The Anti-Trans Panic and the Crusade Against Teachers

An organic crisis collided with a conjunctural crisis, and only the political right had both the sense and the power to take advantage of it. Now the conspiracist structure of feeling—the recognition of one’s own relative disfranchisement, combined with a resentment toward the tremendous power and resources that a small class wields exclusively over everyone else—textures our political reality thoroughly, and not just for the right’s ideological foot soldiers.

The goal is to crumble popular support for public education.

Still from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

In May of this year, a local leader in the El Paso, CO chapter of Moms for Liberty named the actors she believes are behind a coordinated effort to make more children come out as trans or gay: “teachers unions,” “our president,” and “the left.” She then named teachers unions twice more, painting them as the primary antagonists in a campaign to erode “parental rights.”

Moms for Liberty is a far-right front group, explicitly opposed to teachers’ powers to set learning conditions for young people and to control their own working conditions. (Leaders quoted on the organization’s website call teachers unions “evil.”) Formed in January 2021 and rapidly transformed into a right-wing media darling with attention from Tucker Carlson, Breitbart, and the Rush Limbaugh Show, it’s now an organization with national spread, raking in five-, six-, and seven-figure gifts from the right wing of the Republican donor base, including some of the same people and organizations who threw millions behind the January 6, 2021 failed Trumpist coup. As Maurice Cunningham reported in the Tampa Bay Times, the organization receives critical support from member organizations of the Council for National Policy, a network that since the Reagan era has united ruling-class money with conservative Christian politics to influence policymaking on the political right.

In Moms for Liberty, money meets people power: organized into local chapters, its ardent grassroots activists target public schools, school libraries, school boards, and K-12 curricula. They speak at school board meetings, denouncing the library books they believe introduce children to concepts like queer and trans identity. Under the rallying cry of “parental rights,” they protest school-based practices that make it easier for young people to transition, and they uplift policies that restrict or eliminate this possibility.

Why do activists on the political right believe—or, at any rate, why do they say—that “teachers unions” are a primary proponent behind introducing young people to the possibility of becoming trans? Trans rights don’t feature prominently in the negotiations that teachers unions have staked in recent years, which have instead and with good reason focused on winning living wages for teachers and non-teaching school staff, enforcing dignified working and learning conditions, and fighting racist school closures and austerity budgets imposed by conservative local administrations, whether Republican or Democrat. But if the conspiracism of the far right fails to align with fact, it nonetheless demonstrates some of the logic driving the current anti-trans moral panic, its movement warriors, and its legislative wing.

In the minds of the panic’s primary architects and closest adherents, teachers and trans people represent a political coalition whose power they are aiming to truncate. This fact is a key to understanding why the political right has alighted on trans people as a legislative target and media chewtoy—and, in particular, to understanding what effects the moral panic is supposed to produce, beyond a collective exhalation of anti-trans animus.

The series of assaults that the right has staged on basic protections for trans self-determination are, at this point, widely recognized. Designed to incite moral frenzy over the specter of young people accessing transition-related medical care, these attacks have featured both a tightly cohesive media strategy across platforms—TV, print, YouTube, radio—and a series of state-level legislative efforts best described as anti-trans lawfare, attempting to limit, with the goal of exterminating, the ability of people of all ages to transition with dignity. In the places where they’ve achieved success, these campaigns have jeopardized immediate security for trans people. Of perhaps even greater concern, they have broadly undermined basic, hard-won, common-sense legitimacy for trans life—the idea that people can and should exercise agency and make use of resources to determine how they’re regarded and understood by friends, strangers, lovers, teachers, parents, and indeed themselves.

The lawfare breaks down into roughly six categories, which the organizers behind tracktranslegislation.com and translegislation.com have meticulously documented.

