Trans Panic is Projection
The only thing kids are being groomed for is the gender binary
Last week Tennessee became the first state to ban drag performances in public spaces. Similar bills have also been introduced in other states, including in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia, each with mixed results. Tennessee’s governor (seen here dressed in drag) also just signed into law a bill that bans gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth.
Meanwhile, firearms remain the #1 killer of children. Girls and LGBTQ youth are experiencing “almost every type of violence more than [cis] boys.” Zero children have been killed by drag shows. Many lives have probably been saved by them, and many more made happier. Boys with progressive attitudes around gender are less likely to be violent, so it seems it would behoove them in particular to learn early about expansive gender expression.
But Republicans are joy killers. They spoil all the fun. More seriously, they have been working diligently to legislate the bodies of trans and queer children, and to criminalize gender expression and trans lives.
Ironically, but not surprisingly given how GOP rhetoric works these days, these attacks on trans and queer lives—similar to book banning and other attacks on public education—do exactly what they say they are against. The language in drag bills, antecedent bathroom bills, and the ideology that surrounds them alleges the existence of LGBTQ folks and history in public spaces equals “grooming.” But the GOP’s mass hysteria and moral panic over LGBTQ communities is a psychological projection. The only thing kids are being actively “groomed” for in the US is the gender binary and the hetero nuclear family.
Never has this been made clearer to me than while raising two kids, one assigned female at birth, one assigned male. “One of each!” strangers have said to me for years in the grocery store, at the park, on the street, whenever I am with both of my children and they present as cis boy and girl. “Now you can be done!” people said when they were young. Apparently I had fulfilled some quota.
When my daughter was an infant, before she could smile, more people than I could count commented on how “serious” she looked—an ominous precursor to “give me a smile sweetie” and the expectation that women should constantly perform the affective labor of spreading joy. But no one ever seemed concerned about my son’s wrinkled brow or frown. He looked tough, strong, apparently.
Others told me to expect his brute physicality, her caregiving tendencies. “It’s really great to have a girl first,” I was told by folks I knew and did not know. “They’re much better helpers.” The number of people who have gone out of their way to ask my daughter what princesses she likes or connect anything my second kid does to war and superhero metaphors is also daunting. As my kids have gotten older and heard all this, I’ve written before, even they have been disturbed by strangers’ aggressive attempts to gender them.
One of the accusations GOP state legislators and conservative interest groups like to make in defense of their retrograde bills is that LGBTQ culture—and comprehensive sexual education—is a kind of social contagion that sexualizes and indoctrinates children. There is nothing sexual about a drag storyhour. But if that’s the worry—where is the legislation against all the consumer culture I encountered as a parent that so clearly sexualized my children, or indoctrinated them into heteronormative gender roles by force feeding them myths about their bodies, their talents, and their futures? Where is the moral panic over stuff that grooms my daughter for a life of objectification and subservience, and my son for a life of violence?
Where, for example, are the laws against child pageantry and other girl culture associated with eating disorders, against outfits for girls that make them look like tiny cougars, which is just gross, against social media, against baby tommy guns—or, you know, the bills addressing domestic violence and cis boys’ high rates of sexual violence against girls and queer youth, or those addressing the trauma of growing up as a girl or LGBTQ+ kid in this country?
The more highly gendered kid culture and content I am exposed to, the more I see how blatantly disciplinary it all is. It takes vigilance to resist. Many adults put weapons in the hands of boys and dress girls up like dolls while teaching them to dream of marriage and motherhood and looking pretty. Not only is there often no in-between, there’s not really any outside, at least not when walking through Target. Representations of gender diversity and queer life are also scant in little kids’ pop culture.
Already, in second grade, my daughter comes home with stories about otherwise kind boys telling her about the things she can and cannot do because she is a girl. She goes to a very diverse, progressive school with a sign that says “you are welcome here” out front and a track record of supporting LGBTQ+ kids. But the kids watch TV and have older siblings.
As they grow, the comments become less innocent. Peggy Orenstein treaded this path for us years ago: As she wrote in Girls and Sex, “every girl I spoke with, every single girl—regardless of her class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; regardless of what she wore, regardless of her appearance—had been harassed in middle school, high school, college, or, often, all three.”
When you become a parent you observe the violence of the gender binary up close and personal, at every stage, and with a remove that’s not possible in our own childhoods. Though I knew there was a regime of pink and blue before I had kids and hated it, not until I moved with my two children through stores, family gatherings, restaurants, parks, and other public spaces did I understand how confrontational and forceful patriarchal gender socialization really is— or how often and how hard I’d have to push back as a parent.
When my children display expansive gender expressions in public, people contort themselves into the oddest rhetorical shapes, trying to convince me that what my children want or like is a phase, is temporary, is misguided, or is a fundamental misunderstanding of who they really are—rather than admit we are having a radical encounter with a little body who doesn’t give a shit about our dumbly limited and arbitrary cultural obsession with slotting everyone into restrictive gender norms from the moment they are born.
I’m not going to get into the details of my kids’ own gender creativity, because it’s an evolving story and one I’d like to reserve for them to tell, but as my kids have played with gender and sorted out what they want from it, I’ve heard all sorts of reasons why this liberated sense of self won’t or can’t last: they’ll “grow out of it” or “just wait until they get into school and the teasing starts.” People tell me my children—or theirs—are confused for wanting to wear x outfit or have x haircut, or are imitating older friends or siblings, or play x games because hormones, or are in a brief period of their lives when they can do whatever they want, one that will end when they become school-age. This breaks my heart—what a harmful, sad outlook. Isn’t that pressure to conform something from which we should protect our children?
I live in the Bay Area. I have actively sought out drag storytimes for my kids as one method of giving my kids a sense of greater possibility, unable to find any in our liberal suburb. I have never ever just happened upon an event like this, but supporters of these bills love to claim that this happens. What fun that would be for my kids, who love to dress up and put makeup all over their faces, to stumble on someone taking such joy in camp, in masquerade, in their own body, in their freedom to express themselves.
But the truth is that this wave of legislation has nothing to do with protecting children. The gender binary upholds patriarchal family life, a major economic engine for white supremacist capitalism and male power. Without a rigid mythology of gender, the exploitation of women’s free labor in the home and an entire economic system built to serve white cis men would be completely destabilized. That’s what these legislators are really afraid of.