The year was 1952, and Sen. Clyde R. Hoey (D–NC) was investigating how many gay people worked for the federal government and whether these workers were a security threat. In what would eventually be called the Lavender Scare, the government launched a purge of gay and lesbian employees, aided by a 1953 executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower. The witch hunts soon spilled over into the private sector, as workers lost jobs that required security clearances.
The year was 1978, and California state Rep. John Briggs (R–North Orange County) was launching Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that would have required school districts to fire teachers found to have engaged in homosexual conduct. For a while it looked likely to pass. Then Ronald Reagan, who had recently finished serving as California governor, came out against it, rallying conservative opposition with an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevaling scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is at a very early age and that a child’s teachers determined do not really influence this.”
The year was 1987, and Sen. Jesse Helms (R–NC) was incensed by an AIDS education comic book intended to teach safer sex. So he introduced an amendment steering federal funds away from materials that “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” It passed. A few years later, Helms would try to push through legislation urging states to enforce their sodomy laws—”in the best interest of public health.”
The year was 2004, and one state—Massachusetts—had started legally recognizing same-sex marriages. President George W. Bush, facing re-election, called for Congress to pass a constitutional “defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife.” The Republican Party added the idea to its platform. While the national amendment was never adopted, 11 states passed their own constitutional bans against recognition that fall.
The year is 2022, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is spearheading another moral panic. This one focuses on fears that are pressuring kids into prematurely identifying as trans or nonbinary, rushing them headlong into irreversible medical treatments.
The contours and players of today’s LGBT panics are different, but the underlying conflict is not new. And while stoking that may be good for certain conflict politicians’ careers—it is surely no coincidence that DeSantis is embarking on this crusade as his name is bandied about as a potential Republican presidential candidate—it is bad for individual liberty.
The New LGBT Culture Wars
DeSantis and allied lawmakers have barred Florida educators from any instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity with young students at all, and they have restricted how teachers can approach those subjects in the higher grades. Parents are authorized to seek financial damages from school districts if they believe teachers or staff are discussing LGBT topics inappropriately—and what’s inappropriate is defined so vaguely that all sorts of unobjectionable conversations could prompt a suit. Some Florida schools have even started removing children’s books like I Am Jazz from their libraries because they featured trans characters. It’s not clear that the law actually requires such removals, but the possibility of lawsuits encourages districts to interpret the restrictions broadly.
Meanwhile, politicians in several states have introduced aggressive laws that attempt to stop minors from getting any sort of trans-affirmative medical treatment for gender dysphoria, even when parents and doctors support it. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton has declared that giving minors any such treatment counts as “child abuse” and Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered officials to start investigating families. One of the first targets investigated was a parent who worked for the state’s own Department of Family and Protective Services. (Following a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, a Texas court has put Abbott’s order on temporary hold.)
Contrary to their supporters’ rhetoric, these laws aren’t about preserving parents’ right to shape their children’s educations or protect vulnerable young people from threats. After all, if you think families should make decisions about children’s education and care, that means accepting that families will make different decisions. Rules like these don’t establish a neutral position. They let one group of Americans tell another group of Americans that they don’t get a say in what their kids are taught or what treatments they can pursue.
These differences cannot be resolved by the government, and certainly not by schoolteachers. Yet they play out as a seemingly unending, unresolvable fight over who controls the public school curriculum. And the laws that result just make things worse. In the abstract, people who support bills like the one in Florida may think they’re keeping sexually explicit books out of the hands of small children. In actual practice, people who don’t like gays are attempting to yank books like And Tango Makes Threean utterly harmless story about a pair of male penguins who raise a chick.
The State Doesn’t Own Our Kids, Even If They’re Getting Hormone Treatments
There is a real social conflict at work here, even if these laws are ill-suited to resolve it. Many parents genuinely worry about the rise of radical self-identifications that go beyond male and female. When they see a parade of odd flags representing rare variations on gender identities and sexual orientations, they feel a sense of cultural fragmentation.
