In May, as part of an ongoing wave of political reaction, Governor Ron DeSantis signed three bills into law, further surveilling and criminalizing queer and trans Floridians. DeSantis, who recently announced his 2024 presidential campaign, has built an ultra-conservative political image in opposition to abortion rights, immigration, and queer and trans people. Although a temporary injunction has paused some aspects of the legislation, the bills represent a continued escalation of the political Right’s attack on queer and trans people.
In addition to language that empowers the state to remove trans children from their homes and to ban gender-affirming care for minors, the legislation also erects unscalable barriers for trans adults seeking care. In a move that mirrors the legislative encroachment of the anti-abortion movement, Florida has banned the use of telehealth and has prevented APRNs and physician assistants from providing gender-affirming care. Additionally, the Florida Board of Medicine, composed of seven governor appointees, has been tasked with releasing a yet-to-be-developed consent form, which patients seeking gender-affirming care must sign in the presence of a medical doctor before receiving that care.
In practice, this has meant that even trans people who have been receiving hormone therapy for decades have experienced an immediate interruption of those therapies. Planned Parenthood has been forced to temporarily halt its gender-affirming health services, writing on its website, “PPSENFL will have to reorganize physician schedules, develop new consent forms with language that complies with the new law’s requirements, and change the delivery of that care as we are only allowed to offer telehealth for some appointments.” Telehealth hormone therapy companies, which provide a lifeline to those who are not able to travel for care, have also put a stop to their Florida-based services.
In addition to bans on gender-affirming care, the three bills DeSantis has signed into law also target drag performances, bathroom access, and the use of gender-affirming pronouns in schools, representing a legislative effort to regulate queer and gender-nonconforming bodies in public spaces. DeSantis has defended these new restrictions arguing that “We [Florida] are going to remain a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy.” But there is nothing “sane” about using vulnerable and oppressed people to score political points with an increasingly reactionary wing of the Republican party.
Although Florida stands out as the most advanced front of the legislative anti-LGBTQ attack, it is certainly not alone in this effort. Presently, the ACLU is tracking over 490 anti-LGBTQ bills, 57 of which have become law. Earlier this year, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Missouri approved bans on gender-affirming care for minors, and Kansas passed a law banning trans people from using public restrooms that match their gender identity. Over the last several years, waves of anti-LGBTQ bills have been passed in state houses across the country. According to independent journalist, Erin Reed:
These include the religious right to refuse treatment to transgender patients, bans on correct gender markers on birth certificates and driver’s licenses, bans on drag that have led to the cancellation of pride events, strict definitions of sex that exclude transgender individuals from legal protections, and more.
In many ways, the escalating attack on LGTBQ people is reminiscent of the rhetorical and legislative backlash that preceded the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. In the years preceding that ruling, the political right also went on the offensive, passing state-level defense of marriage acts or DOMA laws, which were in many cases predated by Democratic President Clinton’s 1996 federal DOMA legislation. The most notable of these acts, Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in the state of California, became law in the same historic election that saw the first Black President elected to office. Then, too, LGBTQ lives were branded as culture wars or politics of lifestyle, and in response major LBGT organizations doubled down on efforts to project same-sex couples as ordinary middle-class families deserving of the same tax situations, estate laws, and health benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. The exception to this strategy and the left flank of the movement was, as Dana Cloud argues, Get Equal, an organization that insisted immigrant and transgender rights be central demands of the movement.
While the legalization of same-sex marriage signaled an enormous shift in popular consciousness around LGBTQ issues and extended important rights to a whole class of people, it did little to contest the oppression, including the legal and extralegal violence, that gender-nonconforming people–particularly Black and Brown trans-feminine people—experience. And while some on the Left have argued that same-sex marriage was won through the sustained efforts of activists, the reality is more complicated. Then, as now, major LGBT organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, emphasized a legal strategy over all else. This left activists to organize without the resources and support of Gay Inc and limited the scope of the movement. Writing about the struggle for marriage equality in 2009, Sherry Wolf notes:
The largest national gay rights organizations are sponsored by multibillion-dollar corporations and tied to the don’t-rock-the-boat posture of the upper echelons of the Democratic party. In the midst of massive layoffs and severe economic crisis, [these groups] will advocate a go-slow, back-of-the-bus approach for LGBT issues.
Indeed, Democrats have a track record of inconsistent allyship with LGBTQ people. President Barack Obama continued to oppose federal recognition of same-sex marriage until 2012, four years after the National Equality March brought 150,000 supporters to the streets of D.C. Instead of full-throated support for LGBTQ people, Obama sought a middle ground in backing civil unions, a category distinct from federal marriage. For his part, President Joe Biden appears ready to follow in Obama’s stead. In April of this year, the Biden Administration released a new Title IX policy, which prohibits outright bans on transgender athletes but provides a roadmap for states seeking to skirt that prohibition. The policy makes allowances for bans in situations of “fairness in competition” and “preventing sports-related injury.”