  1. School instruction: legislation that targets classroom instruction and teacher conduct, constraining curricula, banning books, and forcing teachers to out trans students to their parents.
  2. Medical care: targeting trans people—currently minors—in the medical sphere, this legislation seeks to ban use of puberty blockers, gender-affirming hormones and surgery.
  3. Public accommodations: breathing new life into the anti-trans bathroom bills that fared comparatively poorly in the Obama and Trump years, these bills limit who may use sex-segregated facilities.
  4. Athletics: these bills typically seek to ban trans youth from participating in school sports and at their furthest extreme subject people suspected of trans status to humiliating, violating forms of surveillance. (They also neatly redirect justified outrage at defunded schools and crumbling facilities into upset that the wrong people might win low-stakes social competitions, and more on that below.)
  5. Drag performance: legislation that limits or bans drag performance in public or in all-ages settings.
  6. Documentation: legislation that redefines sex in state law to make it impossible to change local ID gender markers.

Beyond these categories, some miscellaneous legislation demonstrates the creativity of policymakers on the far right, such as Florida’s HB 999, which polices course offerings at public universities, and Florida’s SB 1580, which provide pathways for health care providers to refuse to provide emergency services to people they believe are trans.

Running through these campaigns is a focus on the adults who make it possible for young people to transition. They train their attention on educators to whom trans children might first come out and from whom they might seek guidance; on health-care workers who might administer puberty blockers or hormones. The architects of the panic have made it their business to smear these adults in the most damning terms possible . Matt Walsh, a columnist for the Daily Wire and the most public face of the anti-trans movement’s media arm, has repeatedly associated trans identity in children with sexual violence from adults, and openly called medical professionals who aid youth transition “child abusers.”  Ben Shapiro, co-founder of the Daily Wire, has repeatedly insinuated that public school teachers and adult trans people, acting under the license of Biden administration policies, are actively trying to “trans the kids”—to coerce not-yet-transgender children into believing that they, too, might be trans. Christopher Rufo, the political strategist who pioneered the culture war against “critical race theory,” has successfully fed the conspiracy theory that discussing gender, sexuality, and trans identity in educational settings is a form of “grooming.” Rufo’s equivalence between support for queer youth and sexual abuse is analogous to his strategy behind turning CRT into a household name, and using it as a tool to bludgeon anti-racism. “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans,” Rufo wrote in 2021; “strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.” In similar fashion, “grooming” maligns any except the most heavy-handed anti-trans and anti-gay practices of dealing with children—punishing everything from supporting a young person who’s questioning their gender, to protecting a queer child from bullying, to simply being visibly trans in public.

Thus the moral panic seeks to delegitimize transition entirely through the double slander that trans identity, in addition to being a “mental illness” and a “delusion,” is actually a form of sexual predation. The most explicit, immediate goal of the movement is to eliminate the public social protections that make transition possible, for anyone, at any age—to “eradicate transgenderism from public life entirely,” as Michael Knowles, yet another Wire host, said at this year’s CPAC. In the self-professed terms of its most committed adherents, the anti-trans panic is “fascist,” a label that Walsh wryly embraces.

It has also been chillingly successful. Allied with the cultural conservatism that defines the American right’s most sensational programs, Walsh, Rufo, and the other architects of the anti-trans panic have made significant headway in the places where their faction exercises political control, Florida most notoriously. In other parts of the south, southeast, central midwest and mountain states, this faction has managed to pass significant parts of their legislative program. Mainstream organizations like the ACLU and Human Rights Campaign have rigorously documented the extent of the legislative attacks, and sounded alarms for the rollback of minimal civil protections achieved in the last decade.

From the left, the best attempts to date to explain conservatives’ rigorous opposition to trans rights have largely highlighted the strain that trans identity places on the family unit. Writing in Parapraxis, Max Fox spelled out the tension: “In the crisis of children’s gender self-determination,” he writes, “the family is stripped of its pretension to cohere the totality of social meaning.” And it’s true that the anti-trans crusaders portray themselves as defenders of the family, particularly in their strategic use of the term “parental rights.” But if the organic tension between trans self-determination and family control over social life could have come to a head at any point, it’s not clear why political actors with deep pockets and meticulous plans for power chose to gin up moral outrage at the particular moment they did. In fact, the posture that Moms for Liberty and likeminded organizations adopt—defending the family—disguises the actual offensive maneuver that the right is undertaking. A close look at the anti-trans bills across the US demonstrates that the purpose of defending “parental rights” isn’t, in fact, to empower parents at all: it’s to disempower educators, health-care workers, and the other adults who make the lives of trans children more possible.

