Anti-Trans Legislation has Never been about Protecting ChildrenRoundup
tags: discrimination, transgender, LGBTQ history
Nikita Shepard (they/them) explores histories of LGBTQ communities, gender and sexuality, race and social movements in the United States, and studies and works at Columbia University.
In March, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill banning gender-confirming medical treatment for transgender youths. The bill marked just one instance of a wave of recent anti-transgender legislation across the country that would restrict trans people’s access to athletic participation, health care, sex education and other accommodations. As Arkansas state Sen. Alan Clark (R) declared: “This bill sets out to protect children in an area where they very much need protection.”
It might seem strange that a politician with no medical training could justify a bill denying certain children medical treatment — without which, advocates note, they will suffer horrifying consequences — on the basis of “protecting children.”
Yet history shows that political discourse about protecting children since the mid-20th century has never really been about improving their health. Instead, it has a lot to do with race.
The roots of “protecting children” in U.S. political rhetoric lie in efforts to defend white supremacy. While the groups targeted as threats to children — African Americans in the South, unmarried mothers, abortion rights activists, lesbians and gay men, and, more recently, transgender people — have changed over time, the underlying political logic has proved enduring and successful.
Children’s well-being first became a political issue as industrialization and urban growth accelerated toward the end of the 19th century. Debates over child labor, education and immigration catalyzed a broad Progressive Era “child-saving” movement. Then, in the mid-20th century, postwar prosperity and Cold War tensions contributed to a renewed focus on children as symbols of the American future.
But in the South, the politics of “protection” did not at first focus on children. After Reconstruction, White elites in the states of the former Confederacy consolidated their rule through a combination of political exclusion and violence, with White vigilantes committing thousands of racial terror lynchings between 1880 and the 1950s. Though their violence aimed to suppress labor disputes, breaches of racial etiquette and Black political organizing, lynchers nearly always justified their actions as necessary to protect White womanhood.
But as the civil rights movement gained strength, racist violence that targeted Black children discredited White men’s claims to be justly protecting women. A turning point came with the brutal 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose mangled body and grieving mother shamed the nation and catalyzed sympathy for Black civil rights. By the time of the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing, which killed four children, the Jim Crow regime had lost all moral legitimacy to national observers.
However, backlash against the civil rights movement gave rise to a new, more successful strategy of appropriating the rhetoric of child protection. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision mandated public school desegregation, “massive resistance” to impede integration took shape across the South. While male politicians signing the “Southern Manifesto” against Brown emphasized “states’ rights,” the women who formed the movement’s grass-roots base mobilized as White mothers to argue that school segregation was necessary to protect their children and white supremacy. Integrated schools, they claimed, would lower educational standards, expose White children to disease and violence, and lead to interracial dating and, eventually, marriage.