Gendered Racial Projects: Anti-Trans, Anti-CRT, and Anti-Abortion Legislation
By Chris Barcelos | July 14, 2022
In the days following the leak of the draft US Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade, my undergraduate students were, understandably, angry and dismayed. For those with some degree of racial, economic, or gender privilege, the leak signaled the first time in their adult lives that they could lack the right to control their bodies. For students of color, queer and trans youth, economically marginalized students (and those who are all), the leaked decision was part of the ongoing state violence that has long affected their communities. Indeed, the months surrounding the leaked decision saw a rapid increase in proposed and enacted anti-abortion, anti-trans, and anti-critical race theory legislation that censors discussion of race and sexuality in schools. This is not an accident or a coincidence. Bringing these punitive public policies into the same frame illustrates how they are part of a gendered racial project to promote policies that uphold white supremacy, normative gender, and heterosexuality.
Gendered Racial Projects
As I discuss in my book, Distributing Condoms and Hope: The Racialized Politics of Youth Sexual Health, “gendered racial projects” links together everyday experiences of race and gender in order to rethink the social meanings embedded in routine institutional practices. The concept helps us see how ideas about race and gender are organized in policymaking, education, healthcare, and more. Policies that appear to be about gender are always already about race, and policies about race are always already about gender. In the city where I conducted the research for my book, youth sexual health promotion professionals were wrapped up in a gendered racial project that enabled them to uncritically promote long-acting, reversible contraceptives (LARC) to youth of color. Historically, policymakers and healthcare providers have heavily promoted LARC to women of color, low-income women, and disabled people as a strategy of reproductive control. However, the gendered racial project led the professionals in my research to overlook these histories and see LARC promotion as race-neutral.
Thinking about the current spate of bills and decisions that criminalize or otherwise ban abortion, gender affirming healthcare, and teaching about racism as part of a gendered racial project can help us to make connections between seemingly disparate issues.
Thinking about the current spate of bills and decisions that criminalize or otherwise ban abortion, gender affirming healthcare, and teaching about racism as part of a gendered racial project can help us to make connections between seemingly disparate issues. It can also help to fight against them more effectively through collective action and coordinated policy responses. Efforts to outlaw abortion, criminalize trans youth’s access to healthcare, and suppress education about white supremacy or queerness are all part of a gendered racial project that denies marginalized groups bodily autonomy and self-determination. Policies that purport to protect children or fetuses are intended to protect only those deemed “worthy” of protection. As Mary Miller’s recent “white life” gaffe suggests, this policy agenda is animated by a desire to preserve white, heterosexual childhood innocence. Protection for some lives is pursued through concurrent policies that criminalize and punish youth of color, queer, and transgender youth.
Behind the scenes of this gendered racial project lurk a common set of proponents and players. Anti-abortion, anti-trans, and anti-critical race theory legislation efforts are propelled by similar actors. These proponents are committed to criminalizing reproductive healthcare, punishing trans youth, and prohibiting schools from teaching about white supremacy in the US. In 2021 a group of far-Right organizations formed the umbrella project Promise to America’s Children to protect (implicitly, white) children’s “bodies, minds, and relationships with their parents.” According to their website, America’s children are under attack from a leftist agenda to make children queer, transgender, and ashamed of their whiteness. It should also come as no surprise, then, that anti-transgender and anti-abortion movements also have roots and alliances with white nationalist agendas such as “the great replacement theory.” Promise to America’s Children produces legislation, couched in the rhetoric of child welfare, to protect “precious children” from a “political agenda that would expose [them] to dangerous and explicit sexual materials.” They define protection from “explicit sexual materials,” as bills that would make it a crime to provide transgender youth with healthcare that improves their quality of life and decreases their risk of suicide. The disregard for the health of trans youth in these campaigns mirrors the disregard for pregnant people in recent legislative efforts to criminalize abortion, given that criminalizing abortion simply makes it less safe.
As a spin on the popular meme, “this the future liberals want,” it seems that the future that conservatives want is one in which economically marginalized pregnant people supply white babies to owning class families. In this gendered racial project, families are empowered to withhold life-saving healthcare from their trans children, and kids never learn about gender and sexual diversity and the US history of racism and enslavement.
I asked Dante, a 19-year-old biracial genderfluid participant in the Trans Youth Justice Project what they see as the main issues that young trans people are dealing with right now.
Dante sighed and replied, “Trans youth are really having a hard time feeling well and experiencing joy and feel like they’re living because it feels like we’re in a constant state of survival.”
Dante’s comment speaks to how the strategies and policies of this gendered racial project are meant to disenfranchise marginalized people who are already struggling under the weight of social exclusion. Research has demonstrated that anti-trans bills and rhetoric negatively affect trans people’s mental health even when they are merely proposed legislation. Inequalities in healthcare access and outcome are magnified for trans youth of color, who must navigate intertwined transphobia and racism. We know that denying gender affirming care, like denying abortion care, leads to negative health outcomes. Criminalizing abortion will have a disproportionate effect on trans people. Trans people are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies because of inequalities in education and healthcare access and face numerous barriers in accessing abortion care, most notably a lack of trans-competent providers. Dante knows that the linked assaults on trans healthcare, abortion, and anti-racist education not only exacerbate social inequalities, but they also steal trans people’s joy.
Resisting Gendered Racial Projects
Politicians on the far-Right need desperate people with unwanted pregnancies, untreated gender dysphoria, who are ignorant about white supremacy, because they are less like to effectively oppose their legislative campaigns. This is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from analyzing our current policy environment through the lens of a gendered racial project: The fight for abortion access is inseparable from the fights for racial justice and queer/trans liberation. The need for a vision of collective power is what I emphasized to my students during a campus rally. We must funnel our rage and despair into concrete acts of solidarity that go beyond policy reform to support ongoing grassroots organizing to protect trans kids and providing practical support for people seeking abortions. Support your local abortion fund, but don’t forget to support efforts to ensure that trans people can survive and thrive. It’s all connected.
Chris Barcelos is Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Photo: iStock.com/Buket Topal