This article follows up on a previous Tempest article in which I tried to understand how a reactionary far-right protest against a Drag Story Time event in Eugene, OR was organized in accordance with a national (and international) online campaign of networked harassment, intimidation, and what I called “shitstorming.” At that time, it was clear that fascist tactics and far-right conspiracy theories had played a role in the absurd media coverage of Drag Story Hour. Here I describe how we can understand the wave of anti-trans hate speech, “trans bans,” and “groomer panic” through Stanley Cohen’s conceptual lens of “moral panic.” That framework offers a more panoramic view of “socialized transphobia.”
Galvanizing moral panic
When Michael Knowles proclaimed at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in early March that “transgenderism must be eradicated,” his language was calculated to mobilize the far-right base and generate maximum backlash from the “woke Left.” The intent seems to have been to come as close as possible to an incitement of genocide without openly saying as much; hence, the derogatory “ism.” By reducing trans existence to a false ideology promoted by the “woke Left”—one that Knowles would like to “eradicate,” if he only could—he and the fascists of CPAC felt emboldened to call for the erasure of trans identities, as though this would not necessarily entail the elimination of trans people. (In a similar context, “transgenderism” would be invoked by Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, who also spoke at CPAC.)
The functional ambiguity of this term serves a double purpose: On the one hand it is a slur, calling up visceral disgust in order to incite violence against trans people (as though “transgenderism” were a mental disorder or a virus). For trans individuals and their allies, this poses a constant threat of stochastic terrorism, in which the “virality” of hate speech and networked harassment increases the likelihood that pro-LGBTQ+ establishments or individuals will be violently attacked or even killed. On the other hand, the term is thrown around by its TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminist) and right-wing apologists who would like to absolve themselves of any accountability by denying the reality of this violence (because according to them, trans people don’t “really” exist).
Michael Knowles was echoing a chorus of far-right media outlets. From Daily Wire and Fox News to social media accounts like “Libs of TikTok” and “Gays Against Groomers,” conspiracy theorists from Alex Jones to QAnon, even manospheric misogynists like Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate—all have been instrumental in drumming up reactionary hatred and moral outrage in recent years against feminists, trans people, and the “woke Left” in general.
Primary targets of the far right currently include queer and trans kids; queer and trans athletes; queer, trans, and gender-fluid teachers; pro-LGBTQ+ school staff, librarians, superintendents, and board members; social workers, doctors, and medical practitioners who provide gender-affirming care; and outspoken gender-critical outliers, such as drag performers, feminists, and anti-fascists, all of whom are routinely lumped by the far right under one giant umbrella of the “woke Left.” The backlash against “wokeism”—and against trans people as somehow being the Frankenstein- creation of wokeism—has risen to the level of a full-blown moral panic, most evident from the tidal-wave of anti-LGBTQ+ bills stirring in state legislatures, right-wing caricatures of leftists as “groomers,” armed protests at Drag Story Hour events, and a mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub on Trans Day of Remembrance.
The average student of American history is already familiar with moral panics. Witch trials, lynchings, Red Scare, “Satanic Panic,” and “terrorist panic” are just a few examples. Moral panics often follow on the heels of crises, or perceived crises. In the early 1980s, for example, association of the AIDS epidemic with homosexuality set off a moral panic as the media stoked fear of homosexuals through waves of self-perpetuating, media-driven narratives whose major theme was always moral outrage over “sexual deviants.” Homosexuals and transvestites were often associated in the public consciousness with perverts, prostitutes, and pedophiles.
Sociologist Stanley Cohen described “moral panics” in his 1972 classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers. Cohen writes:
Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough but suddenly appears in the limelight. (9)
Today’s “groomer panic” is an ongoing viral phenomenon or series of viral phenomena with a global reach. It has made itself felt throughout the English-speaking world and beyond, from the United States and Canada to the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, all of which are pushing similar “trans bans.” With “trans bans” and “groomer panic,” it is clear how this sociological concept of moral panic plays out in a series of overlapping narratives.
From the vantage point of an “anti-trans agenda,” trans kids as well as adult drag queens—quite distinct from one another as social groups—fall under the same signifiers of the “sexually indoctrinated” and “sexually deviant.” Hence, the entire mechanism of right-wing mass media, social media influencers, politicians, “socially accredited experts,” and “other right-thinking people” all seem to compete for a place in the spotlight when it comes to bashing trans people and making conspiratorial assumptions about drag queens or having them erased from public view.
