Illustration by Lincoln Agnew.
On June 7, 1977, voters in Miami’s Dade County flocked to the polls to vote on a simple gay nondiscrimination ordinance previously passed by the county commission. The results of the special election were stunning: Voters had repealed the law by a more than 2-to-1 margin, delivering an overwhelming victory to Anita Bryant, the most prominent campaigner in the repeal effort. In an infamous speech against the law, Bryant declared that “no one has a human right to corrupt our children” and said she was refusing to “yield to this insidious attack” on “parents and their rights to protect their children.” The name of Bryant’s antigay campaign succinctly captured the crux of her credo. It was “save our children.”
On November 3, 2015, voters in Houston flocked to the polls to vote on a simple civil rights ordinance — which covered 15 different classes, including trans people — previously passed by the city council. The results were overwhelming: With double the average voter turnout, Houstonians voted to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance by a 22% margin. The lead anti-HERO ad depicted a young girl walking into a bathroom and being assaulted by a man pretending to be trans. Campaign for Houston, which organized the repeal drive, declared on its website that it was “made up of parents and family members who do not want their daughters, sisters or mothers” attacked by “gender-confused men” in bathrooms. “Vote NO” on HERO, the website proclaimed — “in the interest of our children and our families.”
It’s no surprise that antigay and anti-trans campaigns have both focused extensively on children: One extremely effective way to align voters against LGBT rights is to convince them that LGBTs are out to rape their children. Even less explicitly malicious anti-LGBT campaigns often raise the specter of a menace to the children; supporters of California’s Prop 8 insisted that marriage equality would lead schools to teach kids about homosexuality.
But there’s a second, more disturbing facet to anti-LGBT advocates’ obsessive focus on children. Sure, the phantom threat of rape and indoctrination looms large in the anti-LGBT imagination. The threat of a more equal, egalitarian society, however, looms even larger. Those same activists who oppose trans rights today opposed gay rights yesterday. And they opposed women’s rights before that. Historically, society has treated transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny as distinct phenomena. But the HERO calamity provides yet more evidence that all three emerge from the same dogmatically sexist worldview.
If that sounds like a dubious proposition, consider the fact that the first serious campaign for marriage equality didn’t focus on sexual orientation, but on sex itself. The campaign, launched in Hawaii in 1991, argued that the Hawaiian constitution protected gay couples’ right to wed — not because it prohibited antigay discrimination, but because it forbade sex discrimination. When a man wants to marry a woman, the plaintiffs argued, he’s permitted to. But when a man wants to marry another man, the state forbids it. The state’s marriage classifications, then, clearly deprived gays of their fundamental right to wed solely on the basis of sex. Such discrimination, the Hawaii Supreme Court suggested, could not pass constitutional muster.
In the end, Hawaiian voters altered their constitution to let the legislature ban gay marriage. But it speaks volumes that both the Hawaii plaintiffs and the state supreme court (almost) successfully used sex discrimination as their legal hook. Today, we tend to think of legalized sexism as a relic condemned by the Constitution to obsolescence. That was hardly the case in the early 1990s. Just a decade before the Hawaii litigants filed their case, the Supreme Court had ruled on a legal challenge to Louisiana’s odiously chauvinistic Head and Master law, which gave a husband complete control over all jointly owned marital property. The court struck down the statute, holding that it was “gender-based discrimination” invalid under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. That was in 1981. A year later, the court struck down a publicly funded college’s single-sex admissions policy. Women, the court had decided, weren’t just servants to their husbands, or shrinking violets in need of sex-segregated schooling. They could thrive on the same footing as men; indeed, the Constitution mandated as much.
This shift toward sex equality made America nervous. In the 1970s and early ’80s, conservatives led by Phyllis Schlafly successfully blocked the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment largely by appealing to fears of over-empowered women. Feminist law professor Joan C. Williams has concluded that many Americans — including women — who helped to defeat the ERA believed its “vision of equality” seemed to “belittle the gender roles” which favored women in the home and men in the workplace. ERA opponents feared the amendment would denigrate traditional motherhood and corrupt children — especially girls, who would be led astray from the proper path of femininity. With gender distinctions destroyed, they fretted, the family unit would crumble.
The same coalition of religious conservatives that killed the ERA reared its head to thwart marriage equality in Hawaii and pass the Defense of Marriage Act. And why wouldn’t they? Same-sex marriage is, in many ways, a radical statement of true sex equality. Free from the freighted stereotypes of opposite-sex love and parenting, gay couples were empowered to build their own family dynamic. Unsurprisingly, many of these couples created egalitarian families that seemed to disprove the purported dangers of straying from the father-as-breadwinner-and-mother-as-caretaker model.
And, of course, opponents of marriage equality have not rushed to embrace trans rights, either. If marriage equality dents gender stereotypes, trans equality would obliterate them. Trans people — and, even more so, gender-fluid and non-conforming people — reject the artificial gender constructs that people like Phyllis Schlafly strive to maintain. Schlafly’s ideology depends on a belief in some deep biological distinction between men and women. The trans movement makes a mockery of that fiction, eradicating gender boundaries and revealing just how inane sex stereotypes truly are. To conservatives who believe marriage was built on a stringent divide between (dominant) males and (submissive) females, trans people’s ability to change their gender from one assigned at birth, or abandon it altogether, is profoundly troubling.
The HERO campaign provided the first truly national stage for transphobes to vent their vitriol toward the trans movement — and, really, the trans identity itself. That anti-HERO activists fixated on children is both revealing and predictable. On a literal level, the campaign implied that trans people (or “gender-confused men”) would, once given legal cover, assault women and children in bathrooms (never mind that any such assault was already illegal). But behind this hysteria lay a more complex anxiety. When HERO opponents professed a desire to protect children, they weren’t just talking about physical safety. They were talking about an urge to shield children from what they themselves don’t understand but still suspect to be perilous and degenerate: the breakdown of the gender binary, the liberation of gender-fluid individuals, and the abandonment of the stifling stereotypes that defined the American family for so long.
Soon after HERO’s defeat was clear, virulent conservative commentator Erick Erickson wrote that “Christians and common sense won” while “perverts, the mentally ill, and the gay rights mob lost.” It is tempting to dismiss these words as the fulmination of an extremist bigot. But Erickson was hinting at a deeper facet of conservative ideology than mere anti-LGBT animus. In his frenzied post, Erickson sounds scared — scared of the “perverts” who don’t conform to his gender stereotypes, scared of the “mentally ill” who dare to challenge the truth of the sex they were assigned at birth, scared of the “gay rights mob” that strives to help trans people win equal dignity under the law.
Erickson’s fear is the same fear that defeated the ERA and delayed marriage equality in Hawaii. It is urgent and powerful — but, ultimately, self-defeating: Today, after all, we have nationwide marriage equality and unprecedented egalitarianism between the sexes. Americans are only content to remain ignorant for so long. If history is any guide, their discomfort with trans rights will soon fade away. And that is what Erickson is truly afraid of.