The right’s gender wars are an assault on democracy
Anti-gender campaigns, which have animated authoritarian movements in Europe and Latin America, are sweeping across the United States, politicizing parenthood and enlisting parents in battles against so-called “woke” teachers and medical professionals. They target trans, non-binary and gender-expansive youth, as well as kids struggling with their sexuality. Since the 1970s, social scientists have demonstrated how powerfully social norms, institutions and expectations shape our understandings of gender and sexuality. They have also shown that sex and gender may or may not correlate. That is, one can be assigned female at birth and yet experience one’s gender identity as being at odds with that designation. Critical theories of gender and sexuality are supported by decades of evidence.
The right charges that these theories, and those who support them, are indoctrinating children and eroding traditional family structures. They say that impressionable young people are being influenced by such ideas to undergo gender transitions, which they say endanger the individuals involved and the safety of girls and women they encounter. They claim that acknowledging the existence of gay and lesbian people in history “grooms” them for homosexuality.
Right-leaning movements have long positioned themselves as saviors of “the family” against state governments and local school boards which advocate the teaching of sex education, “secular humanism” and evolution. Having studied these kinds of campaigns for over two decades, I’ve noticed continuities and also shifts in how the right has mobilized around issues of gender and sexuality. While the theme of protecting children is consistent over time, today the attacks focus much more squarely on the dangers of public education, especially K-12 schools.
Three decades ago, I was living in Oregon, where the timber industry — then the economic backbone of that state — was in free fall due to globalization and automation. Right-leaning activists proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would have prohibited legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It stoked fears of the early sexualization of children and called upon the state to protect them.
Though the campaign was instigated by religious conservatives, it appealed to what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “ambient anxieties.” The people I interviewed for my book, “The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights,” expressed worries about the decline of good-paying jobs. They were afraid about the future, sharing fears that their kids would not be able to enjoy the kinds of lives they enjoyed. Through these battles, right-leaning activists successfully channeled ambient anxieties into rage. It was an early example of the right’s efforts to weaponize parenthood as a political identity opposed to liberalism.
Today, we again see a resurgence of conflicts over gender and sexuality. Although they claim to be protecting children and youth, the real goal for many is to fortify the “traditional” family as the cultural ideal — and sow distrust in schools and other public institutions.
After fighting to defend men’s sports and minimize the reach of Title IX, the same activists on the right are trying to limit trans youths’ access to sports teams. They argue that transgender athletes have an unfair advantage in girls’ and women’s sports, though they present no convincing evidence to that effect. They are seeking to restrict gender-affirmative medical care for young people on the grounds that the very notion of transgender children is a dangerous myth constructed by those who would seek to “convert” masculine-presenting cisgender girls. And they are trying to restrict speech that would acknowledge the different ways people express their sexual desires.
These campaigns enlist parents, particularly mothers, as warriors for the so-called traditional patriarchal, heteronormative family. It’s no wonder that several of the same organizations mobilizing against “gender ideology” are also working to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” and bankrolling efforts to undermine voting rights.
They believe that teaching kids Black history and gender studies is dangerous because these bodies of knowledge show that hierarchies of race, like gender and sexuality, are not natural but are in fact human-made social arrangements. And indeed, during the past several decades, feminists, LGBT activists and activists for racial equality have successfully challenged unequal social structures, however unfinished their projects are.
Some liberal commentators suggest that these “culture wars” campaigns are designed to distract voters and that we should therefore ignore them. But efforts to limit young people’s rights over their own bodies mirror attempts to restrict Americans’ participation in the political process and reduce social inequalities. That is why we ignore these campaigns at our peril.
Arlene Stein is a distinguished professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, where she directs the Institute for Research on Women. Her latest book is “Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity” (Pantheon 2018). A reissue of the prize-winning book “The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights,” is forthcoming from Beacon Press.
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