"For We Were Strangers": Trans Refugees and Moral PanicsRoundup
tags: abortion, transgender, LGBTQ history
Gillian Frank is a historian of religion and sexuality who co-hosts the podcast Sexing History. His book, Making Choice Sacred: Liberal Religion and the Struggle for Abortion Before Roe, is forthcoming with University of North Carolina Press.
The scene is haunting: Families packing up their belongings and leaving their homes because they fear for their children’s wellbeing and safety. In Austin, Texas, one of the items lovingly packed was a poster emblazoned with “Trans Girls are Girls.” It belongs to Jessie, a 10-year-old, who along with her family, fled to Oregon after a spate of anti-trans legislation was enacted in the Lonestar State.
Jesse is not alone. In Alabama, a 48-year-old mother fled with her 15-year-old son after the state criminalized gender affirming healthcare. And news reports are steadily documenting the ongoing travels of trans youth who must now seek medical treatment out of state. These trans refugees and migrants have been displaced by the force of a multi-year moral panic that has demonized trans adults as sexual predators and trans youth as endangered victims of “gender theory,” or, as dangerous influences on other “innocent” children.
The fearmongering around trans people now has legislative teeth in a growing number of states. At the urging of conservative politicians, legislatures have passed hundreds of bills including bans on trans youth from playing on sports teams, the censorship of LGBTQ topics in classrooms and libraries, the gendered policing of bathroom use, and the creation of religious exemptions for anti-discrimination statutes. Some laws even empower state agencies to investigate and charge parents and physicians who provide gender-affirming care to minors. Other legislation intends to punish parents for traveling out of state with their children to seek supportive medical treatment.
Today’s state sponsored stigmatization—which seeks to disappear trans people—has all the hallmarks of a moral panic. Sociologists and historians have shown that moral panics are political tools that have allowed members of dominant groups to demonize minorities. In most cases, these same minorities have limited access to political and cultural resources that might stymie the harmful story being told about them. As a result, these engineered fears have justified draconian laws, surveillance, and the institutionalization of minorities. Less acknowledged is that these orchestrated outbursts of fear and loathing also create refugees who engage in temporary or permanent migrations. The current panic over trans people means that their healthcare and visibility is ever more precarious and dangerous in certain regions of the United States. And it is forcing some trans people and their families to flee from home permanently. Others face the hardship of traveling repeatedly in order to seek essential medical care.
Because of the uneven restrictions and laws surrounding gender and sexuality at the state level, there is a long and diverse history of forced migrations and temporary travel. These ongoing displacements directly link trans folks to broader histories of sexual refugees and medical migrants. At a moment when the far right and trans-exclusionary feminists both would deny the existence, dignity, and rights of trans folk, such histories offer an urgent reminder that trans people shared and continue to share in persistent forms of oppression and resistance. In this sense, trans struggles for healthcare and equality must be seen as part of – rather than apart from – other historical struggles for civil rights in the face of moral panics.
We should think about trans folks as overlapping in the experiences of a number of groups, but especially queers and abortion seekers. Members of each of these groups, at one time or another, were forced to leave home to seek dignity, legal recognition, safety and/or medical treatment in other parts of the country. The places where they sojourned sometimes embraced them. More often they tolerated them. And frequently, these destinations became sites from which to challenge the restrictive moral regimes elsewhere.
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