The strategic slippage at the heart of the anti-trans campaigns—from trans child to protective caretaker to adult worker—clarifies why and for what purpose the architects of the panic organized their crusade. The anti-trans panic is part of a calculated political campaign, assembling a coalition of disparate forces with overlapping interests and plans. Those plans include destabilizing bulwarks of working-class power, obliterating free and universal public education, privatizing critical elements of social life, reinforcing racial segregation, and pulverizing institutions that can and often do produce oppositional political consciousness. And, because our opponents know what they’re doing, it starts with attacks on organized workers.

Of all the legislative attacks on queer and trans self-determination, likely the most infamous is Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, by legal name the “Parental Rights in Education Act.” A test balloon for the DeSantis administration’s broader anti-trans and anti-gay project, the law initially prohibited “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade; in 2023, the Florida Board of Education voted to expand the law to all grades. It also enables parents to bring legal action against school districts that they believe violate the law. Passed alongside HB 7 (the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act”), which restricts the ability of teachers in Florida to lead classroom discussions on racism, the “Parental Rights in Education Act” initiated a top-down purging of public school curricula. Control over instruction was transferred away from teachers and onto the superintendents and school boards of local districts, which are now, under the bill, legally liable for anything discussed in the classroom.

This clever enforcement mechanism empowers local management to police and discipline individual teachers—the “woke educators” that Moms For Liberty target. In other words, the law beefs up local and state-level control over schools by constraining and punishing the actions of individual workers. It therefore bypasses the authority of trained expert educators to determine the right pedagogy for their students; it also circumvents the ability of teachers and their coworkers to set collective terms for working conditions when negotiating their contracts. The Florida Educators Association, an AFT affiliate that represents 145,000 teachers in the state, opposed the bill, stating that it would “pit parents and teachers against one another,” “limit educators’ freedom to teach,” and “push even more educators” out of Florida schools, where 4,000 teaching and 5,000 support staff positions remain unfilled.

DeSantis’s legislation carries out the threats that the writers Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire see in the right’s broader program to undermine, destabilize, defund, and ultimately undo public education. In their April 2023 interview with The Dig’s Daniel Denvir, Schneider and Berkshire track the development, over the past few years,  of an uneasy coalition between market fundamentalists and Christian nationalists. The market fundamentalists—themselves a coalition of ideologically committed opponents of public education, plus advocates for lower taxes and diminished public expenditures—have a secular stake in undermining public education: the goal is to strangle public funding for schools, implement school vouchers, break down teachers unions, and turn education into a market commodity. Christian nationalists, meanwhile, seek to control the content of education—by moving children out of public schools and into private religious institutions, suppressing anti-racist and trans- and gay-affirming curricula, and affirming “traditional values” in primary and secondary education. Within their emergent coalition, the market fundamentalists contribute the money and policy depth, and the Christian nationalists the grassroots movement.

The DeSantis administration has faithfully executed the policy goals of both wings of this coalition. In 2023, in addition to its explicitly anti-trans legislation, the government universalized its school voucher program, diverting billions in funding from public schools into private, non-regulated, and largely religious institutions. The legislature also passed SB 256, a law that makes it impossible for public sector workers to deduct union dues from their paychecks, and opening a pathway for union locals to be decertified if they lack a 60 percent supermajority of dues-paying members in their units. If it goes into effect, the law would deal a serious blow to the power of public-sector unions in Florida, simultaneously smashing their finances and hacking a path towards decertification. The FEA has sued in federal court to block implementation of the law.