Moral panic emerges further from the way today’s mass media pundits and trolls on social media constantly associate queer and trans existence with leftist politics (“wokeism”), reducing queer and trans existence to body parts (breasts, genitalia), sexual deviance (kink, drag performances), mental illness (child fetish), criminality (sex work, pedophilia), and the general culture of the political Left. The pendulum of ideology swings back and forth between the visibility of trans people and the political concept of “wokeism” in such a way that if something infects one, it must also infect the other. Armed protests at Drag Story Hour events, many organized by openly neo-nazi groups; anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at all levels of government, from Congressional chambers to grade school libraries; and endless harassment of queer and trans people, drag performers, feminists, etc. (both on and offline) all feed into a sustained and self-perpetuating moral panic that, not coincidentally, happens to be feasible to the current authoritarian leanings of the far right.
Misinformation, disinformation, and moral outrage
Moral panics characteristically turn up old tropes and fascist stereotypes, re-fashioning these to new purposes. For example, the false and bigoted assumption that gay adults cannot reproduce on their own, and therefore have to “recruit” children into the ranks of a conspiratorial “gay agenda” by sexual indoctrination, became a commonplace trope in the 1970s and 1980s with Anita Bryant’s reactionary and homophobic “Save Our Children” (from homosexuals) campaign. Loaded accusations were leveled at suspected gay and lesbian teachers, mostly in efforts to have them fired from their jobs. The “recruiter” trope is the forerunner of the “groomer” trope used by far-right provocateurs today.
The far right has weaponized language around “gender essentialism” for decades now, forcing gender into stiff categories of theology, outdated legalese, pseudo-biology and -psychology, and misapplications of evolutionary psychology. What emerges from this morass of inconsistencies and sometimes slick rhetorical arguments is a form of extremely toxic masculinity and gender policing: men and women are seen as being essentially different and having essentially different social roles to fill, and the moral guardians feel a need to enforce these roles. Any attempt to collapse, subvert, or otherwise deny the eternal gender binary is met with intense and violent backlash from the predominantly white, cis-hetero patriarchy, i.e., the gender police.
Actors on the far right love to position themselves as moral influencers (like Chaya Raichik, who runs the “Libs of TikTok” account and recently published a children’s book), moral guardians (like Fox News host Tucker Carlson), and moral legislators of values (like Florida governor Ron DeSantis), often working in concert with each other to promote and manufacture as much moral outrage as possible. Moral outrage translates into views and likes on social media as well as viewership for major networks like Fox News; subscriptions, money, and votes for the moral influencers, moral guardians, and moral legislators of values; frivolous lawsuits and waves of frivolous legislation for teams of lawyers and legal experts; and a general intensification of the culture wars.
Of course, a moral panic requires a particularly receptive audience to be morally panicked, and something to be morally panicked about. In a recent Vox article, Aja Romano listed some of the “insidious myths” currently associated with trans culture: “that trans kids are transitioning at alarming rates, that trans activists are pushier and angrier than ever, and that doctors with a scary agenda are forcing risky, dangerous medical care on unsuspecting children and parents.”
These accusations and caricatures are constantly echoed in the far-right media. Culture warriors on the Left and Right often invoke hyperbole and anecdotal evidence of trans women invading “real” women’s spaces, repeating accusations about trans women using women’s bathrooms to prey on “real biological” women, or trans athletes competing in women’s sports only to “cheat.” Misinformation and disinformation about gender transition surgeries performed on children, puberty blockers, and hormone therapy is constantly parroted as “genital mutilation” in the echo chambers of the far right, while gender-affirming care for children is falsely equated with “indoctrination” and “grooming.”
Teachers who use gender-inclusive pronouns in their classrooms or dare to speak of gender fluidity are accused of “sexualizing children.” Drag queens seem to represent a unique threat to the far right, perhaps because of their fabulous gender-bending role as performers and their ability to communicate with parents and children in ways that challenge the gendered norms of cis-hetero-patriarchy. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a global media-monitoring organization, recorded 141 incidents of anti-LGBTQ+ protests and threats targeting drag events in 2022 alone. Here I want to provide a timeline of such protests and threats, along with legislative and other attacks. This timeline demonstrates that this wave of events is a moral panic and is useful when describing it to other people.
