Transphobic Violence Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum
Anti-trans hate follows an escalating script. It’s up to all of us to disrupt it.
My Signal chat dinged. Dinged again. A flood of messages. Over the weekend of January 14, the neo-Nazi group NSC-131 disrupted a drag queen story hour at a small local library in Taunton, here in eastern Massachusetts. The Nazis sat among the kids, some of whom ran out of the room. They shouted “groomer” and worse at the drag performer reading the books. There was no counter-protest at that particular story hour, because local queer activists were already over in nearby Fall River, protecting another drag reading event from disruption by the same neo-Nazi group.
The coordination. The forethought. The malice.
In 2022, LGBTQ media-watchdog GLAAD recorded more than 140 protests and other significant threats to drag events in 47 states by a decentralized network of neo-Nazis, paramilitary groups and militias, partnering with anti-trans advocates across the right. Simultaneously, interpersonal violence against transgender and nonbinary people is increasing, and states are introducing and passing a barrage of laws targeting transgender people, drag performers and the LGBTQ community more broadly.
There is no single leader at the head of this army. No public spokesperson of the anti-trans movement is yet calling for neo-Nazis to scare children at a story hour; no media personality is yet calling for vigilantes to kill queer and transgender people. Instead, a chorus of demagogues sends tacit messages to their followers — messages that call for “heroes” to stand up and strike against trans people, drag performers and queer people, before it’s too late.
In 2014, renowned researcher of the right wing Chip Berlet published a seminal paper, “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence.” (Content note: this paper contains examples of strong anti-Black language.) The paper lays out the nine-step process through which demagoguery and vilification create a sense of urgency among followers to commit violence against a chosen scapegoat. A violent script is written, disseminated and followed.
Today the steps of that process — prejudice, heightening, division, demagoguery, demonization, targeting, conspiracy, apocalypse and violence — are playing out in real time across the United States (and increasingly abroad). Under our noses, demagogues from politics, faith, medicine and media are scripting violence against transgender people, by deliberately spreading the disinformation that transgender people are targeting children for recruitment, mutilation and sexual violence. Self-invented superheroes, in Proud Boy gold or Patriot Front t-shirts, are stepping up to avenge the imaginary harm of children they have been told is inevitable if LGBTQ people — particularly trans, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people — are able to live openly and comfortably in society.
Below, I’ve collapsed Berlet’s nine original steps into four stages. During the first stage, existing prejudices are intensified, creating an Us and a Them. In the second stage, demagogues use shared rhetoric to turn the Us into a constituency ready to defend itself against Them. Then, the demagogues vilify Them, creating an enemy whose very existence is the origin of all Our problems. Finally, the demagogues use apocalyptic frameworks to inspire heroic violence in order to defend Us against the promised violence. We are witnessing a narrative entering its final stages, as neo-Nazi and other organized groups become bolder, and vigilantes name trans people as their targets and their justification.
Existing prejudices are intensified and repeated, creating a dualism of Us and Them
According to Berlet’s model, scripted violence starts with an existing societal prejudice — ideas that can be turned first into discriminatory actions, then into violence. “Participants engage in the projections of negativity and rejected elements of self onto ideologically designated scapegoats,” Berlet writes, “and this helps create a basis for affirming a pure, heroic self.” That is: demonization and vilification create bad guys (in this case, transgender people); and the existence of bad guys necessitates the existence of good guys (people who will stop them).
Anti-trans leaders from both secular right-wing media and religious right spheres rely on innate societal gender essentialism to turn their constituents against transgender people and present “gender ideology” rhetoric as a threat to the natural family. Since the 1990s, the Heritage Foundation, one of the country’s most powerful and influential think tanks, has produced mountains of reports and articles about the dangers of so-called “gender ideology” — the conspiracy theory that ideas like feminism and queerness will “destroy the natural family” — and of protecting transgender people from violence and discrimination. On Fox News, host Tucker Carlson has repeatedly described gender-affirming care as mutilation, while platforming other pundits willing to say far worse.
