'm joined by Gillian Branstetter, a Communications Strategist at the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, and LGBTQ and HIV Project.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: Can you give us a sense of how bad things have gotten in terms of the contemporary moral panic about trans people and trans identities?
Gillian Branstetter: Sure. I think a good place to start is where trans people came into this current political moment. My first job here in DC and really my first professional—the first time I was paid for trans advocacy—I joined the National Center for Transgender Equality during the Trump administration. The National Center for Transgender Equality administers this thing called the US Transgender Survey. It's like the transgender census. If you know anything about data gathering predictably amongst minority populations, it's enormously difficult.
In 2015, 2016, they got 27,000 trans folks together to answer a survey about their living conditions, their economic conditions, their social conditions, to get a sense of what is the state of trans people in this country? What they found was what most folks knew just by talking with trans people, but to have hard numbers on was enormously important for legislative in advocacy efforts. What they found was that trans people are twice as likely to live in poverty. They're three times as likely to be unemployed. One in three have been homeless in their lifetime. One in eight have been homeless in the last year. They're four times as likely to experience violence. They're overrepresented in our nation's prisons, in our nation's juvenile detention systems, in our nation's foster care system, in our nation's homeless shelters and face broad discrimination across functionally every area of their life, from healthcare to education to the workplace, to their own homes. Trans people weren't doing well before all the things you're now seeing in the news started. The things you're now seeing in the news—to pick an origin point—started to spike around 2020.
Obviously, there's a far older origin point you can go to as part of the role of gender panics and politics, but as far as this current wave goes. What happened in 2020 is the Supreme Court heard a case called Bostock vs Clayton County. This was a trio of cases the Supreme Court heard asking whether discrimination against somebody on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity is sex discrimination? And therefore, prohibited by sex non-discrimination laws such as the Civil Rights Act, which governs sex discrimination and employment.
The ACLU leading a case featuring Aimee Stevens, who was a transgender woman in her 50s who was fired from a funeral home that she worked from in Michigan. We successfully argued at the Supreme Court that, yes, when you discriminate against somebody because they're gay or because they're a transgender or on the basis of their sexual orientation, on the basis of their gender identity, you are inherently judging them based on their sex, based on their physical sex. You are assessing that they are failing to conform to your standards and your expectations for them, and therefore are discriminating against them.
We won this case 6-3 from the Supreme Court. This was post-Gorsuch, post-Kavanaugh—pre-Barrett—all the same, a 6-3 majority was even better than a lot of folks on our side thought we could do with that court. The conservative legal movement greeted this as an apocalyptic event. You had folks like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz saying that this was the end of the conservative legal movement because if you couldn't fire a trans person because they're trans, that therefore would contradict all of the work that the conservative legal movement has done.
It's right after that case, which that's swamped by the news because it happened in June of 2020, which folks might remember was a busy month. It was right after that in 2021, and then in 2022 and then right into 2023 that we see the number of legislative efforts to restrict transgender people begin to double every year. It's a little over 100 in 2021, it's a little over 200 in 2022, and now in 2023, we're nearly at 500 pieces of legislation that have been introduced in state houses squarely targeting queer folks broadly, but mostly transgender people and mostly transgender youth.
There are very few areas of a transgender person's life that is not touched by this current slate of legislative actions. The bills that were just signed by Ron DeSantis in Florida are pretty instructive here. He's signed a bill outlawing trans people from using the restroom, most consistent with their gender identity, threatening them with criminal penalty if they're caught using the wrong restroom.
“We're nearly at 500 pieces of legislation that have been introduced in state houses squarely targeting queer folks broadly, but mostly transgender people and mostly transgender youth.
There are very few areas of a transgender person's life that is not touched by this current slate of legislative actions.”
He signed a bill banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth, and in fact, threatening to remove transgender youth, not just remove youth who are transgender from homes that affirm them in that trans identity, but to make it so that if anyone in the same household has access to medical transition, that thereby makes them a “cause of threat” in a child custody investigation. Basically, threatening to not just remove trans youth from their parents, but to remove youth from trans parents as well.
