The Nashville mass shooting by the 28-year-old Audrey Hale has been seized upon by the reactionary right to intensify the campaign of hate against the trans community. Even as her motives were unknown and pending an investigation, rightwing officials and pundits pounced, blaming the shooting on trans-identity politics. This outcome is unsurprising for a party that treats hate as a family value.
The attempt to link trans identity to violence is part of a larger effort on the right to identify new targets in the culture wars, serving up fresh meat to a GOP base that’s long idealized racism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of prejudice. There’s a bait and switch at work here, with rightwing officials and pundits designating trans people as the new public enemy number one. This shift springs from the political reality that bigotry against gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals is now widely considered to be beyond the pale. Right-wing activists, understanding they’ve lost on issues like same-sex marriage, gays in the military, adoption by gay and lesbian parents, and the battle over popular culture, are opening a new front in the war against the LGBTQ+ community. Their attacks involve a noxious effort to dehumanize trans people, which serves as a proxy for reinvigorating hyper masculinity, heterosexist authoritarianism, and fascist socio-political values.
GOP officials and other prominent political figures are signaling that it’s open season on trans Americans. Donald Trump announced after the Nashville shooting that the event was fueled by the “anger that was caused” from hormone treatments for transitioning individuals. Donald Trump Jr. similarly tweeted that there’s an “incredible rise” in trans-violence in America, and an “epidemic of trans-non-binary mass shooters.” Josh Hawley called the shooting “a horrific crime” and without evidence referred to it as “a hate crime” that was “specifically targeted” at the “Christian community,” while calling for an FBI investigation. Marjorie Taylor Greene postulated that the shooting represented a “trans day of vengeance,” blaming hormone treatments, prompting her to be suspended from Twitter. Greene asked: “How much hormones like testosterone and medications for mental illness was the transgender Nashville school shooter taking? Everyone can stop blaming guns now.”
Enlisting its foot soldiers in various media, the GOP disseminated its message of hate. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson included in his primetime program a photo of the shooter with the words “trans killer,” announcing that “we are witnessing the rise of trans violence” in America. Carlson issued a blanket attack on trans people, invoking reactionary Christian principles and natural law, claiming that “transgenderists hate Christians above all, because Christians refused to join every other liar in our society and proclaim that transgenderists are Gods with the power to change nature itself.”
Other rightwing pundits were equally extreme. Matt Walsh took aim at the “gender ideology movement,” depicting it as the “most hateful and violent movement in America,” and excoriating “leftwing trans extremists” as “violent, dangerous people who have been made to feel absolutely entitled to say and do whatever they want.” In the week after the Nashville shooting, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA depicted gun deaths as “worth it” so long as individuals’ right to own guns is protected, and instead attacked “trans jihadists” and “trans radicals” who are “on a kind of holy crusade,” embracing “a lot of violent fantasies” against rightwing pundits and Americans. Benny Johnson, also of Turning Point USA, tweeted that “One thing is very clear: the modern trans movement is radicalizing activists into terrorists.” The comment was retweeted by Elon Musk, whose tweet was read by 7.8 million Americans.
The fantasy world constructed by rightwing pundits is far removed from the world we live in. Regarding mass shootings and domestic terrorism, there’s no evidence trans individuals represent a threat compared to other groups. While the Pew Research Center reports that 5 percent of young Americans 18-29 years old and 1.6 percent of adults identify as trans or non-binary, only four mass shootings since 2016 – or 0.11 percent of the 3,561 shootings in that time, were committed by trans or non-binary individuals.
Furthermore, the right’s baseless attacks on the trans community obscure the reality that the majority of domestic terrorism incidents in the U.S. – about two-thirds by the early 2020s – originated from rightwing political extremists, not LGBTQ+ individuals. By indulging in anti-trans propaganda and villainizing trans people, rightwing provocateurs divert attention from the primary domestic terror threat emanating from the right itself. This is an incredible example of projection, with rightwing pundits preventing GOP-allied Americans from looking in the mirror at the party’s dangerous rhetoric, which normalizes extremism and violence.
The GOP and its reactionary supporters invert reality with Orwellian propaganda claiming they are the real victims, and that others – including the LGBTQ+ community – are a threat to the nation’s survival. Contrary to this fantasy, trans individuals are systematically targeted by transphobic elements in America located primarily on the right. Trans youth are more likely to suffer from depression and are at higher risk of suicide because of being harassed, discriminated against, and terrorized by family, peers, the GOP, rightwing activists, and a political culture that treats them as a deviant and criminal.
The threat to trans youth is real. One Harvard University study finds that transgender teens face greater safety risks than other teens. Thirty-sex percent of transgender and non-binary teens who face “restricted bathroom or locker room access” report “being sexually assaulted,” compared to 25.9 percent “of all students surveyed.” Additional polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that one in four trans individuals have been physically attacked “because of their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation”; 64 percent say they have been verbally attacked, while 41 percent report “being harassed or feeling unsafe in a restroom or locker room.” This is a far cry from the baseless claim that trans people are predators waiting to strike in bathrooms and locker rooms.