While major LGBT organizations, including GLAD, the Trevor Project, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have applauded this policy, the new guidance grants legitimacy to and allows for legalized discrimination of trans people. As Edge of Sports columnist, Dave Zirin puts it, “The message is clear: Trans people will not have vociferous defenders within the Democratic Party. Far from it. The Dems lack of desire for this fight will of course only embolden the far right.”
Certainly, the complicity of the Democratic Party and the acquiescence of major LGBT organizations is not new to the struggle for LGBTQ liberation. However, what has changed is the political context, making Biden’s ideological fence sitting all the more dangerous. Today’s political right is far more emboldened than it was in the run-up to the marriage equality win. A decade of weak recovery following the 2008 economic meltdown, and stagnant or declining wages has provided fertile ground for the re-emergence of right-wing populism. And following the run-away inflation coming out of the COVID-19 restrictions, collusion between right-wing populists and far-right street mobilizations has matured. The result of this alliance has been an escalation of legislative, ideological, and physical attacks on queer and trans people.
To illustrate the confidence of these groups, in March, hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis shut down a drag story hour event in Akron, Ohio. Cellphone footage of the event captures right-wing protestors waving swastika flags, chanting “pedophiles get the rope,” and “Weimar conditions, Weimar solutions”–a reference to Nazi ascendency over the Weimar reform period in Germany. While the degree to which right-wing populism has fused with fascist street mobilizations remains an important debate, the effect on queer and trans people has already been chilling. Given this context, the question is not do we fight, but rather how we fight. Realistically, what are the tools available to us that will first allow queer and trans people to survive, but second resist the assimilationist politics that depoliticize the struggle for a wider type of trans freedom.
Both the NAACP and HRC have issued recent travel warnings for the state of Florida and some LGBTQ advocates have encouraged trans people to flee states where anti-trans legislation has been passed. Mutual aid relocation projects, which offer support to individuals and families looking to escape reactionary state legislation are multiplying. However, as important as these efforts are, they do little to confront the escalating anti-trans attack. While some Democratic states like Connecticut and California have passed trans refuge laws, which shield trans youth from penalties when seeking gender-affirming care, these states have done nothing to build an infrastructure to support the trans people encouraged to relocate there. For example, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont is pushing to cut state spending and slash funding for mental health and education amid a $1.35 billion surplus. Relocation, which is already out of reach for many, becomes all the more untenable when these infrastructures of care are abandoned by the state. Further, these relocation projects provide an ideological cover that lets Democrats off the hook.
So what will it take to resist the anti-trans attack? While no one can claim to have a definitive answer to this question, mutual aid, and mass protest have always been central to successful liberation movements of the past. In places like Florida, people will simply need to break the law. Trans people will continue using public restrooms and many will turn to mutual aid and underground DIY networks to obtain hormone therapies. As individualized actions, these survival strategies will lead trans people into even greater contact with carceral systems, but collectively they offer a viable resistance. One can imagine the profound impact of the HRC, GLAD, the ACLU, or even the emergent Equality Network diverting even some of their resources to provide jail support and bail for trans people engaging in civil disobedience (using public facilities in mass or participating in mass inject-ins).
Absent this direct action, the legal and policy focus of most LGBT NGOs not only loses its effectiveness but also risks narrowing queer liberatory visions. To be clear, efforts to challenge legislation that bans trans access to gender-affirming care are absolutely essential; however, without mass action, the struggle remains a defensive one. The horizons of a predominately legal and policy-based strategy are limited. These efforts may work to overturn some of the discriminatory legislation, but they lack the power to win queer and trans people access to publically funded healthcare, housing and education, or robust workplace protections including decriminalization of sex work.
While activists cannot simply will mass action into being, there are signs of resistance already on its way. Florida has seen hundreds of drag protesters gather outside its Capitol to oppose the recent anti-LGBTQ bans and student activists have organized walkouts across the state to reject DeSantis’ attacks on both LGBTQ students and Black Studies. In February, the United Faculty of Florida signed onto a walkout action initiated by The Dream Defenders in an important link between labor and Black abolitionists. Just this month, thousands of Floridians took to the streets to protest DeSantis’ anti-immigration laws, and in some cases, these actions have included work stoppages.
Importantly, the resistance is not unique to Florida. Defenses of drag story hour events and protests at capitol buildings have been taking place across the U.S. and most understand the attack on LGBTQ people as part of a broader reactionary movement. Despite these welcome signs of resistance, it will take a lot more to reverse the present wave of anti-LGTBQ reaction, and as the official presidential campaign cycle approaches, queer activists will be encouraged to subordinate more radical actions to electoral activity and legal campaigns. Radicals, particularly queer radicals, will need to play a role in resisting this pull while also offering an alternative vision of and pathway to LGBTQ liberation.
Featured image credit: Nevena Pilipovic-Wengler
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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.