By ERWIN FREED
The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing political and economic crises are being used as a cover for putting forward reactionary legislation against LGBTQIA+ people. Three months into 2021, well over 100 bills restricting LGBTQIA+ rights have been introduced in state governments. These bills do everything from define one’s legal gender as that assigned at birth, allow for organizations to define “marriage” as between one man and one woman, and create “religious exemptions” that would let facilities deny health care to queer people. Meanwhile, the Pope announced on Monday that the Vatican would continue to oppose same-sex relationships.
These laws, both real and possible, should be seen as part of the ruling class’s inability to really defend LGBTQIA+ people. While the federal House of Representatives recently passed the Equality Act, formally barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity and/or sexuality, the likelihood of that bill actually becoming law is up in the air. Even if it were passed, the various state-level legislations discussed below would allow large gaps in legal equality.
Lastly, the basis of queer oppression is not located in legal “rights” but rather in the role of the nuclear family as the main place of reproducing working-class social relations; structural inequalities in health care; skyrocketing homelessness; and the precarious position that many LGBTQIA+ occupy in the labor force, especially those from BIPOC communities.
Mississippi leads the pack against trans rights
According to the ACLU, almost 80 of the anti-LGBTQIA+ bills introduced so far this year specifically target trans people and especially trans youth. The first to be signed into law is Mississippi’s SB 2536, banning trans athletes from gender-appropriate sports teams at all levels. Twenty Democrats in the Mississippi house either voted for the bill or abstained.
Signifying a shift in tactics, there are no proposed “bathroom bills” this year, but there are 47 proposed bans on trans athletes and 23 attempts to restrict trans youth from gender-affirming health care. Far-right organizations and some radical feminist groups are lining up behind the supposed sanctity of separate spaces and activities for males and females, usually defined in their view by genitalia and/or chromosomes.
In order to whip up a moral panic against trans people, the move to exclude those communities from health care, public life, and democratic rights is framed as “protecting” women and girls. These bills often have names like “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” (Idaho) and “Save Women’s Sports Act” (Montana). In order to enforce these policies, women and girl athletes will be forced to undergo genetic testing and/or genital observation.
The fight for trans girls’ participation in girls’ sports teams has been especially sharp in Connecticut. As part of an international campaign to attack LGBTQIA+ rights and split the movement, the anti-abortion Alliance Defending Freedom has been stoking anti-trans sentiments in the state against the teenage athletes Terri Miller and Andraya Yearwood. That fight was central to the Trump administration’s attempt to withhold federal funding from states that allow trans athletes to compete in the correct leagues for their gender. While Biden has since withdrawn the federal government from that case, Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Ned Lamont was willing to ban trans athletes in order to receive funding.
“Religious” cover for broad discrimination and abuse
On March 10, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem gave approval for SB 124, one of at least ten so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs) being discussed this year. Under the guise of allowing religious institutions exemptions from COVID-19 related closures, itself a problematic reason for a law, LGBTQIA+ activists say that the bill is “so broadly written as to enable discrimination against anyone who offends an individual’s or institution’s religious beliefs.” All South Dakota Senate Democrats supported the bill, which passed unanimously in that body.
SB 124 is part of a nationwide slate of RFRAs that the ACLU calls “religious exemptions on steroids.” Similar bills in Arizona, Montana, and South Carolina not only protect “religious” institutions from civil and criminal liability for sexual abuse and harm of children but also mean that “[r]eligiously motivated hate groups could avoid prosecution for criminal activities associated with exercising their beliefs.”
According to the ACLU, “the bills could prohibit the state from denying state contracts, licenses, and certifications, as well as tax exemptions based on religious organizations’ exercise of their faith. Under these provisions, the state could be required to give government contracts to groups like the KKK, which claim to be religiously based, or organizations that claim a religious right to discriminate against certain social-services beneficiaries.”
Alongside these broad RFRAs, legislatures in Idaho, Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia have introduced bills that would allow state support to religious facilities that discriminate against LGBTQIA+ foster parents and children. The most bald faced of the bills is Idaho’s HF 170, which states that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman … [that] the terms “male” and“ female” refer to distinct and immutable biological sexes that are determinable by anatomy and genetics by the time of birth … [and] an unborn child is recognized as fully human from the moment of conception and life should be sacred and valued from the moment of conception.” The others do not list these perspectives out so explicitly, but their purpose is to allow religious institutions to use these definitions to regulate access to foster care services, discriminate in employment, and give space for other anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-women behaviors.
Working people must oppose division of struggles
Working people must understand the different angles of attack that far-right organizations are taking against LGBTQIA+ and reproductive rights as a multi-pronged strategy of divide-and-concur. The attempt to sew division between cis and trans women (often totally ignoring the existence of trans men and non-binary people) is an obvious component of the framing and rhetoric of anti-trans bills in the United States. A good example is South Dakota Governor Noem’s tweeting on International Women’s Day about her excitement to sign the trans-exclusionary “Women’s Fairness in Sports Bill.”
Probably nowhere in the world has the far right been so successful in these maneuvers as in England. In the wake of the government’s requesting public consultation on the Gender Recognition Act in 2017 and the recent lawsuit against the country’s only youth gender clinic, Gender Identity Development Services (GIDS) at Tavistock, self-identified “gender critical feminists” (also known as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) have been regular figures in the media.
The Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Alliance is one particularly prominent grouping. Bev Jackson, LGB Alliance Founder, was featured on a BBC radio program as recently as Friday, March 12, arguing in favor of conversion therapy for trans youth, a practice rejected by all major psychiatric organizations. Jackson is notable for consistently supporting her organization’s work with far-right groups like the Heritage Foundation due to their common opposition to trans rights. While the LGB Alliance has been given a consistent platform by the English capitalist press, it has been constantly embroiled in controversy since its founding. Pink News reports that after the group received an outpouring of support from fascist and neo-Nazi groups, “when asked … to denounce neo-Nazis, the LGB Alliance refused.”
Queer liberation is class struggle
In the United States especially, capitalist crises reinforce the gender binary and nuclear family. While the ruling class is willing to make nominal concessions by putting a few LGBTQIA+ people in positions of power and expanding formal rights, it is incapable of destroying the material basis of Queer oppression. Due to this fact, whatever legislative gains made by the movement are always only partial, deeply uneven along racial and class lines, and at risk of being rolled back by a new administration. The Democratic Party in particular has consistently shown itself to be an “ally” to working-class and BIPOC Queer people only when forced to by circumstances.
The far right understands the fragile relationship between the capitalists and the Womens’ and Queer liberation movements. They are willing to use any opening to cause divisions against marginalized people and reproductive rights. Any alliances between so-called feminists and these right-wing groups against trans people, for example, are part of a broader front to pushback against the gains of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, as well as cis women. Losing ground in any of these struggles is a blow to the whole working class.
Against these forces, we can look to the Queer liberation struggle as a spark of large-scale solidarity mobilizations. The fight to remove corporations and cops from Pride events, the massive demonstrations last June in defense of Black Trans women, and the molecular shop floor struggles against LGBTQIA+ discrimination all show the fundamental place occupied by the movement for Queer liberation in today’s class struggle.
What is needed is to abandon false hope in the Democratic Party and the “pro-equality” sections of the capitalist class to build an independent working-class movement fighting for real solutions to the problems facing LGBTQIA+ people. The idea that politicians will be able to “legislate” away the oppression of Queer people must be abandoned if the movement is to turn back the tide of the far right. In order to really smash the conditions that lead to uneven rights and access to resources, the whole system of class exploitation needs to be smashed.
Photo by Scott Lynch / The Gothamist