Timeline of events
For convenience, this timeline begins with the failed legislative attempt in North Carolina in 2016 (House Bill 2), which played a significant role in shifting the ideological map of the far right toward an explicitly “anti-trans agenda.” This timeline could, obviously, be much farther extended (Fox News, for example, has been spouting anti-trans hate for decades). What follows is an attempt to sketch out a continuous series of overlapping narratives contributing to the ongoing moral panic and current groundswell of anti-trans legislation.
- March 2016: North Carolina’s House Bill 2 bans trans people from using public bathrooms that align with their gender identity. (Repealed in December 2020, after sustained boycotts and protests cost the state billions in lost revenue.)
- November 2016: Trump wins presidential election against Hillary Clinton. Trump’s campaign rhetoric (“Lock her up!”) mobilizes personal attacks and fear mongering, openly espousing conspiracy theories such as “Pizzagate” which cast political opponents as sexual deviants. False accusations of “pedophilia” against leftists, and the “pedoes” epithet, become far-right tropes.
- July 2017: Trump announces via Twitter that transgender individuals will “no longer serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” (Trump’s executive order didn’t go into effect until 2019 and was later repealed under Biden.)
- October 2017: Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones accuses Drag Story Hour, an organization begun in 2015 by Michelle Tea in San Francisco, of pedophilic acts against children. Libraries become the focus of intense anti-LGBTQ+ scrutiny from the far right (partly because they are well-known “safe spaces” for LGBTQ+ teens).
- November 2017: The “big tent” conspiracy cult QAnon begins to gain traction in mainstream media, with such disparate television personalities as Roseanne Barr and Sean Hannity offering their public support; crowd-sourced narratives implicating an elite satanic cabal operating a global sex-trafficking ring begin to spread like wildfire.
- October 2018: A frivolous lawsuit (later thrown out) is filed in Houston, accusing Drag Queen Storytime of “indoctrinating children to the ideals of secular humanism” and homosexuality.
- May 2019: Larry Householder, Ohio State Representative and Republican Speaker of the House, issues a public letter to the Ohio Library Council insinuating that libraries are teaching teenage boys “how to become drag queens.”
- June 2020: In the “single biggest victory in the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement” to date, the Supreme Court rules that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status is illegal under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Right-wing backlash soon follows. #Pizzagate trends on TikTok, reaching over 80 million views.
- July 2020: Idaho bans transgender people from changing the sex on their birth certificates and becomes first state to ban trans girls and women from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. QAnon supporters begin promoting their fake #SaveTheChildren campaign, staging protests about “missing children” and disseminating conspiracy theories about “deep state operatives” involved in underground pedophile child sex trafficking rings; prominent democrats and Hollywood celebrities are accused of being “pedoes.”
- November 2020–January 2021: Trump’s election defeat leads to waves of election denial and “Stop the Steal” rallies; QAnon helps push conspiracy theories about a stolen election and rigged voting machines, stirring rage among MAGA supporters. At the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, QAnon supporters, Proud Boys, militia groups, and Christian nationalists have a visible presence. In response to the events of J6, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter begin removing content and suspending accounts associated with QAnon and “Stop the Steal.” (YouTube later follows suit.)
- March 2021: Biden officially recognizes Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31).
- April 2021: Arkansas becomes the first state to ban gender-affirming treatment for minors (later blocked by a federal court injunction).
- May—August 2021: Before and during Pride Month, the “Libs of TikTok” account run anonymously by QAnon follower Chaya Raichik (now banned on TikTok but reinstated on Twitter) starts reposting LGBTQ+ content with extreme anti-LGBTQ+ commentary, including Raichik’s first tweet using “grooming” as a pejorative. In August, Joe Rogan boosts the Libs of TikTok account on his podcast; it receives wide media attention from far-right commentators, journalists, politicians, and major news outlets. “Groomer” becomes a common right-wing epithet for leftists.
- February 2022: Texas governor Greg Abbott directs the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate gender- affirming care for transgender children as child abuse, imposing “reporting requirements upon all licensed professionals who have direct contact with children… including doctors, nurses, and teachers,” under threat of criminal penalties for failure to report. (Parents with trans children are especially targeted.)