This dualism — the vilification and lionization — is obvious in the rhetoric around transgender people and drag performances. Trans people and drag performers are cast as demonic others, a dehumanized force of evil, while those banning access to trans-affirming medical care or violently disrupting drag performances are represented as heroes.
“It’s the demonization of a group of people by making claims about them that are false, but are also designed to create fear and loathing,” Berlet told In These Times. The demonization creates an environment “in which people feel justified in lashing out in violence against transgender people before something happened” — suggesting an inevitable increase in interpersonal and organized violence as deadly conspiracy theories about trans people recruiting and mutilating children continue to proliferate.
All this demonizing has an effect. In the months leading up to the tragic massacre at Colorado Springs’ Club Q — which took place during a drag performance—Media Matters tracked the rising wave of anti-drag rhetoric:
For months, anti-LGBTQ account Libs of TikTok has used Twitter to publicize the locations and organizers of drag events while spreading salacious accusations of what might happen there. Recent segments on Fox News have claimed that drag queens are part of a plot to sexualize children. Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire has positioned drag as a threat to civilization, while his colleague Matt Walsh compared drag shows to cancer, calling for an “aggressive” approach to “fighting it.”
At the Family Research Council’s Pray Vote Stand Summit in September 2022, nearly every speaker, in a lineup of dozens, made jokes about transgender people or referenced the supposed horrors of trans-affirming health care for youth. Right-wing pundit Todd Starnes — fired from Fox for his racism—told a bitter joke about identifying as transslender, adding, “What they are doing in our public schools is not just criminal, it is sinful.” It was unclear who they were, and of course, that was part of the schtick: Starnes counted on his audience knowing the conspiracist narratives and indeed they all did, chuckling or groaning as the mood called for.
Drag is a threat to civilization. Trans people are mutilating children. Gender ideology is ruining our families. Each of these spokespeople contributes to a deafening chorus of mis- and disinformation against trans, nonbinary, gender non-conforming and other queer people. There is a clear Us and Them.
Demagogues and constituencies are formed
A demagogue is a leader who exhorts their followers not with logic, but with rhetoric that appeals to their prejudices. Berlet points to the rhetoric used by Nazi journalist Julius Streicher to turn individual antisemitic Germans into a united constituency who shared the same talking points, leaders and goals. The shared language allowed Hitler and the Nazis to script violence against Jewish people — and other Others—without yet directly calling on their followers to commit individual acts of violence.
In the same way, today we can see Tucker Carlson, the Family Research Council and numerous other right-wing actors using common language to create a united constituency out of individual anti-trans Americans — a constituency that shares the same disinformation and prejudices because they were primed by societal gender essentialism.
Notoriously anti-trans Daily Wire host Matt Walsh speaks frequently to his audience of millions about the horrors of drag and gender ideology, including right after the Club Q massacre. At Walsh’s Rally to End Child Mutilation in Nashville, Tennessee last October, attendees not dressed in Proud Boy or other militia-branded clothing were wearing gear referencing the “Sweet Baby Gang,” a name some of Walsh’s followers use to refer to themselves. Walsh the demagogue has his constituency clad in his image.
Vilification creates an enemy and scapegoat
Now that a constituency is formed, the demagogue may proceed to heighten the rhetoric and disinformation, creating and vilifying an enemy. “The hated target is first denigrated,” writes Berlet, “then vilified, then demonized, and finally dehumanized.” Finding a scapegoat is a crucial part of that process. As Berlet puts it in his 2000 book, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, co-authored by Matthew Lyons, through scapegoating “the hostility and grievances of an anxious, angry, or frustrated group are directed away from the most significant causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers.”
A constituency created through the weaponization of shared rhetoric, like the avid fan base that listens to Matt Walsh every day, is primed to hear that an already-targeted group is the cause of their ills. For Christian nationalists, the targeted scapegoat is often said to harbor or outright be the Antichrist.
At Family Research Council’s Pray Vote Stand, speakers said the quiet part out loud. “Gender fluid anarchists,” said Todd Starnes, are coming to recruit our children to their “transgender ideology.”