Never missing a chance to portray themselves as victims, right-wingers’ demonization of trans people reveals their commitment to fascist ideology and politics. Their attacks are not based in simple conservatism. It’s true that historically, gay men have been subject to fascistic-style violence, stigmatized as perverts and child molesters, and as deeply immoral – terrorized by a society that was committed to denying their very existence, rights, and dignity. But the current shift to demonizing trans individuals represents an intensification of this historic repression campaign. Rightwing fascist politics and ideology have escalated the attack on trans people, who are dehumanized and assaulted by a political campaign that treats them as criminals. This updated version of fascism portrays trans people as an existential threat to the republic and to public safety. Trans identity is tied to mental illness and to an “epidemic” of violence, with trans individuals depicted as dangerous “radicals” and “terrorist” “killers” who are hell bent on destroying Christianity. If we accept such claims, what are we to do with such a group, other than neutralize them? This is the rhetoric of eliminationism, which is central to fascist politics.
The Orwellian fiction that it’s Christian Republicans – not trans persons – who are the real victims, is an integral part of fascist politics. Authoritarian leaders rely on lies, disseminated from political officialdom to the masses, which invert reality, deceive the public, and normalize bigotry and hatred against various others. The victims include racial, ethnic, gender, and religious minority groups, which are the first casualties in demagogues’ efforts to seize and consolidate political power. The demonization of trans people is useful for deflecting attention from a broader culture that worships guns, as fascist vigilantes feel empowered by minimal gun regulations to engage in mass shootings against those they deem a threat to the republic. The GOP won’t demonize guns and gun ownership, despite gun violence being an epidemic level threat to society. It’s much easier to reignite and intensify old bigotries against the LGBTQ+ community – one of the GOP’s favorite punching bags.
Rightwing officials and pundits are not alone in their assault on trans Americans. A sizable segment of the public buys into GOP hatemongering and is stoked by anti-trans rhetoric. As Dartmouth historian and religious studies professor Randall Balmer explains of Republican officials who traffic in anti-Trans rhetoric: “They have an interest in keeping the base riled up about one thing or another, and when one issue fades, as with same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage, they’ve got to find something else. It’s almost frantic.” Balmer’s insight speaks to a larger truth – that the rhetoric of fear, concentrating on an ominous and threatening other, is a powerful tool of political and social control.
A large segment of the public embraces anti-Trans beliefs, which fuel the GOP’s onslaught against this group. Pew polling from 2022 found that 43 percent of Americans expressed “discomfort” with “the pace of change around issues of gender identity” in the U.S. – speaking to the preference of a large minority of Americans to roll back the push for transgender equality and rights. The attack on trans people goes beyond simple discomfort, venturing into a full-blown assault on their right to exist and to maintain a public presence in America. This much is clear in Harris’s 2023 polling, which finds that 51 percent of Americans agree public school teachers should be prohibited from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation-related issues with students, and with 78 percent saying these discussions shouldn’t be allowed between teachers and K-3rd grade students.
The attack on trans people is also evident in relation to transitioning. Harris’s poll revealing that 55 percent of Americans agree gene hormone therapy for minors should be banned, even for those with parental permission. Pewpolling from 2022 finds that 72 percent of Republicans said the government should “make it illegal for health care professionals to help someone” who is younger than 18 “with medical care for gender transition,” while 69 percent of Republicans agreed government should “require trans individuals to use public bathrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth.” Such attacks speak to the politics of eliminationism. As the thinking goes, there’s no need to be concerned about transgender rights if young Americans are taught that trans people don’t exist because they’ve been erased from public discourse and public spaces like restrooms. There’s no need to be concerned about rightwing bigotry if trans-gender youth are not allowed to exist because the state prohibits people from recognizing that they exist.
The GOP mobilization of its base in favor of transphobic politics is made easier by the party’s attacks, which are recycled from previous efforts to demonize gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Recent national polling from the Marcon Institute at Lehigh University reinforces this point. Marcon’s February 2023 survey of 1,021 Americans finds that 34 percent of Americans believe it’s “unnatural to identify as transgender.” A smaller number – 27 percent – say the same about gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. What’s revealing in this survey is the strong statistical overlap between how people answered both questions.
Utilizing statistical regression analysis of the Marcon survey, I examine how strong anti-gay, lesbian and bisexual attitudes are in predicting anti-trans beliefs, while “controlling” for other factors, including respondents’ party affiliation, self-described ideology, income, education, race, gender, and age. Answering “yes” to saying that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals are “unnatural” is associated with a 69 percent increased probability of adopting anti-trans beliefs. Anti gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual attitudes are a far stronger predictor of anti-trans beliefs than other factors, with partisanship and ideology (for Republicans and conservatives) associated with 9 and 8 percent increased likelihoods respectively of embracing anti-trans beliefs, after controlling for other factors in my analysis. What these data tell us are that the old bigotry against gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans is a primary motivator for Republican Americans in their ongoing assault on the trans community.