- March 2022: Florida governor Ron DeSantis signs the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill into law, in effect gagging teachers in grades K-3 from speaking about gender fluidity, queer culture, trans existence, or related topics. Mass intensification of the culture wars ensues. In a tweet, Walt Disney publicly opposes the new law; DeSantis picks a fight with Disney’s “corporate culture of wokeness,” namely its pro-LGBTQ+ inclusivity policy, to set an example for other “woke corporations.” The hashtag #OKGroomer (later banned) trends on Twitter; Libs of TikTok continues targeting teachers who outwardly express themselves as queer, trans, or genderfluid; many teachers and pro-LGBTQ+ TikTok users are accused of being “groomers” by right-wing activists.
- April 2022: Libs of TikTok account owner Chaya Raichik is outed publicly by Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz; Raichik complains on air about being “doxxed” (inaccurately, as her street address was never revealed) but continues posting anti-LGBTQ+ vitriol; even boasts of influencing far-right legislation and having LGBTQ+ teachers fired over allegations of “grooming kids.” The allegations continue.
- June 2022: Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, ending the constitutional right to abortion; far-right activists seize the opportunity to mobilize against marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights. Pride events across the country are targeted; in Coeur d’Alene, ID, 31 members of far-right group Patriot Front are arrested while preparing to attack a local Pride event. In San Lorenzo, CA, Proud Boys crash a Drag Story Hour event. “Gays Against Groomers” is founded by transphobe Jaimee Michell, who appears on Tucker Carlson Tonight disseminating the “groomer” narrative to the Fox News audience. Self-described “theocratic fascist” and extreme transphobe Matt Walsh releases What Is a Woman? documentary, disseminating misinformation and disinformation about transition therapy, which is likened to a “social contagion” and child abuse.
- July 2022: Conspiracy theorist James Lindsay promotes evidence-free accusations of “cult grooming” being carried out by “hordes of leftist activists bent on indoctrinating children into radical gender ideology.” According to Lindsay, this happens primarily in the public school system, where teachers are “normalizing discussions of sex with children, telling children to hide it from their parents.” “Cult grooming” and the “cult of wokeism” become popular tropes on the far right, linguistically associated with conspiracy theories about the intrusion of “cultural Marxism” into public institutions. The common refrain now seems to be about “secrecy”—“woke” school officials spreading pornography and telling children to “hide it from their parents.” “Wokeism” is now more or less equivalent to “cultural Marxism” and “grooming” in right-wing discourse.
- August 2022: Boston Children’s Hospital is targeted by Libs of TikTok; doctors are falsely accused of performing hysterectomies and other forms of “genital mutilation” on children; protests, death threats, and bomb threats are called in to the hospital; other Children’s Hospital locations are also targeted; these threats continue for months (and still continue). Fox News host Laura Ingraham airs segments attacking trans people and drag performers, accusing Biden administration of attempting to “promote dangerous hormone blockers and life altering trans surgery for minors”; likens parents and medical practitioners who support gender-affirming care to “adults preying on children”; spreads rumors of a leftist conspiracy to turn kids trans so that doctors can “profit” from transgender surgeries and describes Drag Story Hour performers as “homosexual deviants” who prey on children and promote “freakish dangerous behavior.” They characterize Biden’s expansion of Title IX protections (to include trans women) as invasion of women’s bathrooms and shower rooms by “men pretending to be women.” The idea of a vast conspiracy to push “fad-like” behaviors and “transgender ideology” on children (in order to transition them) becomes a far-right trope.
- September 2022: A group of about 100 neo-nazis and Proud Boys protest a “drag bingo” church fundraiser in Katy, TX; in Pflugerville, TX a group of neo-nazis fly swastikas outside a restaurant hosting a drag brunch. This comes days after the “TexasGOP” Twitter account posts a message warning that children will be “exposed to overtly sexual activities” at an “all ages drag show.” PEN America releases an index report showing that from July 2021 to June 2022, there were 2,532 instances of individual books banned from 1,261 authors, 290 illustrators, and 18 translators; most literature bans relate to LGBTQ+ content, but racial and sexual content is also banned.
