“We just plain don’t like ‘em!” would be a difficult argument to sell as grounds to oppose equal rights and protection under the law for a marginalized group — and, this especially true in this era of supposed “political correctness,” “color-blindness,” and “post-racial”ness. As such, opponents of equality must find more palpable reasons to either prevent the enshrining of equality into law or to strip away existing civil rights laws.
A few anti-equality strategies have existed for what seems forever:
- Spread prejudice like a contagious virus! Essentially — in the example of race — convince the white majority that people of color are inferior, whether it be due to biology, education, or culture, thus deeming them worthy of unequal treatment.
- Selectively cite passages from the Bible! Whether you want to justify the continuance of enslaving an entire race of people, or oppose interracial marriage or same-gender marriage, or maintain arbitrary restrictions on when and who can have sex, simply flip through the Bible (note: other religious texts do not seem to carry the same weight) until you find a passage that can be interpreted to support the status quo. Or, if you are really gutsy, you can just make something up, like blaming lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people for natural disasters that affect everyone, including heterosexuals and cisgender people!
- Pit marginalized groups against one another! Want to really distract the majority from the problematic position of opposing equal rights? One sure way to mix things up is to pretend to care about the well-being of a minority group, and suggest that granting more, “special” (i.e., undeserved) rights to one marginalized group threatens those of another. A great example is the on-going effort to demonize Black Americans as a bigoted, uneducated mass that blindly follows religion in opposing the legalization of same-gender marriage. Clearly, they are so behind the times, in this overwhelmingly LGBT-friendly nation! This strategy is great because you can restrict the rights of one group while demonizing the other, or even convince the majority that the latter group has achieved full equality.
Scare Them With Sex
Hope is a great way to motivate and inspire a mass. It worked for gay activist Harvey Milk, and it sure seemed to work to elect President Barack Obama. Arguably, on the other side of the coin of hope is fear. What better way is there to get people stirred up about something than to make them feel threatened. And, if you really want to stall social progress, toss in some element of sex: promiscuity, teen pregnancies, sexual violence, pedophilia, pre- or extra-marital sex, sex work, etc.
Scholars who study how some matter related to sex is used as a fear tactic have called this “sex panic.” That is, some sexual issue is argued to threaten the smooth functioning of society. In many ways, the issue — say, comprehensive sexuality education in public schools — is intentionally shrouded by myths, stereotypes, biased or falsified research, and is often used to oppose or at least stall movement on a particular social or political issue. Sometimes, the sexual issue is not even centrally related to the key issue being debated. Here is a recent example:
Beware: Male Rapists Pretending To Be Transwomen!
Do you oppose the legal protection of transgender individuals from discrimination? Hmm, well — one potential distraction is to draw on the cisgender majority’s fears of (cis)women helplessly being raped, and occasionally toss in some panic about pedophilia and threats to children’s sexual virtue. Ongoing at Evergreen College:
“The decision to allow a transgender 45-year-old college student who identifies as a woman but has male genitalia to use the women’s locker room has raised a fracas among parents and faith-based organizations, who say children as young as 6 years old use the locker room.”
There are so many problems with this logic… where do I begin? First, I will note that it is interesting that we go from protecting transpeople from discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and so forth, to concerns about the bathroom, nudity, and sex. This stems from the real concerns that transpeople are frequently subject to discrimination, harassment, and violence — even in the bathroom! Yet, ironically, the debates have flipped concern for the well-being of a marginalized group to concern for the protection of the privileged majority from the minority group. The threatened has become a threat; the victim has become the victimizer. This makes me think of one of my favorite lines from the 2007 remake of Hairspray:
Penny Pingleton, a young white girl (Amanda Bynes): I’m very pleased and scared to be here.
Motormouth Maybell, a middle-aged Black woman (Queen Latifah): Now, honey, we got more reason to be scared on your street.
Second, there is some effort to confuse the boundaries of who falls into the minority group, and who to the majority group. Despite the challenges around accepting one’s (trans)gender identity, and to publicly acknowledging one’s identity, gender identity is talked about as an elective, easily moveable boundary. So simple, a man could dress in feminine attire and freely use women’s facilities. Somehow, transmen are erased from the conversation, and we reinforce the notion of males as natural rapist and females as natural victims. And, transwomen continue to remain outside of the category of women; when we speak of concerns about women being raped in the bathroom, we only mean “real,” cisgender women.