Transphobia is a powerful force. It’s linked to various reactionary and authoritarian political values. Drawing on the Marcon survey, I find that agreement that it’s unnatural to identify as transgender is a significant predictor of 1. support for Trump; 2. willingness to vote for Trump in 2024; 3. support for the January 6 (J6) insurrectionists; and 4. support for authoritarian patriarchal values. The Marcon survey reveals the following, after controlling for the other factors included in my analysis:
+ Support for the belief that trans identity is unnatural is associated with a 30 percent increased likelihood of expressing a “positive” feeling “toward Donald Trump.” Transphobia is an even stronger predictor of Trump support than other factors, including Republican partisanship and conservative ideology, which are associated with 29 and 16 percent increased likelihoods respectively of approving Trump.
+ Transphobia is associated with a 32 percent increased likelihood of voting “for Donald Trump for president in 2024 if he wins the Republican primary,” whereas Republican partisanship and conservative ideology are associated with 31 and 15 percent increased likelihoods respectively of Trump voting.
+ Transphobia predicts support for the J6 insurrectionists, and is associated with a 28 percent increased likelihood of expressing “positive” feelings about “those who occupied the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.” In contrast, Republican partisanship and ideology are associated with 10 and 11 percent increased likelihoods respectively of supporting the J6 insurrectionists.
+ Finally, transphobia predicts support for authoritarianism, and is associated with a 34 percent increased likelihood of agreeing that “our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the rotten applies who are ruining everything.” In contrast, Republican partisanship and conservative ideology are associated with 6 and 13 percent likelihoods respectively of adopting this patriarchal-authoritarian value.
These statistical associations are important because of what they tell us about the political culture of the American right. Transphobia is significantly linked to heterosexism, patriarchy, and toxic masculinity. And it’s associated with an authoritarian way of viewing the world, via support for authoritarian political figures like Trump. Transphobia is heavily linked to strongman-authoritarian politics, via the embrace of Trump’s efforts on J6 to install himself for a second term by undermining the 2020 presidential election, and in deference to patriarchal authority figures – past and present. The patriarchal-authoritarian link to transphobia isn’t just about maintaining the privileges and power of white men who are leading the war on trans people. It’s about the authoritarian values at the core of transphobia – which are fundamentally about dehumanizing, suppressing, and denying equal rights to a historically repressed group.
The rise of transphobia should be understood within the wider socio-political context of trans activists claiming their place in the public sphere. Recent attacks are part of the predictable reactionary backlash against them. Pew polling reveals that only 30 percent of Americans in 2016 reported personally knowing someone who was transgender-identifying. By 2021, that number had grown to 42 percent. A growing number of LGBTQ+ Americans are effectively challenging rightwing bigotry, with serious victories for the movement, including the 2015 success in establishing the right to same-sex marriage. This has stoked significant anger on the right, resulting in an intensifying fascist campaign to depict trans people as a severe threat to life and society. The goal is to force trans people back into the closet, and to erase their existence from discourse, politics, and the public sphere.
The revitalization of anti-LGBTQ+ politics is having predictable consequences. Trans activist Imara Jones reflectsabout GOP propaganda: “This disinformation, one of the things that it is doing is further isolating, stigmatizing, and demonizing trans people, allowing us to be targeted by all forms of violence, both from the state and from individuals.” The legitimation of violence against trans persons, conducted on behalf of the state, speaks to rising fascist politics in America. When the trans community is framed as an existential threat to national security, the message that’s implicitly delivered to GOP supporters, the far right, and Americans is that it’s open season on this group. Republican officials maintain plausible deniability, despite stoking this hate, by refusing to explicitly call for violence – leaving the actual violence to their base.
What’s the best way forward to combat transphobia? A simple two-pronged strategy will likely yield the best results. First, for those who are willing to listen, empathy building must be a central objective. Previous political science research demonstrates that efforts to humanize trans people by telling Americans about the individual stories and struggles they face as people help to cultivate support for this group, in the process combating anti-trans bigotry. This lessons is reflected in recent research finding that LGBTQ+ activists must remain in the public light, showcasing their humanity and struggles, to effectively build mass support. Second, for those who are unwilling to listen and to reconsider their beliefs, the public and private shaming and stigmatization of transphobia will help to beat back the attacks from the purveyors of hate. For many individuals who embrace hateful values, it may be unrealistic to expect they’ll have a change of heart and mind in the foreseeable future. But they can be made to pay a real social cost for their hatred.
As a nation claiming to pride itself in democracy and equal rights, we need to set a new tone for political discourse that makes it clear there’s no place in our society for transphobic beliefs or for fascist messages portraying trans people as a threat to human life and security. No democracy can allow for this sort of demonization and discrimination to persist as the status quo, particularly when it means empowering those trafficking in disinformation, hatred, sexism, and authoritarianism.