- October 2022: GOP House Republicans introduce the “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act,” a thinly disguised attempt to ban use of federal funds for Drag Story Hour and any other events loosely connected to leftist politics. Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank, publishes a screed against Drag Story Hour proclaiming “The philosophical and political project of queer theory has always been to dethrone traditional heterosexual culture and elevate […] the ‘sexual caste’ at the bottom of the hierarchy: the transsexual, the transvestite, the fetishist, the sadomasochist, the prostitute, the porn star, and the pedophile.” (Notice how the “pedophile” is casually lumped in with all the rest.) In Eugene, OR a group of about 75 far-right protesters trying to shut down a Drag Story Time event at Old Nick’s Pub clash with at least 200 counter-protesters; armed standoffs and street battles ensue.
- November 2022: DeSantis gives midterm victory speech proclaiming “Florida is where woke goes to die”; pledges to fight “woke ideology” in public institutions. On the night of “Transgender Day of Remembrance,” Club Q in Colorado Springs, CO is attacked by a 22-year-old assailant with an assault rifle, leaving 5 dead and 26 injured; the assailant has ties to neo-nazi websites. Transphobes Matt Walsh and Chaya Raichik double down on “grooming” accusations, implying that the shooting was justified because the club had held drag shows.
- December 2022: Fox News doubles down on anti-trans rhetoric and airs constant stream of segments focused on “transgender ideology”; false statistics about “detransitioning” due to regret over transitioning become a favorite right-wing talking point; Tucker Carlson popularizes right-wing tropes about transition surgeries as “sterilization,” “gender mutilation,” and “castration.”
- January 2023: DeSantis moves to “reshape a state college in a more conservative image by overhauling its leadership”; announces “the appointment of six people to vacant seats on the thirteen‐member board of trustees of the New College of Florida, a small but highly rated and politically progressive liberal arts school in Sarasota, Florida”; among the new appointees is Christopher Rufo, who sees the takeover as the first step in a broader plan for conservatives to “reconquer public institutions all over the United States”; Rufo plans to “[h]ire new faculty with expertise in constitutionalism, free enterprise, civic virtue, family life, religious freedom, and American principles.” The pedagogical aim is clear: less “wokeness,” more free-market capitalism.
- February 2023: Lobby group Human Rights Campaign announces that it is “already tracking 340 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have been introduced in statehouses” across the U.S.; nearly half of these target trans individuals. DeSantis’s feud with Disney over its LGBTQ+ inclusion policy develops into a fight for control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District (the landmass on which the Disney Corporation has enjoyed tax-exempt status since 1967); DeSantis fires the district’s board of supervisors and replaces them with handpicked loyalists. But it appears “the previous Disney-allied board signed a [30 year] development agreement that drastically limits the control that can be exercised over [Disney] and its district,” which means “Disney no longer needs board approval to build high-density projects or buildings of any height and can sell or assign development rights. It also bans the board from using Disney’s name or any of its characters.” The joke is clearly on DeSantis, who is out-lawyered.
- March 2023: The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) showcases a slew of anti-trans hate speech, with Michael Knowles proclaiming “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely”; his words and sentiments are wildly applauded and echoed throughout the four-day conference. Tennessee Senate Bill 3, the vaguely defined “Tennessee drag ban,” outlaws public “adult cabaret performance” in front of children—and anything else that “appeals to a prurient interest.” At The Covenant School in Nashville, TN, a heavily-armed assailant kills six people and is killed by police; when it is discovered that the shooter identified as transgender, Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson run with the narrative of “trans terrorism” and “waves of “anti-Christian hate crime” carried out as part of “Trans Day of Vengeance”—a pro-trans event that was due to be held days later in Washington, D.C.; as a response to death threats from the far right, Trans Day of Vengeance is canceled over security concerns; Fox News continues to air multiple segments associating trans existence with terrorism, criminality, and mental illness. A 20-year-old neo-nazi attempts to firebomb the Chesterland Community Church in Ohio; the church had planned a Drag Story Hour event.
The generic formula for moral panic
As a theoretical lens, Cohen’s concept of “moral panic” expands on what historian Richard Hofstadter, in a famous 1964 essay, called “the paranoid style in American politics.” “The central image” of the paranoid style, wrote Hofstadter, “is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life” (29). Since public institutions such as the mass media, the press, and public education are thought to be part of this “subtle machinery of influence,” they must have long since been corrupted by the Jews, the communists, the gay agenda, the woke mob, or some other wicked, rotten, corrupt entity. Hofstadter notes: “The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of give-and-take, but an all-out crusade” (29). QAnon’s crusades against the “Deep State,” its network of “digital foot soldiers” and its dark prophets of the “Storm” offer a clear illustration of such grand-narrative conspiracy theories as those Hofstadter had in mind.