What does the anti-trans panic—relatively new, at least in its current incarnation—offer to this policy program, whose roots go back at least as far as Milton Friedman’s advocacy for school vouchers in the 1950s? Cognate with the war on critical race theory, the anti-trans panic builds wide-ranging suspicion of teachers, who are cast as the villains in a baroque drama. According to this script, morally bankrupt teachers with insidious political agendas tempt young people to adopt sexually precocious roles by introducing them to supposedly adult concepts like trans identity. The goal, again, is to crumble popular support for adequately funding public education, in Florida now particularly starved through the imposition of the voucher program. And popular support is essential: elsewhere—like Chicago, where the militant, member-led Chicago Teachers Union has repeatedly built public support for their historic strikes; or Ontario, where two-thirds of the province’s population supported the 55,000 teaching support staff who walked off the job in an illegal strike last fall—educators have painstakingly built coalitions with parents to achieve the power necessary to win excellent contracts for workers and change learning conditions for millions of young people. The slander that teachers might be exercising sexual predation in the unsupervised space of the classroom is designed to prevent that coalition from forming in the first place.

While attacks on K-12 teachers are only one front in the right-wing anti-trans project, they’ve established a template for other legislation, which has often followed a similar pattern of misdirecting moral outrage away from material problems. Bills outlawing trans participation in high school sports, for instance, are designed to produce a common-sense understanding that the main problem confronting high school extracurriculars is rigged intramurals—rather than dilapidated school facilities, or shuttered athletics and arts programs. Florida’s HB 999 centralizes the DeSantis administration’s control over public universities in the state, allowing university administrators to disband gender studies programs and increasing power over hiring and firing of faculty—as if the problem confronting public universities was the moral overreach of individual educators instead of overcrowding, underfunding, and insultingly low wages for adjunct faculty.

Further from the school setting, bills that villainize health-care workers and limit trans health care for youth follow a similar pattern, too. Walsh has called practitioners of trans medical care “Nazi scientists,” and staged a series of high-profile protests outside clinics that provide lifesaving health care to trans people. Right-wing journalists like Bari Weiss have seized on fabricated stories of clinicians bullying youth into transition. In the drama of the anti-trans panic, the nurse practitioner who runs the trans health care program at a local research university or LGBT/HIV clinic assumes the role of a secondary villain, only slightly overshadowed by the teacher who subjects children to so-called sexually explicit adult content by asking them their pronouns.

While laying the blame for keenly felt social crisis on small, vulnerable, and highly visible populations, this political project disguises the real and deadly problems that puncture health care no less than education: underfunding, understaffing, crumbling physical infrastructure, massive outlays of private debt, unregulated and gougingly exploitative markets for services that should be materially guaranteed to people as a right, et cetera. Like attacks on teachers, attacks on health-care workers are designed to prevent the formation of a coalition—the kind that could win support for, say, safe staffing ratios for nurses, or provide political backing for Medicare for All. The ideological work of the panic is diversionary: it channels genuine outrage in desperately wrong directions, such that people in need of health care go to war against nurses, and people who want good schools for their kids go to war against teachers.

This is the point of the lawfare. On multiple fronts, it divides people who receive necessary services from those who are paid low wages in dreadful working conditions to provide them. It whips moral outrage to a frenzy in order to distract from the outrageous conditions that consign most people to shitty, humiliating, foreshortened lives. It targets the categories of workers—educators and health-care workers most prominently—who have won spectacular victories in recent years against rapacious corporations and conservative governments, and isolates them from other political constituencies. It has its gratuitously cruel side, but its onslaught is motivated by something more powerful and much smarter than ambient transphobic sadism: it represents a series of savvy strategic decisions aimed at inhibiting the formation of highly potent political coalitions while bringing others terrifyingly into being.