This models what we saw in Texas last year where not through statute, but seemingly through edict Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, and Ken Paxton, the Attorney General of Texas and my personal archnemesis, issued a directive to the state's child welfare agency telling them to begin investigating any child who is thought to or known to have access to gender-affirming care. This remains a terror looming over the lives of thousands of families in Texas. The ACLU has filed two lawsuits to block this. We've won in court on behalf of one of our plaintiffs, which was PFLAG National, a great organization which works to support the parents of queer youth.
By and large, this is blocked in courts. We know that most cases that have been opened have been closed, the folks fully exonerated. We know that the child welfare agency itself and if you know anything about these child welfare agencies, they are full of underpaid staff. The average lifespan of a social worker in one of these agencies is about six months. They've seen over 2,000 people leave the agency just in the year since that's been issued. Ron DeSantis saw that and said, “Sign me up!” and signed a bill just earlier this week that will functionally seek to do the same thing.
It's not just in Florida, obviously, we are now at over 15 states that have banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth. We've seen the attacks on care for transgender youth take a few different forms, some judicial, some extrajudicial, some outright violent. We have, of course, seen a string of bomb threats entered into children's hospitals like Boston Children's Hospital and Vanderbilt University Hospital in Tennessee because they work with transgender youth. We've seen the state of Oklahoma threaten to defund the state's largest healthcare network if they did not shut down their gender clinic. Of course forced into opposition, they did.
We've seen in Missouri where the state's attorney general, again seemingly through edict, attempted to use the state's consumer protection laws to enforce a long list of requirements that would functionally ban gender-affirming care, not just transgender youth but for transgender people of any age. Notably, the Attorney General—actually just a few days ago—rescinded that order after the state legislator banned care for transgender youth, making them the 18th state where that's done.
This political panic is on top of a moral panic, one that is being waged and stoked by right-wing media, one that is attempting to portray trans people and anyone who supports us as a threat, as a danger, as a contagion. It really is reshaping transgender life across this country. People are very concerned for themselves. They're very concerned for their loved ones. People are having to pick up stakes and leave states if they can. Folks who do stay, are having to help folks survive. If any person had this done to them, they would recognize it for the authoritarian push that it is. I'm finding it interesting who is seemingly willing to tolerate this massive expansion of the state in the name of repressing a marginalized minority.
“If any person had this done to them, they would recognize it for the authoritarian push that it is. I'm finding it interesting who is seemingly willing to tolerate this massive expansion of the state in the name of repressing a marginalized minority.”
Aaron: That last point is my—one of the things that makes me saddest about watching what's happening—these laws, this is horrific stuff, and that it's happening to as you said, an already marginalized and often suffering minority is absolutely terrible. When it's coupled with people who really ought to know better, just going along with it. A lot of people who were at the forefront of the movement for gay rights, and ought to recognize how much this parallels—"they’re a threat to our children,” and “they’re a social contagion”—all of this language that mirrors what we saw in the struggles for gay rights.
But they just going along with it, or downplaying it, or ignoring it is really distressing because trans people need allies right now, and a lot of people who ought to be their allies are either buying into the moral panic or at the very least just looking the other way. That ties into a lot of the writing that you have done lately or the threads that you have posted on Bluesky are about how much—this isn't just about this. What is also really distressing is that this moral panic is about a broader movement towards authoritarianism.
It's a classic authoritarian or often fascist playbook move to begin with striking against minorities, particularly along gender things. Can you talk a bit about the role that gender norms play in this movement more broadly, and why it is that so many on the authoritarian right seem so obsessed with what is properly masculine, what is properly feminine and those roles, and they're so incensed by what they see as boundary transgressions?
Gillian: I think it's helpful to understand gender as a list of rules. They are rules that you both follow, and you enforce. If you've read anything about trans folks, you know trans folks in your life, you may have come across the phrase of being assigned a gender at birth. I'm a transgender woman, but I was assigned male at birth. You're a cisgender man, so you were assigned male at birth, but really that assignment happens across the whole span of your life. It structures so much of your life from the point of birth, from cradle to grave really, and it structures how you move through the world.