What distinguishes the paranoid style is not… the absence of verifiable facts (though it is occasionally true that in his extravagant passion for facts the paranoid occasionally manufactures them), but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events. (37)
The plausibility of the paranoid style relies on “the careful preparation for the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable” (37-8). Undeniably, Hunter Biden took a laptop into a computer repair shop—that is probably a fact; all that is needed for the paranoid style to take effect is for the narrative about the contents of Biden’s laptop to become newsworthy and go viral. In order for that to happen, those contents must become unbelievably sinister in their details— sinister enough, in this case, to implicate the father as well as the son. The initial fact (Hunter Biden’s laptop) becomes shrouded in falsehoods (the Biden-Ukraine embezzlement conspiracy).
No matter how outlandish the content of conspiracy theories may seem, I want to emphasize that they serve a highly functional and double purpose: they allow their exponents to conveniently slide back and forth between perceiving themselves as victims of some great, evil conspiracy on the one hand, and positioning themselves as truth tellers and punishers of evil deeds on the other. In this way, these exponents act as guardians of a moral universe, highly prone to vigilantism. They speak in bold phrases and incite violence; they even explode in acts of violence themselves. But a feature of the paranoid style that stands out most to my mind is perhaps the way in which its exponents always present themselves as morally justified victims. Not only that; they must be thought of as victims of the greatest evil and tyranny that anyone ever suffered. To listen to them speak, no one has ever suffered like they have suffered; no one was ever persecuted like they were persecuted. Obviously, their suffering is the only suffering that counts.
Every moral panic requires an X (“the gays,” “the queers,” trans people) to be the cause of some real or fictitious moral problem (the “assault on masculinity” by feminists; the “queering of society” by the woke mob). But even more: This X must be “othered” in such a way that X is perceived to threaten social stability and moral order, causing moral panic. Perhaps X is thought to be part of a vast liberal conspiracy, bringing about the annihilation of traditional masculine values and masculine ways of life; and if something doesn’t stop X, fast, all is doomed, the world is over. The existential threat, X, must be perceived by a panicked and morally outraged public as imminent. It must be “eradicated,” as Michael Knowles put it at CPAC. Since this outraged public is usually (but not always) a vocal minority among the larger public, excessive force and backlash henceforth seem justifiable and often take the form of extreme violence. The apocalyptic overtones here are reminiscent of Adventism as well as contemporary versions of Christian nationalism, in which the soul’s purification comes through divine wrath, nuclear war, and the epic battle against demonic forces; hence the rivers of blood we must wade through will be justified in the last coming of Christ.
In any case, whether X represents a real or a fictitious threat, the classic feature of every moral panic is that the response to X must be excessive and extreme—a matter of pounding thumbtacks with sledgehammers, so to speak. It is the modern equivalent of white people chasing “the blacks” out of town and constantly renewing the public institution of lynching, or at least threatening to do so. What the far right needs more than anything today—especially after Trump’s humiliating defeat and the violence of January 6, 2021 at the Capitol—is a politically convenient scapegoat. It is not surprising that they found one in the trans community, which has gained visibility in recent years but still remains misunderstood by the general public. And now the far right is gathering up the lynch mob.
Today’s economic landscape in the U.S. offers plenty to be genuinely and publicly angry about. Neoliberalism has benefited large corporations at the expense of workers, whose wages, benefits, and pensions are systematically eroded. Gross income disparity, rising inflation, rising gas and food prices, tuition hikes, rent hikes and the absence of effective rent controls, a housing market that seems totally out of reach for many, unaffordable health care premiums and prescription drug costs, addiction, lack of access to mental health treatment, shoring up of credit, a shrinking job market, and the ubiquitous threat of climate catastrophe are, taken altogether, more than enough to create an intense climate of anxiety, fear, and even moral panic. Add to this a loss of social status, whether real or perceived, which generates the potential for bigotry. This time around, bigotry has taken the form of homophobia, transphobia, racist attacks on “wokeism” and Critical Race Theory, and so on. If the stalwarts of the far right seem to have made the trans community into a therapeutic punching bag, it is a sign that they have no viable solutions, only scapegoats, for material problems that afflict all of us.