Third, the rhetoric of rapists posing as women perpetuates the myth of the stranger lurking behind the bush, waiting to leap out and assault a helpless, unsuspecting victim. Though most survivors of sexual violence know the perpetrator as romantic partners, relatives, friends, coworkers, etc., many carry an image of a mysterious, masked perpetrator, in this case, going to the lengths of dressing in feminine attire to prey on girls and women.
Fourth, bodies are conflated with sex, and sex is perpetually conflated with risk and danger. In this case of the locker room at Evergreen College, complaints were made that girls saw a transwoman’s penis. Okay? And, I am sure they also see other women’s genitals, as well. They have also seen women’s — cis and trans included — feet, hair, backs, arms, faces, and so on. Clearly, genitals stand out as especially sexualized and provocative. And, because we are talking about sex, we are worried about the harm it may cause — even outside of sexual violence.
Of course, sex panics are not limited to efforts to oppose equal rights and protections for transgender and genderqueer people. The supposed concerns of gay men raping heterosexual men were often raised, or at least alluded to, from those who opposed repealing the US military’s ban on open LGBT servicepeople. There is a long history of painting Black men as sexual predators who threaten the well-being and sexual virtue of white women — a viscous myth used to justify segregation, banning interracial marriage, and grounds to execute Black men through lynching based on lies or questionable evidence of a crime. And, we continue to see myths shroud effective discussions about reproductive rights (especially abortion) and sexuality education in schools, namely by drawing forward concerns of sexual “irresponsibility” (i.e., promiscuity, unintended pregnancies, teen mothers).
Moving Forward: Education And Accountability
I will not attempt to provide a solution for ceasing the effective use of sex panics to derail equality. But, there are some things that would be extremely helpful to move in that direction. First, it is important that we take responsibility for educating ourselves. This means taking the time to learn about the issue at hand in full. In less than 24 hours, many voters around the country will be deciding whether to legalize same-gender marriage, bar public funding for abortion services, and eliminate Affirmative Action policies.
Rather than only hearing some of the overly-dramatic, often bigoted perspectives that call to deny marriage equality or rollback government initiatives to support women’s reproductive health and the equal opportunities for people of color, I would encourage taking a moment to find out what is really at stake. Whether or not same-gender couples can get legally married has no bearing on the lives and relationships of heterosexual people — so, what will opposing it do? Defunding Planned Parenthood would severely constrict its abortion services, but it also will constrain its resources and services for other aspects of sexual and reproductive health; further, only a small portion of PP’s budget goes to abortion services. And, the sad reality is that doing away with abortion all together will not eliminate abortion — just access to safe, legal abortion services. Affirmative Action — a policy that aims to redress the history of racist and sexist oppression in the US and promote equal opportunities — in its current, scaled down form, primarily serves to make hiring and admissions practices transparent and highlight the importance of taking into consideration a candidate’s background. Doing away with the policy eliminates what little inequality-conscious practices exist in jobs and education.
I would also suggest that we must do a better job holding politicians, religious leaders, celebrities, and so forth accountable for the tactics they use to advocate certain causes. It almost appears that little recourse exists, besides talk, for advancing lies, myths, stereotypes, and bigotry. Though, for example, the Republican party may be slightly hurt in terms of votes and donations by their ongoing War on Women, many like Todd Akin continue on in their position. It seems it is only when they are the subject of sex panics (i.e., sex scandals) that they are either forced out of their position or voluntarily step down from it. Or, as many say, “no one died when Clinton lied,” referencing former President Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs, leading to a Republican-led effort to impeach him from office. Yet, his successor, George W. Bush, attempted to enshrine homophobic discrimination into the US Constitution, and failed to provide urgent aid following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita because of the large disadvantaged Black population in affected areas. So long as we vote for and financially support leaders who lie and recycle tired stereotypes and myths, they stay in power.
Other than self-education and holding leaders accountable — Vote! And, please keep these things in mind when you do.