It structures the assumptions you make about people, it structures your hopes and your fears, it structures your goals for your life. For an authoritarian personality that is very eager for rules to enforce, is very eager to instill in people a sense of fear of the strange, of the nonconforming, gender is this very useful set of tools that are already built for you. They're just lying around, and you just have to encourage people to pick them up and tighten the screws as to who is actually meeting your expectations, and who is actually meeting the standards that you have for folks around you.
“For an authoritarian personality that is very eager for rules to enforce, is very eager to instill in people a sense of fear of the strange, of the nonconforming, gender is this very useful set of tools that are already built for you. They're just lying around, and you just have to encourage people to pick them up and tighten the screws.”
I frame it that way because Michael Knowles who's this far-right podcaster from The Daily Wire, he stood on the stage at CPAC, and he got a bunch of headlines because he said “we must eradicate transgenderism” from public life entirely. A lot of people's reaction to this was to say, that's explicitly eliminationist rhetoric. That's explicitly genocidal rhetoric. His response was to say, "No, I didn't say transgender people, I said transgenderism," which is a bit like saying, “I didn't say Jewish people, I said Judaism.”
His effort to stretch it from just this small group of people who call themselves transgender to this vision of an ideology that must be eradicated, and really transgenderism has a much older cousin in the word “gender ideology,” which is more commonly heard from Viktor Orban, and Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro, and authoritarians around the world.
By defining the enemy as an ideology as opposed to just the singular group of people, that's actually scarier because what it suggests is what they have in their crosshairs is not simply this small group of people who call themselves transgender, but is a specific vision of how people can or should navigate gender norms, how people can or should navigate these rules that I was describing earlier.
We can talk about the origins of those rules, and their relationship to reproductive labor, and everything else, but to folks who are looking to construct a very rigid set of scripts that they want people's lives to follow because gender is already a script, which so many of us follow, because gender is already a script that we judge others for failing to follow, it presents this very natural tool for them. If you listen to their rhetoric, and you listen to their focus, their focus is not simply just trans people.
Trans people are the main character in their nightmare, so don't get me wrong, but there is a reason that trans people are now having our healthcare criminalized by the same legal movement that is criminalizing abortion. We're now seeing them unite those two causes in even tighter ways. We just saw that in Nebraska where they had a ban on gender-affirming care. They wanted to make a vote on an abortion ban easier, so they added the abortion ban as an amendment to the ban on gender-affirming care to pass it to the legislature. The hope being that you will be so afraid of trans people's healthcare and trans youth's healthcare specifically that you won't mind having abortion banned.
They tried this in Michigan against an abortion ballot initiative, and they're trying this in Ohio against the abortion ballot initiative as well. It failed in Michigan, so I'm not sure why they're trying in Ohio. The hope is that you will be so afraid of someone else's freedom, that you won't mind sacrificing your own. If you can create this terror and this nightmare out of somebody else's freedom, then you can justify any level of restriction against that freedom with the paper tiger promise that it will never be turned against the very people you're talking to.
“The hope is that you will be so afraid of someone else's freedom, that you won't mind sacrificing your own. If you can create this terror and this nightmare out of somebody else's freedom, then you can justify any level of restriction against that freedom with the paper tiger promise that it will never be turned against the very people you're talking to.”
You mentioned that there are folks who are seeing these same attacks, and have seen them before in the gay rights movement, and now are either not taking these ones focused on trans people seriously, or at their worst are giving air to these complaints and attempting to legitimize them. There's a long tradition in American history of tolerating abusive systems and then suddenly being surprised when they're turned against you. There's a lot of very, occasionally naive wondering of “When is authoritarianism going to come to the United States?”
You saw this after Trump, and you saw Sinclair Lewis, and George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt shoot to the top of bestseller list and book clubs, and things like this. It's like, “Could it happen here?” What they're envisioning is this vision of classical European fascism, Mussolini, and Hitler, and Stalin to an extent, and in so doing, they're erasing what the origin point of those fascist movements were. They looked and modeled so much of their policies including their ugliest, genocidal policies on the US's own racial caste system. Germany was sending researchers into the Jim Crow South to learn how to oppress a minority.