Every generation finds convenient scapegoats for its social ills. Everything about today’s “trans bans” and “groomer panic” suggests that we are, indeed, facing a “masculinity crisis”; but the far right’s solution to this “crisis” is little more than the age-old reassertion of toxic masculinity and patriarchal fear-mongering about a “culture of effeminacy” and trans conspiracy. If the LGBTQ+ community ever had an “agenda,” that agenda was little more than a collective struggle to survive under capitalism and perhaps to confront and overcome the forces that would make this survival impossible. But today, the far right certainly has an agenda—an unapologetically “anti-trans agenda”—and it is not hyperbole to suggest that they plan to impose this agenda by whatever means necessary.
In summary, the anti-trans agenda includes: eradicating “transgenderism” entirely; ritually intimidating, harassing, attacking, firebombing, even mass murdering LGBTQ+ people without accountability; labeling anyone who supports trans rights or so much as mentions gender-fluid concepts as a “pedophile” or “groomer”; firing queer and trans teachers; threatening violence against anyone who uses different pronouns from their assigned or perceived gender; inciting violence against parents, teachers, librarians, school board members, medical professionals, social workers, bar owners, and anyone who openly supports trans kids or Drag Story Hour; legalizing forced erasure (genocide?) of trans and queer people from public life; shutting down “woke corporations” for being too inclusive; banning children from drag performances and all-age venues where people in drag might be seen; banning drag queens and drag performances entirely; criminalizing “inappropriate” gender displays or stereotypes; banning books that challenge the male/female gender binary, challenge white supremacy, or even talk about sex; stigmatizing trans athletes as “cheaters” and banning trans athletes entirely from athletic competitions; banning gender-affirming care and medical treatment for anyone experiencing gender dysphoria; denying gender dysphoria even exists as a medical condition, despite medical expertise; banning “wokeism” from state universities; and of course, policing public bathrooms in such a way that violence awaits any trans person who dares to enter the “wrong” one.
The list of anti-trans legislation and events gets longer by the day. As “trans bans” and “groomer panic” continue, one cannot help but wonder how we can help collectively to bring moral panics like the present one to an end. As the Republican Party has made transphobia a platform policy, “trans bans” and “groomer panic” could continue, probably with lulls and intense periods of activity, until the November 2024 presidential election and beyond.
Moral panics don’t fizzle out on their own; they need to be challenged by activists defending trans and other LGBTQ+ people. Protests, including those reported in Tempest, defending Drag Story Hour and other queer events have been crucial to challenging these right-wing threats. We must continue to organize against far-right threats and attacks.
In addition, solidarity from the “straight” community is key. We need parents willing to support Drag Story Hour, or at least learn about it. We need doctors, teachers, politicians and lawyers willing to tell the truth about why children benefit from gender-affirming care, and why trans athletes deserve to compete. We need cis-hetero people to acknowledge the existence of queer and trans people—especially trans kids. We probably need to revisit some of our own preconceptions about gender. We probably need to have more uncomfortable conversations with people who disagree with us. We definitely need to stand together as a community to fight the anti-trans agenda, as well as the fascist policing of gender. When fascists threaten genocide, it’s time to move beyond listening and into action.
Helpful resources (articles, books, videos) and works mentioned here:
1. Heron Greensmith, Combating Anti-Transgender Disinformation. Political Research Associates, January 27, 2023.
2. Aja Romano, The right’s moral panic over “grooming” invokes age-old homophobia. Vox Media, April 21, 2022.
3. Aja Romano, Trans people deserve better journalism: How the anti-trans movement took over legacy media. Vox Media, March 31, 2023.
4. Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers. Routledge Classics, 2011. (Original publication 1972.)
5. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Random House, 2008. (Original publication 1964.)
6. Caelan Conrad, “What Is A Groomer?” YouTube. Uploaded November 3, 2022.<
7. Second Thought, “American Fascism and the Groomer Panic”. YouTube. Uploaded February 23, 2023.
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Dean O’Possum is a marxist ecologist, an antifascist, and a catholic in the spirit of Saint Francis. He resides in a grove of fir trees in the Pacific Northwest, emerging occasionally to sniff the air and eat ticks.