Stuart Hall and his collaborators in Policing the Crisis defined a moral panic as a situation in which “discrepancies appear between threat and reaction, between what is perceived and what that is a perception of.” In the case of such discrepancies, “we have good evidence to suggest we are in the presence of an ideological displacement.” If the arsonists behind the anti-trans panic had particular strategic intentions that led them to light their wildfire, they found themselves rather fortunately surrounded by dry timber. What ideological displacements made it possible for the panic to travel so far and so fast?

The anti-trans panic feeds on misdirection and conspiracism. But the fundamental logic of the panic—the idea that powerful people set conditions for one’s life in a way that will not yield easily to collective power—is not so irrational. The anti-trans panic inflames feelings of suspicion and protectiveness among people who actually have good reasons to feel powerless to change their conditions, and gives them clear, though desperately wrong, targets for their fury and blame.

A structure of feeling in search of an object, conspiracism feeds on situations of crisis and chaos in which people experience deep instability over the course and direction of their lives—a keenly felt sense of lack of control over how to get stably from day to day or year to year. Looking out on the past decade, it is not hard to guess why conspiratorial logics like vaccine hesitancy, anti-masking protests, or belief in widespread voter fraud have added up to a large-scale pattern that defines popular consciousness in the crumbling arenas of the deindustrialized global core. Forty years of organized abandonment and managed decline have starved critical institutions and infrastructure of adequate resources, obliterating popular trust in those institutions doing the work they’re supposed to. Over the same period, as real wages stagnated for most people, the cost of living climbed dramatically; in 2021, under the inflationary pressure of pandemic-era corporate profits and supply chain shortages, it shot skyward. In different ways, effects of the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed the depth and unevenness of social abandonment. For most people, exposed to these economic, epidemiological, and climatic headwinds with minimal protection, confronted daily by the glittering evidence that the wealthy few govern and govern selfishly, the feeling of powerlessness is as profoundly rational as it is, in point of fact, outrageous.

In other words, an organic crisis collided with a conjunctural crisis, and only the political right had both the sense and the power to take advantage of it. Now the conspiracist structure of feeling—the recognition of one’s own relative disfranchisement, combined with a resentment toward the tremendous power and resources that a small class wields exclusively over everyone else—textures our political reality thoroughly, and not just for the right’s ideological foot soldiers. Instead of wishing that structure of feeling away, a political strategy with a plan to win could address it head-on, and lay the blame for outrage on the people, structures, and institutions genuinely responsible for our obscene conditions.

Those of us opposed to the vision of Rufo and Walsh ought to ask why the right wing is so scared of the political power of organized teachers—scared to the point that they have organized their movement leaders into blaming teachers unions for kids coming out as trans.

In one sense, they’re drawing on decades of bipartisan talking points villainizing teachers unions. In another, they’re simply reading the news. Multiracial organizations of teachers and other school staff are uniquely positioned to win life-changing contracts for their members, and to transform political life in the densely populated places where they perform the work of training and caring for young people. Unionized educators have transformed themselves into what Jane McAlevey calls “high-participation, high-power” organizations, and have won tremendous and durable victories in recent years, both for the workers they organize and the students in their care.

Consider three examples, all taken from the past twelve months.