When you hear people ask, “When will this classical European authoritarian, illiberal, anti-democratic fascism arrive in the United States?” It's a country that has the world's largest prison population, that has seemingly extrajudicial killings by police, where apparently even vigilante citizens will be empowered to murder undesirables on the subway. It seems to me absurd to ask, “When will authoritarianism come here?” when it seems to already be here. It's just unevenly distributed. It's just targeted against very specific groups. It's targeted at black people, it's targeted at immigrants.
“By defining the enemy as an ideology as opposed to just the singular group of people, that's actually scarier because what it suggests is what they have in their crosshairs is not simply this small group of people who call themselves transgender, but is a specific vision of how people can or should navigate gender norms.”
A lot of trans people, and particularly my fellow white trans people, got an awakening to this from that Texas order that I mentioned earlier, where the state was literally commanding agents to go and take children away from families. It sounds classically authoritarian. Vladimir Putin was just charged with human rights crimes in the Hague because his troops have stolen over 200,000 children out of Ukraine and sent them to reeducation camps. The United States removes more children from their families than any other country on earth. We remove 500,000 children from their families every single year.
As researchers like Dorothy Roberts have shown, the vast majority of those cases, upwards of 90% of them, are not in instances of physical abuse where somebody might suggest it's justified. It's usually the consequences of poverty. It's usually need. Instead of supporting these families, instead of giving them the support they need to keep their children healthy and to help them thrive, they're surveilled, they're criminalized, they're policed. This is overwhelmingly black families. This is overwhelmingly indigenous families. Child removal is not a particularly new or novel policy in American life.
When we look at what happens at the border including under this administration. When we look at the legacy of Indian schools and this removal of children from indigenous tribes and their forced assimilation into Western cultures, including by the way, the erasure of indigenous Two-Spirit gender identities. You certainly see this across the history of chattel slavery. These systems a lot of folks tolerated, and then the moment that their mandate was expanded, to suddenly include trans youth…
Trans youth by the way, of course, were already overrepresented in the nation's foster care system, but the moment that mandate was explicitly expanded, then suddenly it seemed shockingly authoritarian. They're not wrong in being appalled at that expansion. They're wrong in the silence that they had towards those systems in the first place, towards those policies in the first place. In the same way that—I was going to go into hypotheticals, but you got the idea.
Aaron: You had said though, that the way that gender can function as a tool for this kind of social and/or political control is that it gives us this set of rules. It's an imposed set of rules and then we can basically, on the one hand, punish people who transgress those rules, and on the other hand, frighten people about those transgressions to get them more willing to allow us to punish and exert control. You've mentioned poverty, which is a form of class, and class has its own rules. There those exist and those are imposed. We have rules based on national origin. If you're one of us, you're one of the citizens.
A certain set of rules applies and if you're not, you come from somewhere else, your language is different, a different set of rules applies. There are all these different structures that would seem to be analogous to gender. Why is gender the one right now? Why does it seem to be the one that the right—to some extent—intentionally latched onto? This is the Chris Rufo being very explicit about, I am going to stir up resentments about this stuff in order to accomplish things. Why does gender specifically have so much purchase now, but not other kinds of border transgressions?
Gillian: The gender panic is threaded alongside and just to point to the ones you selected—the justification of the murder of Jordan Neely is a panic about transgression of a class and racial order. The panic over the homeless and shoplifting in San Francisco. Banko Brown, a 24-year-old transgender man was shot by an armed Walgreens security guard who faced no charges from the DA, because he supposedly shoplifted from this Walgreens just all of two weeks ago. Those are paired with the gender panic and of course watch any prime time hour on Fox News, and you're likely see those right next to panic about migrants at the border.
This idea of these transgressors of a perceived status quo, which are portrayed as threats to the status of their supporters. They're threaded throughout. What I think separates gender specifically is that gender as a set of rules governs. Most conversations about gender are really conversations about work. There is a gap in understanding where gender is it's how you dress, it's how you talk, it's a name you go by, it's pronouns, things like this.
The reason that gender is enforced against folks, the reason that the state or markets, or whatever else might find it useful as a tool to construct and govern people's lives is because they can mystify it and naturalize it behind your reproductive capacity and therefore your perceived or actual reproductive labor. Reproductive labor—I am trying to think of the easiest way to define it, it's basically the work that is done to support productive labor. Think capitalist labor going to a factory every day, going to an office every day, whatever the case may be.
