This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
A huge wave of anti-transgender legislation is coursing through statehouses in the early months of 2021. Bills that have been introduced (often with the same or similar language across states) follow one of two models: Some prohibit trans youth from participating in female-designated sports programs, while others seek to criminalize the provision of age-appropriate, trans-affirming medical care to minors. If you’re wondering why legislators (and the advocacy groups that feed them policy ideas) are focused on these particular issues, it may be useful to consider the concept of eugenics. Yes, it’s a heavy word, evoking some of the more horrific historical misuses of “science,” but think about it: These are bills aimed at cleansing society of the “wrong” sort of people as soon as their difference makes itself visible, and promoting the right sort in their place.
Trans people have been talking about anti-trans measures in the context of eugenics for a while, but the most prominent voice linking the current GOP-led efforts with eugenics is ACLU lawyer (and sometime Slate contributor) Chase Strangio, who recently described them as an attempt to “stop people from being trans.”
Strangio and the ACLU are tracking the multiple bills as they advance through state legislatures. Hopefully, many or all of these will ultimately be defeated, as seems likely to happen with one in Utah. But in the meantime, it’s worth unpacking why trans people are being targeted on these particular fronts in the first place. I’ll start by addressing the anti-trans arguments on their own terms, and then we’ll return to why eugenics is such a clarifying explanatory framework for what’s really going on.
In the case of women’s sports, the idea being advanced by anti-trans interests is that cisgender girls need to be protected from trans women who, due to a presumed superior athleticism garnered from advantages in height and musculature of cis male athletes, might unfairly dominate them in competition. As Donald Trump put it in his recent ramble at CPAC, “Young girls and women are incensed that they are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males. … If this does not change, women’s sports as we know it will die.”
But there’s no evidence that trans women actually outcompete cis women in this way. For instance, trans women have been eligible to compete as women in the Olympics since 2004, and so far, no trans woman has even qualified, much less dominated, any women’s Olympic sport. School-age sports are a somewhat different matter, but the primary purpose of these activities is to promote fitness, goal setting, good peer relationships, and healthy competition, rather than setting records or making money. To simply ban some girls from participating outright, without recognizing that they too deserve these benefits or even attempting to find a path toward fair inclusion, is an extreme punishment, and it targets a group of young girls who are already highly stigmatized. The potential harm to cisgender women athletes posed by trans inclusion is, at best, both speculative and absolutely minuscule, given the small numbers of trans women (less than half of 1 percent of the population) who exist in the first place.
In the case of trans youth medical care, anti-trans critics say they are advocating for the best interests of children, who will be irreversibly turned trans by measures to affirm them and make them comfortable in an alternate gender. But the best available evidence suggests that medications known as puberty blockers allow youth to safely pause the development of secondary sex characteristics without any ill effects until such time as they either decide to resume the natural course of puberty or take hormone replacement and begin the process of medical transition. These are well-known medications that have long been used to treat precocious puberty in cisgender children, and while anti-trans activists often talk a lot about how dangerous and experimental they are, it’s illuminating to understand that they’re not arguing that they are too unsafe to continue using in those cases. It’s also important to note that precocious puberty does not cause any particular health risks to a younger child, but the embarrassment and social stigma of, for example, developed breasts on a 9-year-old, is considered harmful enough that a benign drug with few side effects can be used for the psychological well-being of the child and parents involved. As with precocious puberty in cis kids, the use of puberty blockers for gender-variant children is primarily to alleviate psychological distress and embarrassment.
So, if bills like this aren’t really about protecting women athletes, and they’re not about protecting youth from “unsafe, experimental” drugs, what’s going on here? The answer is quite simple: The current youth-focused anti-trans legislative push is about protecting society from undesirable people by suppressing and punishing those people as early as possible, ensuring that future generations aren’t contaminated by their ability to thrive. This should sound very similar to the goals of eugenics movements, which seek to encourage the right people to reproduce while discouraging the wrong sort of people from contaminating others with their inferior genes. In the past, eugenics was often pursued through actual sterilization of undesirables, and I should note that many anti-trans activists want to ensure that the only adult trans people legally recognized as their gender are those who have undergone sterilizing genital surgeries. It’s not precisely eugenics … but it certainly rhymes.
However, in most cases, the pollution anti-trans campaigners believe trans people represent is a more cultural sort. By being trans and thriving, trans people give young people dangerous ideas. These ideas include the basic belief that one can transition and live happily and freely, but also the more expansive notions that biology is not destiny and that oppressive gender roles aren’t set in stone. The cultural pollution of these ideas is what conservatives feel they must suppress at all costs (just see virulently anti-trans Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s recent attempt to shut down Congress rather than have it vote on the Equality Act), and so the logical action is to push measures ensuring that trans people can’t participate normally in society or access the current standard of medical care. Ultimately, the desired effect is to suppress the numbers of trans adults by punishing and stigmatizing gender-variant children.
The right’s turn into anti-trans eugenics should curl the stomach of anyone who believes we live in a society of freedom of action, association, and thought. Trans people are not undesirables from whom society must be protected, but free and equal human beings. These activist-legislators are banking on the fact that trans people are a small, misunderstood population, and they’re hoping to use us as a wedge to get grossly discriminatory ideas into law. Don’t let them.