Why Do Conservatives Attack Abortion and Trans Rights in the Same Ways?

We were at the sinks in the ladies room, the stranger and I, washing our hands, when a trans woman came out of a stall, looked in the mirror and sighed. After she left, the stranger turned to me and said: “Can you believe that? A man, in here!” She shook her head disapprovingly.

This was 20 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten that stranger’s disdain. It has stayed with me, because the moment called for me to respond to her with courage. What I delivered instead was cowardice.

“I don’t think she’s doing anybody any harm,” I said, quietly, and then rushed out.

What I didn’t say was, “I’m trans, too.” I didn’t tell her that I knew firsthand what it was like, in the early stages of transition, to face the constant threat of judgment, and cruelty, even violence. Or, that I knew all too well how much difference a touch of kindness could make during that very hard time.

I’ve thought back to that exchange as the issue of trans rights, and trans identity, has joined — if not displaced — abortion as one of the go-to issues riling up the conservative base. When I came out, in 2000, Republicans barely registered trans identity, let alone attacked it. Now, more than two decades later, we have become the right’s favorite boogeymen. And boogeywomen. So effective has the orchestrated blowback become that Florida — the state where I once joyfully vacationed with my family — has become a place I am afraid now even to visit. I would no sooner retire there than I would consider retiring to North Korea.

To some degree, we’ve arrived at this moment because abortion and trans rights are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin — issues that go to the core of what we mean by bodily autonomy, and what kinds of choices individuals get to make about our private, physical selves.

We’ve also arrived at this moment because the same tactics that succeeded in marginalizing, demonizing and even criminalizing abortion have been trained upon us. As Irin Carmon reported for New York magazine in April on the melding of these two movements, “we’ve reached the point of cross-pollination.” Now that anti-abortion efforts following the Dobbs decision aren’t proving to be the political win Republicans had hoped, many are doubling down on the belief that demonizing the 0.6 percent of Americans over the age of 12 who identify as trans, and the 1.2 million adults in America who identify as nonbinary, is a surefire ticket to electoral success.

What are those tactics? Well, for one, conservative political strategists and G.O.P. presidential hopefuls alikehave taken to describing the more controversial aspects of trans experience as the defining issues, just as they have long exaggerated the frequency of exceedingly rare abortions performed later in pregnancy, pretending that they are routine. (For the back of the house: Abortions occurring at or after 21 weeks of pregnancy represented less than 1 percent of all legal abortions performed in the United States in 2020.)

This same group of conservatives has also exploited Americans’ impatience with nuance to define extremely complex issues in the most simplistic of terms. And finally, they have taken advantage of the fact that many Americans think they don’t know a transgender person, at least in part because, just like me in that bathroom, so many of us choose to be invisible, out of weariness, and out of fear — just as so many American women never share that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is one they’ve had to make themselves.

It’s not just dangerous rhetoric. In 2023 alone, some 20 states banned or limited gender-affirming care for minors; similar legislation is being debated in a number of others. Conservatives began by claiming they were protecting children — despite protests from the American Academy of Pediatrics that trans children should “have access to comprehensive, gender-affirming, and developmentally appropriate health care that is provided in a safe and inclusive clinical space.” But they’re now even attempting to restrict care for adults. In 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida stripped trans people of their Medicaid access to gender-affirming health care. That action was struck down by a federal judge, but similar bans are in the works nationwide.

If you only listened to the Republican debate last month or to conservative news, you might be forgiven for thinking that the most important issue for transgender women in this country is the right to play on a female sports team. Or that we believe that every 6-year-old who expresses uncertainty about their gender ought to be immediately taken to a clinic and administered puberty blockers. Or that every predator serving time in prison deserves immediate and unfettered access to the showers in the women’s prison. (This — even though a 2015 survey found that trans people are 10 times as likely to be sexually assaulted by their fellow inmates, and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted by prison staff members.) You might even believe that de-transitioning, and transition regret, are commonplace, instead of rare (widely believed to be about 1 percent).

All these stories leave out the happy and successful trans folks I’ve met over the course of my life — doctors, airplane pilots, a small-town manager, a fire captain, even an astrophysicist — whose primary desire has always been to simply get on with their lives, and to spend their days in peace.

I have often said that the most important thing needed to understand trans people is what has been termed a “moral imagination,” the ability to understand what the experience of being human is like for people who are different from ourselves. But how can strangers learn about us if they don’t know us?

Conservatives have succeeded in demonizing trans people in part because so many Americans have said they’d never known anyone who is trans. In part this is because our numbers are small, but it’s also, in part, because many trans people, post- transition, are not immediately “readable” as trans. It’s important to note that lots of us don’t “pass,” and aren’t particularly interested in passing. But for many — especially the older members of the cohort — blending in with the rest of society has been at least an occasional goal. In part this is because we’ve found our peace; but it’s also because anonymity can protect us from violence.

Knowing a person who has had an abortion — just like knowing someone who is trans — can change Americans’ opinions about it. Only ​​50 percent of people who say they don’t know anyone who’s had an abortion think it should be legal in most, or all, cases, but 69 percent of people who say they have an “acquaintance” who’s had an abortion think it should be legal in most, or all cases — and that number increases to 78 percent among those with a “close friend” who’s had one.

These numbers echo attitudes toward trans people, too: Only about 33 percent of Americans who say they’ve never known anyone trans believe that gender can be different from the sex assigned at birth. But among people who do know a trans person, that number jumps to more than half — 54 percent.

So many brave trans people are living out and proud, and so many have faced dire societal consequences for doing so. It can be scary to be out in this political/social environment. But perhaps more of us need to find the courage to do the thing I failed to do in that bathroom long ago, and turn to a stranger and say something stronger than, “I don’t think she’s doing anybody any harm.”

What I should have said was: “That was a human being. That was a person deserving kindness, and protection, and love. That was a person like me.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor of English at Barnard College, and a vice president of PEN America.

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