“The rhetoric justifies the heroic act because it’s done for the betterment of society,” Berlet explained to ITT. When Starnes declares that gender-fluid anarchists are coming to recruit children, his language carries a sense of urgency, a sense of an impending doom that must be averted.
Also at Pray Vote Stand, a panel of “detransitioners” — people who were accessing trans-affirming care and no longer are — warned that being trans is merely a trauma response and that children are being harmed and made permanently sterile. These are terrible accusations that are purposefully difficult to disprove. One would be hard pressed to defend a world in which every anti-trans conspiracy theory were true. And that is the point.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leveraged his constituents’ shared vilification of transgender people towards reelection in 2022. A few weeks before the election, DeSantis proposed that the state prevent low-income trans people from using Medicaid to cover their gender-affirming care, and impose an abortion-like waiting period, so that transgender people would have to wait 24 hours before accessing care. The Medicaid ban was implemented, the base was electrified, and DeSantis strolled to victory.
Apocalyptic and conspiratorial frames create heroes who commit violence
The QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories center around the baseless claim that Democrats are harming children in unspeakable ways. But there were no children being held hostage in the basement of Comet Ping Pong, the Washington, D.C., pizzeria that became the focus of feverish 2016 conspiracism. In fact, there isn’t even a basement. But that didn’t stop a follower of the script from traveling across states to bring a weapon into a family restaurant.
So too, do anti-trans, anti-drag, and anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories center around the disinformation that queer people are harming children. Grooming them, mutilating them, rendering them sterile. If LGBTQ people and those who support them are groomers, then logically someone is being groomed and must need saving. The evangelical right should be more than familiar with the actual threats of grooming from the pattern of abuse that has troubled denomination after denomination, but instead of grappling with their own ills, many fall back on gender essentialism to silence survivors of sexual violence and protect the perpetrators.
As the rhetoric heightens, the scapegoats become responsible for everything and, ultimately, for the destruction of the modern world. Berlet writes that paranoid beliefs about dangerous communities and apocalyptic beliefs about the End Times are connected by a “sense of time running out.” Paranoia and apocalypse coincide among constituencies, like the Christian Right, that are already primed to believe that a (biblically) apocalyptic event may occur within our lifetimes. Far-right pundit Ben Shapiro told Texas A&M in November 2022 that “The transing of the kids has become the latest symptom of a far deeper and more profound evil in Western civilization.” In other words, trans people and their public acceptance are cast as the end of the modern world.
With an ultimate evil comes an ultimate good, and thus you have self-proclaimed superheroes who believe that they have been tasked with defeating the ultimate evil in our society — whatever scapegoat has their demagogue’s attention at the moment. The demagogue does not need to speak to each constituent individually. Nor do they have to specify which actions are necessary to stop this impending apocalypse. Their constituents understand and enact violence against the scapegoat without these specific prompts.
Chaya Raichik of Libs of TikTok did not have to speak directly to the Patriot Front for them to show up in a UHaul truck to Coeur D’Alene Pride in Idaho, disguised with face coverings and armed with shields and at least one smoke grenade. But she did post about it for months beforehand, and they did show up, with the intent of violently disrupting the celebration. As Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, told NPR, “Groups like Patriot Front and the Proud Boys have relied on misogyny and homophobia as a core of their brands. So it’s not surprising to see them step out front in the current moment.”
Over the course of 2022, the United States shifted firmly into the last stage: the execution and excusal of scripted violence. Last year was a violent year. Dozens of transgender and nonbinary people, largely trans women of color, were murdered. The Club Q massacre devastated a community under legislative attack. And 2023 promises more of the same.
Existing prejudice. Unifying rhetoric. Identifiable scapegoat. Apocalyptic narrative. Scripted violence. Once we’re here, what do we do? We need to speak out, said Berlet. “Everyone in a position of authority … People need to speak out, describe [the violence], condemn it. It’s a basic defense of democracy itself.”
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Heron Greenesmith is an attorney, an advocate, an author and the Senior Research Analyst for LGBTQI Justice at Political Research Associates.