Reproductive labor is usually child-rearing. It's caregiving, it's childbirth, it's gestating, it's housework, and all those categories of work that I just described are extremely undervalued. When I worked at the National Women's Law Center, I worked for their childcare portfolio. One of the things that we were trying to do was not just—so much of the conversation around childcare bills it as a product. We were trying to make clear that this is a service paid for by a marginalized workforce. Childcare workers are more than 90% women, and they make on average about $11 an hour for enormously difficult work.
The overhead of childcare businesses is extremely thin so when the pandemic started you saw this massive flood of childcare centers close and many of which have still not reopened. One of the ways that childcare is devalued is that it's presumed to be this natural inborn gift of women. That it's supposed to be coming from the body. That there's some biologically determinist means that makes certain people better at childcare than others, therefore that helps them devalue that form of labor because that labor necessarily must be either affordable, cheap, or free, in order to extract value from other workers. I don't know if I'm making any sense.
Because gender gets so mystified behind the language of what is natural, what is biological, it makes it easier to suggest that, “Well, no, I'm just simply defending reality.” The funny thing about reality is that it doesn't need defending. Reality is. There's this mindset that I see in a lot of the right and in a lot of the politicians passing these bills, banning abortion or targeting trans folks of “Well, I'm defending biology and I'm defending what's natural,” but if your vision of "biological gender" requires a massive surveillance state and the threat of enforcement by the state, it's probably not that biological to begin with.
“The funny thing about reality is that it doesn't need defending. Reality is. There's this mindset that I see in a lot of the right and in a lot of the politicians passing these bills, banning abortion or targeting trans folks of “Well, I'm defending biology and I'm defending what's natural,” but if your vision of "biological gender" requires a massive surveillance state and the threat of enforcement by the state, it's probably not that biological to begin with.”
It seems that you are more explicitly admitting that you are constructing identities. That you are trying to pressure folks into the desired channels and across the conservative religious movement, across conservative and neoliberal economists. The viewpoint is that what you should be aspiring to is this very heteronormative vision of the nuclear family. That there are caregivers and there are breadwinners and those are biologically determined and never between them shall they meet.
When somebody who's perceived to be a caregiver, somebody who is born with a uterus decides to take a different path in their life, whether that's being transgender, whether that's never having children, whether that's never getting married, there are all these sorts of pin points. There are all these sorts of sticks and no carrot to try and push them back into that role. Part of that is banning abortion, banning queer identities, all of this is to make it seem impossible, to pursue any other life outside of this very narrow arrangement of productive and reproductive labor.
If you can make all of the other paths seem impossible, or doomed to fail, or unlivable then you can retain the idea that this heteronormative state, that this very bucolic vision of the nuclear family is the natural state. It's the way it's always been. This is how it should be. A better way of understanding this is female subservience versus male dominance. One of the things that I'm seeing in Josh Hawley's book tour, he's touring this book about masculinity and the failings of masculinity. Or in Donald Trump going on this grostesque town hall on CNN, where he's getting applaud and laughter for mocking the woman he was just convicted of sexually abusing.
Those are visions of male dominance of a very rigid vision of masculinity. What I think they're promising their followers is that they can return them to that masculine dominance or to their female followers to at least this sense of stability. This idea that at least you're safe. At least you’re cared for under this role of female submission.
Most would reject that. When you talk to a lot of conservative women, they speak of pride in being women. They speak in this sense that it's like, no, I'm just defending this very narrow path. I'm not denying my womanhood. Because they're believing that the roles that they're being assigned to, or the roles that they may very well honestly be pursuing of their own volition, are rooted in their biology rather than in their own sense of themselves and in their own willingness to or lack thereof of consent.
Aaron: You mentioned that the work that was traditionally seen as feminine, so childcare stuff was undervalued. There's often a corresponding perception of overvaluing other kinds of work that are seen as traditionally masculine. You mentioned that this naturalness of the roles—baked into that is a view of dominance—that the traditionally male gender roles should be dominant over the traditionally female gender roles. All of this is just bound up in status. Earlier on we were talking about this social control and boundary transgressions as a way to manipulate social control and so on.
