Culture war or class war?

How the anti-trans movement threatens all of us

By Moses H.M. and West McNeill

Over the past few years, it seemed like LGBTQ+ visibility and rights were progressing steadily forward. Visibility of trans and queer folks came into mainstream media and culture, corporations joined Pride parades, TV shows like Pose, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Transparent became audience favorites and critical darlings, and access to education about gender and sexuality reached an unprecedented high. When threats arose of potentially harmful bills, such as the 2016 North Carolina “Bathroom Bill” (HB2), public backlash was significant, including the NCAA boycotting the state for college basketball tournaments.

However, within the last several years, there has been a significant shift. 

Already in 2024, the ACLU is tracking over 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation in state legislatures. In 2023 there were a record-breaking 510 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in the United States, 84 of which were passed into law.

These include:

  • 17 states passed laws impacting schools and education – including preventing trans kids from participating in school sports, preventing education about gender and sexuality, and restricting use of children’s pronouns and chosen names
  • The map below from the Human Rights Campaign shows the restrictions on gender affirming care for children; it’s estimated that more than a third (39%) of trans youth live in a state that has restricted access to care
  • Some bills are alarming in their gravity and unprecedented-ness – such as SB 254 in Florida, which grants courts emergency temporary custody of trans children who have received gender affirming care

Yet despite this massive wave of anti-trans legislation and rhetoric, there has been no real coordinated action against this cultural shift. People and organizations have jumped on the opportunity to scapegoat LGBTQ+ folks from the community in almost every space – whether that be in ad campaigns, in the livelihood of trans youth, and public squabbles over public libraries.  President Biden has acknowledged the rise of anti-trans bills and a statement on the death of Nex Benedict, but there has been no federal action taken to stop or slow these bills. Public support, especially in regards to bills that target trans and nonbinary youth, has been divided. Major trans organizations, such as Trans Lifeline, that once stood financially protected and resilient,  have suffered massive layoffs and revenue losses due to corporate sponsorship and capital moving away from these organizations. 

It’s hard to overstate the devastation that the passage of these bills has on trans and nonbinary youth, adults, and families. Today children are more aware of their gender identity and the medical or emotional  services that could be available for them to transition  – only to have these services taken away from them, and to be the target for hateful rhetoric and fear mongering. 

The History of Anti-Trans “Hate”

Our study of history reveals that the divide-and-conquer approach of the ruling class is one of its age-old strategies. Time and time again, the ruling class has separated the working class based on our differences, and time and time again, this strategy has worked.  The “debate” over trans lives is no different. Currently, we are in the midst of an ongoing economic, political, and climate crisis. No segment of the ruling class has any real solutions to these crises. Instead, they offer scapegoats as the cause of our various crises. This manifests in different ways for different sectors of the ruling class. Take for instance, the rise of anti-trans legislation, campaigns, violence, and rhetoric. This recent rise of attacks on trans and nonbinary youth and young adults are not an accident, but instead are a part of a coordinated, well-funded, and organized effort from a reactionary and populist sector of capital. This sector of the ruling class represents more nationally oriented capital – such as fracking, real estate, hotels, and food distribution – and as a political maneuver, this sector of capital has aligned itself with White Christian Nationalist organizations and networks. 

As Imara Jones of Translash Media has documented, the anti-trans movement can find its earliest iteration within these networks, starting with Focus on the Family and James Dobson. Focus on the Family is a fundamentalist Protestant organization founded in 1977, and was a major force in promoting early conversion therapy and the ex-gay ideology and movement. However after the Supreme Court decision of 2015 that legalized gay marriage, the movement had to pivot. Tony Perkins, a member of the Family Research Council (an offshoot of Focus on the Family), identified trans issues, especially the idea of protecting kids from trans people, as a winning issue to mobilize key segments of voters. In October of 2019, “The Summit on Protecting Children from Sexualization,” organized by another offshoot of Focus on the Family, the Family Policy Alliance, helped launch the work on the anti-trans movement, including the drafting of the first anti-trans legislation at this conference. Since then, the amount of this legislation has skyrocketed.  

There is nothing organic or innate about the hate produced from anti-trans legislation and campaigns. The history of this movement shows that anti-trans messages and policies have been a successful strategy of a powerful section of the ruling class funded by wealthy Christian Nationalist players such as the National Christian Foundation, the DeVos Family, and the Council for National Policy. At public and private convenings, these billionaire charity organizations and individuals decide who will receive funding, and coordinate polling and focus groups to identify issues that can mobilize key constituents of voters to manipulate our class (across lines of division such as race and geography) and mobilize people into neo-fascist groups, or populist and reactionary movements.  

