The Great Panic: Trans-Sexuality and the Erosion of Patriarchy

The Trans Legislation Tracker reports that as of May 2023, 543 anti-trans bills have been proposed in 49 state and 71 have passed; of these, 59 have been signed into law while 12 others have passed but haven’t been enacted.  Last year, 26 bill were passed out of 174 proposed bills.

Oklahoma’s OK SB129 is representative of the tenor of the anti-trans campaign.  It reads, in part:

A physician or other health professional found to have knowingly referred for or provided gender transition procedures to any individual under twenty-six (26) years of age shall, upon conviction, be guilty of a felony.

If convicted, the health professional will lose his/her license.

Wyoming is promoting a similar bill (SF0111) that does the following:

A person guilty of child abuse, a felony punishable for imprisonment for not more than ten (10) years, if a personal intentionally inflicts upon a child under the age of eighteen (18) years any procedure, drug, or other agent or combination thereof that is administered to intentionally or knowingly change the sex of the child.

Still other actions are being promoted.  Arizona (SB1001) has moved to fire school employees who referred to student in any pronoun other than their biological sex; it has also moved (HB1700) to ban books in schools that validate concepts of gender or pronouns.

The Christian right and many Republicans are freaked-out by the increasing public presence of transgender or gender nonconforming people.  Why?


The historian Gerda Lerner, author of The Creation of Patriarchy, noted that patriarchy is ”an institutionalized pattern of male dominance in society.”  She points out, it “is a system created by men and women inadvertently, with unforeseen consequences.”  And she adds:

In a time when women’s average life span may have been less than 28 years, and when infant mortality was 70 to 75 percent, women were bearing and nursing babies all the time in order for the tribe to survive. So a sexual division of labor was created that was functional and approved of by both men and women.

She reminds us that ”[p]atriarchy has gone through many forms,” and “[a]s a system, patriarchy is as outdated as feudalism … But it is a 4,000-year-old system of ideas that won’t just go away overnight.”

Lerner also argues that the slavery of women and the exploitation of their sexual and reproductive capacity by conquering men marked the initial development of class distinction, and that ”slave women and children were the first property in these societies.”

For the first two centuries of American history, patriarchy was legal under a system known as “coverture” that held that no female person had a legal identity. “At birth, a female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she married, by her husband’s.”  More revealing, “[t]he husband and wife became one – and that one was the husband. As a symbol of this subsuming of identity, women took the last names of their husbands.”  Starting in 1839 and continuing over the next half-century, the legal status of married women – then single women – slowly changed, fueled by the suffrage movement.

Steven Ruggles’s study, “Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015,” further clarifies the evolution of patriarchy.  He notes that before the 19th century, “most families were organized according to patriarchal tradition” He adds:

Household heads owned and controlled the means of production, and their wives and children were obliged to provide the unpaid labor needed to sustain family enterprises. Masters of the household had a legal right to command the obedience of their wives and children — as well as any servants or slaves — and to use corporal punishment to correct disobedience.

Those day are — in many but not all ways — over.  Over the last century, the marketplace has fundamentally changed and, with it, women’s place in the family and society.  While there still is a significant wage gap between man and women, many things have changed, including the increase presence of women in the labor force, decline in multigenerational households, increased non-marital cohabitation, increased divorce rate, increased women-centered family and increased never-married women.


Patriarchy shaped women’s lives over the last millennium as well as defining male “masculinity.”  But masculinity is not a singular category that defines all men; it is a complex category.  And, parallel to the major changes transforming women’s lives, men’s lives have also changed over the last century.

For millennia, masculinity was equated with being the family provider, the income earner.  And with that came a host of associated attributes, including the requirements of physical strength, emotional toughness and personal (and social) power.  However, as capitalism redefined economic life and the place of women in society, male hegemony was undercut.

Hanna Rosen points out, “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today — social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus — are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.”  She adds, “In fact, the opposite may be true.”

In a 2020 report in Psychology Today, the psychologist Noam Shpancer reports “psychologically, many men appear to feel that the defining traits of masculinity, including, ‘toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors’ are ‘under attack.’”

So, what happens to the traditional male attributes, especially toughness and interpersonal dominance.  Stephanie Pappas, writing in the APA Monitor, argues that rage often turns into violence.  “Men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims,” she argues.  “They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime. They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s.”

In addition, there has been a significant increase in anti-LGBTQ+ violence and, as of 2020, around one out of every five hate crimes committed in the U.S. were motivated by anti-gay/trans bias. Yotam Ophir, of the University at Buffalo, points out that this violence is fueled by far-right rhetoric spread by white nationalist groups, extremist influencers and conservative politicians.


Traditional notions of gender identity, be it femininity or masculinity, are categorically different from gender nonconforming, nonbinary or transgender identity.  However, as the classical concepts of femininity or masculinity have been eroded under modern and postmodern social developments, the long-denied presence on gender nonconforming people has become more socially visible. This sets the stage for today’s great denial over the true complexity – and fluidity — of gender.

Genny Beemyn’s invaluable study, Transgender History in the United States, reminds us of the following:

One of the first recorded examples [of ‘transgender history”] involved a servant in the Virginia colony in the 1620s who claimed to be both a man and a woman and, at different times, adopted the traditional roles and clothing of men and women and variously went by the names of Thomas and Thomasine Hall. … Perhaps because it too was unable to make a conclusive determination, or perhaps because it took Hall at his/her word that Hall was bi-gendered or what would be known today as intersexed, the court ordered Hall in 1629 to wear both a man’s breeches and a woman’s apron and cap.

Four centuries later, in 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the first transgender- and gay-employment rights case.  The case involved Aimee Stephens, a trans-woman, and Don Zarda, a gay man.  The Court found that an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating based on sex. Aimee Stephens was fired after notifying her employer she would be transitioning, and the Court argued, she was fired because of her sex. In finding for Stephens, the Court reinforced the centrality of bodies to the word “sex,” while undermining the patriarchal belief that our bodies should determine our gender.

As Marx famously noted in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

We’ve witnessed tragedy play out in the long, long battle to overcome patriarchy’s subordination of women.  We saw a less tragic version of it play out in the battle over gay rights.  We are now witnessing patriarchy play out as farse in today’s culture wars campaigns to repress transgender identity, suppress challenging reading materials and enforce electoral gerrymandering. Sadly, this farce has teeth, so the struggle continues.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out