It seems like so much of the through-line of the really awful politics that we have seen and really awful social movements we've seen from the right, are fundamentally about status has shifted—status is always shifting, the history of humanity is rising and lowering of status of different groups and so on. But you have this sense that there were a lot of people, mostly men, mediocre men who assumed that they were owed a level of status because of the simple fact that they were men. At least they were better than women. They were better than trans people.
Sometimes there's a white racial-white cultural anxiety that's bound up in this. They were owed respect. This was my reaction to the Harper's letter about free speech was, there were people on there who had legitimately been unjustly criticized and so on, but there were a lot of people who had not been canceled. It was just that suddenly they were being criticized by people they saw as socially beneath them, and they didn't like it. There was a relative shift in status. That just seems to be so central to so much of this.
We don't like egalitarianism because egalitarianism is a denial of excellence, but the people who typically are making that argument are people who don't have a lot of excellence. Excellence tends to get recognized. It's just they think that just being Western and being white and being male is a form of excellence that's being denied. Those status games seem so central to so much of this. Much like the anger at trans people—trans people were very low social status, but now their status is rising. One way we indicate that is you should respect their use of pronouns. No, I want to sneer at them because I want them to be lower status. This just seems so central to what's going on.
Gillian: I've been fascinated watching the fallout from the divorce of Steven Crowder from his wife. Steven Crowder is this far right YouTuber. I don't know much about his politics, but looking around, they seem pretty predictable. He was billed to maybe replace Tucker Carlson on Fox News. Let's put it that way. This surveillance video from his home came out as part of the proceedings, where he's berating his pregnant wife and screaming at her and being very clearly emotionally abusive.
One of the things he keeps doing in that video is he keeps using the phrase “wifely duties.” He keeps saying that she's failing in her “wifely duties.” I don't know the full context of the video, but best I can tell, it's that she's not emotionally placating him. She's not validating him. I find that very indicative. There's this idea that they're entitled to a sense of validation. They're entitled to this—what is labor, emotional labor—which fits under that category of reproductive labor I was talking about earlier. Any effort that denies them, that even if it's just somebody else exerting their own autonomy as a person, needs to be squashed immediately.
That conversation on the right from the wake of that video and from his divorce, then immediately turned to, “Why do we even allow for no fault divorce?” There's now a bill in the state of South Dakota attempting to abolish no fault divorce. Similarly, there's a lawsuit that was filed in the state of Texas under SB8, that state’s “bounty abortion” law. It was filed by the ex-husband of a woman who had obtained abortion medication, against her and her three friends. Reproductive coercion lies at the heart of a lot of domestic abuse cases.
It's one reason why abortion should be legal and available. It is the number one cause of death during pregnancy is homicide. Kate Manne and others have written very well that domestic violence is most often preceded by usually a wife or a girlfriend rejecting the role to which her male partner believes he's entitled. This is one of many reasons why trans people—as much as we talk about hate violence in this—the number one category of violence that trans people experience is domestic violence. As much as easy I mentioned Kate Manne and in her book Down Girl, she puts forward this idea of the “naïve” conception of misogyny. The idea that misogyny is simply hatred of women because they are women. That it has some irrational hatred in somebody's heart.
But it's more often directed at women who are perceived as breaking outside of these categories. To your point, threatening this sense of male status. Transphobia, too, has a “naïve” conception where it's “They just hate trans people because they're trans” and “No hate! and we're going to oppose this,” and that's not wrong. That kind of hatred does exist. It's just a very narrow lens for explaining what's actually happening, which is that they're very upset that somebody's own autonomy would come before their entitlement to that person's emotional labor or reproductive labor or whatever the case may be.
You mentioned that there is an overlap here with white racial anxiety. It's important to pull that out. It was about a year ago that I was getting drinks with some friends, and I got a text from another friend showing me screenshots of what were clearly deranged, racist, antisemitic memes. What was alarming about these, outside of just being deranged and racist and antisemitic, was that they happened to feature colleagues of mine and friends of mine within the queer rights movement.