  1. In Ontario last fall—at 15 million residents, more populous than Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Illinois—55,000 educational support staff walked off their jobs. 80 percent of the unit had voted in the poll to authorize the strike, of which 95 percent were in favor—a decisive sign of supermajority support. Ontario’s conservative government brought down the hammer, threatening to fine individual workers $4,000 for each day they remained on strike; Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier, also proposed catastrophic legislation that, if passed, would’ve provided legal precedent for legislating away the right to strike. In response, a coalition of unions, including some that had backed Ford’s government, threatened a “general strike” if Ford didn’t withdraw the legislation. Despite the threat of disastrous individual and collective fines, nearly 100 percent of the education workers remained on strike; facing the possibility of transit drivers, sanitation workers, postal workers and nurses joining the pickets in solidarity, Ford caved. While the education workers ultimately settled for a contract with raises behind the rate of inflation, the tremendous power of their internal organizing together with cross-union solidarity brought a hardline conservative government to heel, forcing the premier to beg workers to call off the strike.
  2. Non-teaching support staff at LA’s public schools, organized in SEIU 99, went on strike in March of this year. UTLA, the teachers union, joined the strike in solidarity. Between the two unions, 60,000 workers struck, shuttering schools across the second-largest city in the US. Solidarity strikes are, technically, illegal in the US, outlawed under the 1949 anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act; running a supermajority strike that carries significant legal risks was an experiment in testing the power of organized workers across union locals. The result of the strike was a win of wage increases of 30 percent for the bus drivers, teaching assistants, and cafeteria workers who keep schools running; engaged in its own contract negotiations, UTLA won raises of 21 percent for their members without a second strike. An example of negotiating for wins beyond compensation and working conditions for unit members alone, the teachers union contract tasks the school district with directing resources towards Black students’ education in LAUSD schools, providing housing for union members and families of low-income students, supplying hard-to-staff positions like school nurses with extra incentives, and providing outdoor green space to study.
  3. In the headiest recent example of a worker-oriented theory of change, teachers in Chicago were decisive in the election of Brandon Johnson, a former Chicago Teachers Union member and likely the furthest left holder of executive office in the modern US. As the union’s famous history goes, teachers in the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (C.O.R.E.) organized a takeover of the Chicago Teachers Union in the 2000s and early 2010s, democratizing the union and transforming it into a juggernaut of working-class power. After leading powerful supermajority strikes in 2012 and 2019, in 2023 CTU backed Brandon Johnson in the frenetic race to succeed Lori Lightfoot as mayor. Johnson placed second in the first round of election, after the right-wing candidate Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools and a pioneer of privatizing urban school systems. In a sign that the political right nationally weighted the race seriously, even DeSantis tried to put his finger on the scale, traveling to Chicago in the middle of the race to address the Fraternal Order of Police, which strongly supported Vallas’s candidacy. In a conversation with Jacobin’s Micah Uetricht, CTU president Stacy Davis Gates discussed her union’s decision to “bet the house” on Johnson, donating $2.3 million of the union’s funds to the campaign: “We are investing in our liberation. We are investing in our pathway . . . to make democracy multidimensional in a place where it’s been surface and misdefined. CTU does play that role, and we are daring other people to play that role with us.” She noted further that Johnson “went through the CTU organizing institute. There should be a line to get into that institute this summer.”

If the right is sadistically mobilizing the anti-trans panic to isolate, destabilize, and disorganize teachers, then those of us opposed to their vision should look to teachers for precisely the reasons—ideological and material—they are seen as a threat. For one thing, teachers hold the unique ability to change the thinking of young people and their caregivers: trans-affirming teachers really can make it more possible for young people to be trans, and that is a positive outcome. For another, teachers, as organized workers, have the power to transform broader social conditions. Educators are singularly positioned to change the conditions of public workers and working-class people through strategic, militant collective action. In this sense, the right’s machinations have outlined the shape of a powerful coalition between organized workers and fighters for trans liberation.

If unions are our best weapon  in the fight against the right-wing assault on trans life, then the task for people who care about the political success of both trans people and the working class is to manifest the political coalition that the right is already attempting to neutralize. For teachers who are committed to affirming trans rights, this might mean organizing with their coworkers and the parents of the students they teach to make support for trans students the common-sense position in their school districts and union locals. It might equally mean that members in less-organized unions should work internally for their unions to take stronger and more militant stances against anti-trans legislation, in the understanding that the effect of the laws is in part to discipline teachers and disorganize unions. It will certainly mean identifying specific, targeted struggles around which to unite teachers and community members into a solid political front, activating the real but passive class resentment and moral fury that people experience in their daily lives and directing them into political structures with a credible plan to win.

And we will have to move with speed and principle, in the understanding that the consequences of a sustained defeat will obliterate opportunities for a life worth living—for trans people, yes, and for poor and working people across regions and for years to come.

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