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Anti-Trans Legislation has Never Been About Protecting Children

The roots of “protecting children” in U.S. political rhetoric lie in efforts to defend white supremacy.

In March, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill banning gender-confirming medical treatment for transgender youths. The bill marked just one instance of a wave of recent anti-transgender legislation across the country that would restrict trans people’s access to athletic participation, health care, sex education and other accommodations. As Arkansas state Sen. Alan Clark (R) declared: “This bill sets out to protect children in an area where they very much need protection.”

It might seem strange that a politician with no medical training could justify a bill denying certain children medical treatment — without which, advocates note, they will suffer horrifying consequences — on the basis of “protecting children.”

Yet history shows that political discourse about protecting children since the mid-20th century has never really been about improving their health. Instead, it has a lot to do with race.

The roots of “protecting children” in U.S. political rhetoric lie in efforts to defend white supremacy. While the groups targeted as threats to children — African Americans in the South, unmarried mothers, abortion rights activists, lesbians and gay men, and, more recently, transgender people — have changed over time, the underlying political logic has proved enduring and successful.

Children’s well-being first became a political issue as industrialization and urban growth accelerated toward the end of the 19th century. Debates over child labor, education and immigration catalyzed a broad Progressive Era “child-saving” movement. Then, in the mid-20th century, postwar prosperity and Cold War tensions contributed to a renewed focus on children as symbols of the American future.

But in the South, the politics of “protection” did not at first focus on children. After Reconstruction, White elites in the states of the former Confederacy consolidated their rule through a combination of political exclusion and violence, with White vigilantes committing thousands of racial terror lynchings between 1880 and the 1950s. Though their violence aimed to suppress labor disputes, breaches of racial etiquette and Black political organizing, lynchers nearly always justified their actions as necessary to protect White womanhood.