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The irony of the trans ‘villain’

The real violence comes from those who trample trans rights for political gain — and those complicit in the spread of propaganda

Transgender community members and their supporters hold a rally and march to Los Angeles City Hall on Nov. 2, 2018 before the midterm elections to protest against attacks from the Trump administration.MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Boston Children’s Hospital, which houses the country’s first pediatric and adolescent transgender health program, recently received an onslaught of violent threats, including calls on social media to execute doctors. Such attacks will continue to escalate until more conversations directly address anti-trans disinformation and its uses for partisan political scheming.

Boston Children’s became inundated with threats after organizations and people such as Breitbart, the Family Research Council, and the influential Twitter account @LibsofTikTok falsely accused the hospital of providing hysterectomies for “young girls.”

Even after fact-checkers disproved the allegations, many either disregarded the evidence or simply adjusted their argument.

Recent research shows that despite the rampant spread of anti-trans falsehoods, many left-leaning and centrist news outlets consistently ignore trans topics and perspectives.

The reticence of more mainstream media has helped anti-trans propaganda to proliferate, which not only endangers many people regardless of gender identity but also empowers a platform built on the imagined threat of trans people.

Despite a record-breaking number of anti-trans bills this year, studies have found that most major news networks provided very little coverage of the topic. Meanwhile, Fox News frequently “promotes these discriminatory measures and spreads harmful anti-trans disinformation,” Media Matters reports. In other words, discriminatory arguments have had a disproportionate influence on public discussion of trans people.

Organizers Chastity Bowick, standing left, and Athena Vaughn, right, led a march during the Trans Resistance MA March + Vigil for Black Trans Lives in Boston on June 12, 2021.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In 2021, when Arkansas legislators passed the first anti-trans healthcare law in the country, a majority of state newspapers misgendered trans individuals or failed to correct speakers when they denied trans people’s gender identities.

Media Matters found that more than 75% of articles “framed the issue of rights for trans people as a topic up for debate,” usually without any input from an actual trans person. The question, however, should not be whether trans people have rights; it is how to ensure those rights.

This media environment has enabled the use of transphobic disinformation for bigger political means. Christopher Rufo, a conservative journalist and documentarian reportedly credited for much of the moral panic about “critical race theory,” explained the strategy to his 400,000-plus Twitter followers.

In a series of broadly recirculated tweets, Rufo instructed conservatives to refer to drag queens as “trans strippers.” Rufo says, “Trans strippers in schools is a powerful frame to this debate, if the left chooses to engage in language games on that phrase, they will find themselves defending concepts and words that are deeply disturbing to most people.”

Rufo writes that this approach “attaches a new set of connotations” to LGBTQ people and “shifts the debate in your favor.” With this rhetoric, Rufo seeks to define trans and queer people as inherently perverse.

For the record, many drag queens do not identify as trans, and drag queens conducting story hours — including ones besieged in Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, and California — are not performing strip shows.

Yet some have redefined innocuous events during which adults read age-appropriate books to children as sites of sexual predation. The distortion encourages and justifies protests at which violent groups threaten so-called “child groomers.”

Drag queens Just JP, left, and Sham Payne read stories to children during a Drag Story Hour at Chelsea (Massachusetts) Public Library June 25, 2022. In the past few months, many drag queens have experienced increased fear and threats.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Using this same playbook, Rufo equates gender-affirming care for children with surgeries performed on adults. Likewise, legislation prohibiting healthcare for trans youth describes “genital reconstruction,” “hysterectomy,” and “castration,” even though standards of care from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health limit genital surgery to patients who’ve reached the age of majority.

Only 4% to 13% of trans adults in the United States have had genital gender confirmation surgery, but this fearmongering has been used to prohibit even social affirmation for trans youth.

The consequences for trans communities are devastating. Anti-trans legislation has escalated attacks on — and murders of — trans people. It has driven up rates of suicidality and depression, and deprived trans youth of necessary healthcare.

This anti-trans rhetoric, however, reaches beyond trans communities to push a larger political agenda. The top political strategist for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called banning trans care a “winning issue” that would draw voters for Abbott’s re-election race later this year.

When Idaho passed its prohibition on gender-affirming care, some Republicans framed the matter as “an extension of the pro-life argument,” which then presaged the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Many policymakers will likely continue finding reasons to deny trans healthcare because these officials have built their political appeal on the fiction of the trans threat. This frame presents a trans villain as a “foil” — that is, a secondary character who provides contrast for the story’s hero. With trans people framed as villains, many politicians set themselves up as defenders of children and families.

When condemning “gender ideology,” organizations such as The Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council often lump trans identity in with “radical sexual orientation” and “critical race theory” — all things they attribute to “public school indoctrination.”

Many supporters who rally behind anti-trans legislation then go on to censor public school education and dismantle reproductive rights.

Countering this strategic deception requires more than repeating medical “best practices.” And attacks on trans rights are also not just about trans people but about leveraging transphobia for White supremacist agendas that affect cisgender women and cisgender people of color.

Transgender people — more than 1.6 million U.S. Americans — are being scapegoated through deliberate disinformation, but our lives are not the only ones at risk.

Youth organizers brought together dozens of trans athletes and supporters for the Let Trans Athletes Play event on Aug. 1, 2021 at Mayor Danehy Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Christiana Botic/Boston Globe via Getty Images

V. Jo Hsu is an assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, author of “Constellating Home: Trans and Queer Asian American Rhetorics,” and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.