Divisive scapegoating goes in multiple directions. At the same time that trans folks are scapegoated to be the creators of violent and dangerous gender ideology, and the source of the decaying social order of the world, we can scapegoat certain sections of our class – in this case, mainly white rural folks – and assume them to be the creators of devastating and violent homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and policies. But in reality, all of these narratives  and ideas have been workshopped, and put forth by billionaires with no other goal than to separate our class by any means possible. 

The opposite sector of capital – which represents capital that is more internationally oriented (such as Big Tech) and is backed by think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations- has identified and responded to these political maneuvers. This sector of capital has no real solution to the current economic or political crises either, but can use the ongoing culture wars to further their own political and economic programs that ultimately benefit the owning class. Take for example a Council on Foreign Relations article from October 2023 titled “Why Anti-LGBTQ Attacks Matter for Democracy.” Framed as a struggle for democracy, the CFR acknowledges the reactionary strategy of the populist sector of the ruling class:

“In some cases, homophobic and transphobic rhetoric are used as part of a populist electoral strategy to appeal to conservative and religious voters. In other cases, disinformation about LGBTQI+ people is used to divert attention from internal social and economic crises or entrenched corruption. The manufactured threat of so-called gender ideology has been used by conservative movements and authoritarians alike to frame LGBTQI+ and feminist advocacy as externally imposed efforts to subvert traditional family and gender norms.”

Countering the reactionary political maneuver, the CFR goes on to explain that LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion could yield both economic and political benefits worldwide, linking accepting countries to higher GDPs and more democratic freedom. In the final paragraph, the CFR makes reference to a presidential memorandum signed by President Biden in 2021 to Advance Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World. This presidential memorandum places the promotion and protection of LGBTQ+ rights as a primary concern of U.S. foreign policy, placing the “protection” of LGBTQ+ rights worldwide by the United States as part of the larger US foreign policy strategy of “upholding democracy” around the world.  

Yet in the United States, what protections have poor, working LGBTQ+ folks been provided?  The Medicaid Cut-offs that were agreed on by both parties and signed into effect by President Biden, have cut more than 20 million Americans off of healthcare and have cut access to lifesaving gender-affirming care and treatment for trans and queer Americans.  The Early Insights of the 2022 United States Transgender Survey showed that nearly one-third (30%) of the 92,329 respondents had experienced homelessness at some point in their life, while the unemployment rate of those surveyed was 18%, and more than one-third (34%) of the respondents were experiencing poverty. The reality is, this sector of capital has no real solution – or interest – in making the lives of poor and working trans and queer folks better. Instead, the ruling class can co-opt these struggles for queer and trans liberation to further sow lines of division amongst working people, both domestically and internationally. 

Where We Are Going

The rise of anti-trans legislation is not an isolated attack on a marginalized group of people, but instead part of a larger ruling class strategy to divide the working class based on lies, fearmongering, and emphasizing our differences instead of our shared realities. Through the Freedom Church of the Poor Network, a group of queer and trans leaders in the University of the Poor formed a Queer & Trans Analysis Group to study the rise of anti-trans and anti-queer movements and our movement’s response and strategy to combat it. We have started early research on the rise of this anti-trans movement, scriptural analysis on queer and trans people, and the rich history of poor organizing the poor within the LGBTQ+ liberation movement. This article is a synthesis of ongoing analysis meetings of this group, and part of a class we taught at the New York State Poor People’s Campaign Political Education Summer Camp in August 2023. 

Our initial study of this movement has illuminated the need for us to learn from and produce our own working class conception of gender liberation – one that uplifts the power and strength of our identities, while ultimately placing us within the larger revolutionary struggle of ending global capitalism once and for all. We will have no true freedom as queer and trans people until we are free from capitalism. And to become free, we must unite with working class people across the world and across lines of division, overcoming the false narratives created that try to keep us apart. 

As such, we look forward to our next article, which will focus on the working class roots and ideology of the 1960s Gay Liberation Movement, its working class leaders, and the ultimate co-optation of this movement by the capitalist class.

Moses H.M. is a member of the University of the Poor and organizes with the Nonviolent Medicaid Army and the National Union of the Homeless. He teaches drama, develops programming for trans and nonbinary youth and young adults, and is on the pastoral staff of the Church of the Common Ground in Atlanta, GA.

West McNeill is the Executive Director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State and a member of the Coordinating Committee of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign. They are ordained in the United Church of Christ and have over a decade of experience organizing with community, faith, and labor organizations.

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