The person who texted them to me told me that these were found inside the manifesto that was written by the young man who walked into a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and shot nine people, most of them Black. Folks might remember that after that incident, there was a lot of talk of what was called the Great Replacement theory. The Great Replacement theory, has extremely old echoes, has lots of echoes across Europe. It's this idea that there is a powerful, usually Jewish cabal who are—George Soros often gets cast in this role—who are paying off migrants so that they will flood into Europe and the United States in order to change the racial demographics.
If you look at their conspiracy theories like the ones that my friends are being featured in, that's really only half the story. The other half of the story is that this secretive cabal is also trying to minimize white birth rates. According to this young man who went into a Tops grocery store and killed nine Black people, he was doing this partially to make up for the losses of white youth who were led towards gender affirming care and then supposedly rendered infertile. If you look across—The New York Times did this deep dive into after that shooting into the monologues of Tucker Carlson, to look at how often he was promoting the Great Replacement Theory.
They found over 200 instances where he was making this direct correlation to changing gender norms, because they view gender as an arrangement of labor. If they want to maintain the white dominance, they need as many white babies as possible. They therefore need to naturalize, mystify, and enforce at the fullest extent of the law, the labor arrangement that gives them the most white babies. They need to do things like ban abortion. They need to do things like ban birth control, they need to do things like ban no-fault divorce, and they certainly need to make it impossible for anyone to pursue a non-heterosexual identity.
Aaron: What do we do about all of this? Because the takeaway from the last 45 minutes of our conversation is, this isn't just a big problem, it is a lot of big problems interlinked that are feeding off of each other, and as you so well summarized at the very beginning, are leading to a growing legal regime of really awful stuff that seems to be accelerating. What's the way forward as far as the immediate—obviously it's change hearts and minds in the long term. Get people to be more accepting, to break down notions of what's traditional, what's natural. Rethink how willing we are to let other people just live their lives. In the shorter term, what can we do to ameliorate, if not reverse this pretty bad situation?
Gillian: First, for our part at the ACLU, we are just about weekly now in taking these states to court for their efforts to—across a broad range of the tops we've been talking about. Obviously, our Reproductive Rights Project has been incredibly busy over the course of the last year attempting to very much do harm reduction around the abortion bans that are being enacted. We at the LGBT Project have over the last few years have had actions in Arkansas against bans on gender affirming care and also in Texas and also now in Tennessee, and Montana, and Oklahoma, and Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, and they're keeping us busy. As they should be. It would be worse if we were not busy in the face of such a torrent is what I meant.
The shape of the courts being what it is, a lot of people can view that project with skepticism. Similarly, to the sense of reality that we needed to have. After the Dobbs opinion, every single day that somebody can exert autonomy over their own body is a victory. Part of the problem here in the trans rights space is that like I said, we weren't doing all that well to begin with. That is true not just of the trans rights population, but it's also true of the trans rights movement.
Trans people are incredible. They're willing to survive in the harshest conditions. Trans people are older than Christianity or capitalism, we’re as culturally universal as music. We are far tougher than what—Matt Walsh, Ron DeSantis? Come on. I think part of what we're going to need to do as trans people is access that a sense of resiliency, that sense of strength, and that sense of holding on to each other. Paired with that, we need cis people to get extremely loud, and not just in their voices and in their own social spheres and in their workplace and things like that.
We need cis people to make sure that when they're fighting against efforts at their own autonomy and efforts at their own repression, they are not using ours as a bargaining chip. They are not seeing ours as baggage. They are not falling under the false belief that they can simply repel the people who are furthest from that state of heteronormative privilege and then find a sense of security in their own. Because that is a loser's game.
“We need cis people to make sure that when they're fighting against efforts at their own autonomy and efforts at their own repression, they are not using ours as a bargaining chip. They are not seeing ours as baggage. They are not falling under the false belief that they can simply repel the people who are furthest from that state of heteronormative privilege and then find a sense of security in their own. Because that is a loser's game.”
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you enjoy this show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple podcasts. You can also join our discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. Reimagining Liberty is a project for The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.
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