Above all, the increase in the number of younger people identifying as trans has led many adults to worry that children are recklessly altering their bodies based on passing fancies. Often, the worriers point to the experiences of detransitioners—people who once identified as trans and began the process of medical treatment only to change their minds and, in some cases, reaffirm their birth sex.
The existence of detransitioners does not discredit trans-affirming treatments. The increased acceptance of gay and trans people in the US has undoubtedly made young people more comfortable with questioning their gender identities. And the science of identifying gender dysphoria is complex and still being heavily researched, so it is inevitable that a certain number of people who believe they are trans might eventually decide otherwise and have regrets. (A survey from 2015 of more than 27,000 transgender Americans found that 8 percent had at least temporarily detransitioned at some point. Just 0.4 percent of all those surveyed had done so because they had concluded that they were not transgender after all, as opposed to stopping because of pressure from others, because they found the process to be too hard, or because of harassment.)
None of that justifies political intervention, even when we’re talking about minors. If you doubt that, consider the other optional surgeries that young people pursue. According to 2020 data from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, doctors performed more than 87,000 cosmetic surgical procedures on teenagers.
It’s considered controversial in some quarters to let teens get surgery to change their appearance. Certainly some adults would love for legislators to pass laws stopping minors from getting many of these procedures. But neither federal nor state governments have done so. As a culture, we accept that decisions about these surgeries are properly made by the teens, consenting parents, and medical professionals. You may think these are reckless decisions that the teens may someday regret, and probably some of them do. Some of them might go wrong, might not be as beautiful or as affirming as the teens hoped. But that isn’t our decision to make, and embracing liberty means accepting that people will make decisions that we might not choose for ourselves. (And if the doctor commits actual malpractice, there are civil courts to resolve that.)
That doesn’t change when the surgeries involve teen genitals rather than teen noses. Critics of these treatments believe youths are permanently disfiguring their bodies, but supporters retort that denying trans kids the treatments they want (not all of which are surgical) can lead to severe mental health, even suicide. Either way, the stakes are higher—and that makes it more important that families be able to make these decisions without political interference.
Meanwhile, these bills and orders are written in ways that reject the medical science of gender dysphoria entirely. Arkansas’ ban on trans medical treatment for minors is named the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act; it asserts that “most” of these “physiological interventions” are “unnecessary.” The rejection is even more overt than those pushing for these measures. When they hurl the epithet “groomer” at those who oppose these laws, as DeSantis press Secretary Christina Pushaw has from her personal Twitter account, they are suggesting that gender dysphoria is something that adults are foisting upon impressionable children. It’s the modern version of the paranoid old idea that the LGBT community grows by recruiting the young.
The Government Doesn’t Diagnose—It Punishes
The state is an expression of political will, not ethical medicine. The attorney general of Texas has no idea what treatments are best for kids who believe they may be transgender, but he has the power to investigate and jail parents for making decisions the government deems to be “abusive.” And we have a lengthy history of child welfare agencies harassing families for behavior that offends officials but does not cause actual harm to children. In Chicago, for example, teachers have been known to call the state’s Department of Children and Family Services to investigate them for abuse and neglect when they resist attempts to foist school changes or special education classes on their kids. One parent told The Hechinger Report she was investigated for letting her child go to school with a haircut he gave himself, telling her it could be considered “emotional abuse.”
People who are serious in their belief in individual liberty and self-determination should reject any effort to shift these decisions from individuals and families to the government. The alternative—to give the state the power to dictate what is and is not legitimate medical treatment—means giving politicians control over our bodies. And we have centuries of experience with the ugly, authoritarian consequences of letting government dictate the limits of our self-ownership: telling us what we can say, what we can consume, what we can do with our bodies and our property.
Using modern medicine to change our genders may take self-ownership further than many people are used to. But if we’re serious about liberty, the same principle applies.