Caught in the crosshairs of political reaction, LGBTQ youth are the target of a renewed effort to limit (already limited) protections afforded to transgender and gender non-conforming people. At least a dozen bills that ban youth access to scholastic sports and deny youth access to gender-affirming medical care have made their way to statehouse floors. In a move that effectively criminalizes trans youth and their families, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order and directive to the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services legally requires educators, social workers, and medical providers to report any minor in receipt of gender-affirming care. Likewise, bills under consideration in Idaho and Louisiana make it a felony to provide or enable youth access to hormones or puberty delaying treatments even if those treatments are provided out of state. Tasked with the job of evaluating the authenticity of a person’s trans experience, medical providers have historically been positioned in a gatekeeping role; however, this recent wave of conservative reform licenses a more intrusive surveillance. In fact, what sets these bills apart from past efforts to deny trans personhood is the conscription of doctors, nurses, and teachers to perform surveillance and enforcement on behalf of the state.
Parallel to the manufactured panic over Critical Race Theory, anxieties directed toward transgender and gender-nonconforming people have become central to the GOP’s incursion into the culture wars. Without a doubt, the attacks against trans youth are a calculated political play aimed at motivating conservative voters ahead of the midterms; however, there is more at work here than simple political cunning.
According to Alexandra Minna Stern, author of Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-right is Warping the American Imagination, the American alt-right, a collection of “disaffected libertarians, racialists of varying stripes…men’s rights activists and neo-reactionaries,” is reshaping the contours of American conservatism (17). Members of this group are profoundly animated by anti-feminism and view the erosion of gender roles as a primary cause of Western degeneration. To the alt-right, “The main culprits of this desolation are feminism and leftism, which…spur women to assume ill-fitting male roles based on the specious logic of gender equity.” The alt-right solution, according to Stern, “is the full restitution of the male/female ‘biological binary’” (164).
Marxist-feminists and feminist scholars have likewise argued that political reaction to gender is bound up in a broader response to declining living standards accelerated by neoliberal policies beginning in the late 1970s. For most, neoliberalism, a seemingly hegemonic economic and political paradigm, has upended social bonds and economic stability. Deregulation of markets and industry, privatization of public goods and services, and disinvestment in the social welfare state have led to overwhelming class inequality. This sharp increase in inequality paralleled by disinvestment in social welfare has left working families in peril. In 2020, 38.3 million households were food insecure, and an average of 580,000 U.S. residents experienced homelessness (houselessness) each night. In 2019, over 70,000 Americans died resulting from drug overdose and 1.4 million people attempted suicide. Taken as a whole, these statistics present a grim picture of American life, leading the alt-right to conclude that the family unit is under attack. The alt-right believes that the erosion of kinship ties, community relations, and the neoliberal emphasis on individualism are the results of feminism, the sexual revolution, and multiculturalism. As such, the alt-right positions itself as the protector of the family against this perceived onslaught.
While the white supremacist alt-solution is reactionary through and through, its thinkers accurately concede that the neoliberal evisceration of state provisions has strained the family. Indeed, that a crisis of care exists is undeniable. According to a report by the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), “10,000 Americans turn 65 each day, and the number of older adults will double over the next several decades to top 88 million.” With eldercare priced out of reach for most, families are responsible for providing care in the home—what Marxist feminists define as social reproductive labor. Like childcare, eldercare requires attention to the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of bodies that are outside the workforce, and this care work is overwhelmingly provided by women. Termed the Great Resignation, in 2021, 4.53 million U.S. workers left jobs under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some left in search of better pay and safer working conditions, many dropped out of the formal economy to perform care work in the home. Where families can afford to purchase private care, the work of care, especially eldercare, is often left to underpaid Black and Brown women who must also provide this (uncompensated) labor in their own family units. According to the AARP, the strain on the formal and informal care industry will lead to a shortfall in care workers of 151,000 by 2030 and 355,000 by 2040.
Low wages and declining state provisions have laid the groundwork for the care crisis, but the crisis has also left a rift between ruling-class economists and ideologues. On the one hand, efforts to extend an expanded child tax credit acknowledge the unsustainable cost of care for working-class families. On the other, renewed attention to the regulation of feminized, trans, and gender non-conforming bodies suggests that reliance on uncompensated (and under-compensated) gendered care work will remain the dominant means through which care is procured.
In the preface to the second edition of The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Marxism at the Intersection, Holly Lewis writes:
“Capitalism’s requirements on those it raises to be women have never been anything but a contradiction bordering on impossibility. Women are required to be the reproducers of the working class…as well as sellers of their own labor power…. And where cis heterosexual women are unavailable to fulfill the duties as the angels of social reproduction, the unemployed, children, and queer people (especially queer people without their own children) are next in line to do this unpaid work.” (xix-xx.)
As Lewis persuasively argues, gender discipline cannot be untangled from the work of social reproduction. In this sense, the wave of anti-trans legislation shores up the borders of womanhood, while also relegating trans and gender-nonconforming people to an underclass that can be drawn upon as a reserve army of care laborers. The near-total ban on abortion in Texas performs a similar function. Regulating and surveilling childbearing bodies leads to greater precarity, and precarious bodies are more vulnerable to both productive and reproductive exploitation.
Importantly, the anti-trans legislation’s emphasis on youth surveillance is also about reproducing the right kind of citizen. In this case, the state has a vested interest in monitoring both those who provide the work of care (guardians) and those who receive the work of care (children). Moreover, the reproduction of correctly oriented children takes on greater significance in a shifting geopolitical landscape. The accelerated economic and military competition gives rise to renewed imperialist sensibilities, which, in turn, requires the reproduction of citizens who are enthusiastic participants in the maintenance of Western dominance.
Notably, the politics of the transgender movement have become more commonplace, both among the radical Left and within the architecture of neoliberal multiculturalism. Much like the demand for same-sex marriage reform which gained momentum in the 2010s, elements of the ruling class believe trans people can be incorporated into Western capitalism. Of course, this assimilation requires invasive surgical interventions aimed at bending the trans body into its cisgender correlative. Paradoxical with the anti-trans legislation, allowing trans youth access to puberty delaying treatment would make this physical assimilation much simpler. Ultimately, the decision to transition is an intimately personal one; however, access to gender-affirming medical and surgical care must be made available to those who choose it.
Legal strategies aimed at overturning this wave of regressive legislation are essential yet insufficient. Empty platitudes of liberal politicians and public-relations pride campaigns of “woke” capitalists will only embitter and embolden political reactionaries. Nevertheless, a few actions point to a way forward. A March 22 protest saw Disney workers briefly walk off the job to pressure, company CEO, Bob Chapek to oppose what has become known as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Likewise, several U.S. Women’s National Soccer players, including Megan Rapinoe, have also demonstrated support for trans youth while on the field. Though modest in size, these job actions represent a significant advance. A scattering of protests in Texas, South Dakota, Indiana, and Florida also points to a growing resistance; however, to counter the anti-trans attack over the long term the size and pacing of these actions must grow. Unraveling the GOP’s dangerous political calculus requires a broad movement that not only demands queer liberation, but also one that centers progressive tax reform in addition to state-funded healthcare, childcare, and eldercare. These material demands are preconditions for the bodily sovereignty of trans and cis bodied workers alike.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Ted Eytan. Image modified by Tempest.
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Eric W. Maroney teaches English at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.