Last week, Time magazine featured transgender actress Laverne Cox on its cover with the headline, "The Transgender Tipping Point." Response from the right was swift, with Matt Drudge posting an image of the cover on his page, and Kevin Williamson penning a particularly nasty piece in the National Review called "Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman," which the Chicago Sun-Times inexplicably reprinted.
In this same week, we saw the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) debated for almost nine hours. Nearly all the opposition focused on the inclusion of gender identity in the ordinance, and almost none on sexual orientation.
These days, transgender people bring out the crazy, mean, and ignorant in social conservatives like nothing else. They are accused of being rapists, child molesters, delusional, and mentally ill. Social conservatives in very public positions have offered many "solutions" to the perceived transgender menace, ranging from mistreating us until we self-deport back to our birth gender, to forced institutionalization, to "putting them in camps."
The out-of-proportion reaction by social conservatives is because transgender issues manage to hit so many dog-whistle conservative issues simultaneously: a rejection of science as liberally biased, opposition to the bodily autonomy of women, and general hostility towards LGBT people.
There is no room for compromise on these, and transgender people manage to be at a three-way intersection.
When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told Republicans to "stop being the stupid party," no one was apparently listening. Socially conservative commentators like Williamson approach transgender people from a perspective of "this is what I think based on nothing in particular other than my own personal disgust," rather than "this is what doctors, psychologists, research, and science has to say."
They cherry-pick the fact that gender dysphoria is in the DSM-5 to claim that all transgender people are, by definition, mentally ill. They fail to note that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not list it as a disorder, that is only diagnosable if there is "clinically significant distress," and that the main reason why the diagnosis was included is because medical professionals need diagnostic codes for providing treatment. Indeed, the APA specifically states that "gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder."
Social conservatives frequently mock transgender people's gender identities, stating that physical reality trumps delusions. Arriving at this conclusion requires ignoring all of the most recent research into the origins of gender identity.
It is now widely accepted, based on peer-reviewed research, that prenatal testosterone exposure plays a significant role in both sexual orientation and gender identity. Upbringing has nothing to do with it. This is why efforts to change a person's gender identity are every bit as futile as those to change sexual orientation.
Along the same lines, transgender health care evokes the same visceral reactions as women's reproductive rights, and for many of the same reasons. Bodily autonomy is great, unless I think my religion has something to say about it.
Social conservatives are morally opposed to any sort of coverage of transition-related care -- even though transition-related care has been shown for decades to be the most effective way of dealing with something that is, at its core, a medical issue. The same people who scream loudest about "Obamacare," bureaucratic "death panels," and letting doctors decide what's best for patients also conveniently ignore the fact that medical organizations are essentially unanimous in their support of transition-related medical care.
The U.S. court system is generally in agreement with this as well, repeatedly ruling that transition-related care is medically necessary and that withholding it violates the Eighth Amendment.
When confronted with these facts, social conservatives slip into the same sort of cognitively dissonant excuses they deploy on issues like global warming and evolution: "research can say anything." "Researchers are all liberals." "Doctors are all liberals." "Medical organizations are liberal." "It's just a few activist judges."
Any potential for discussion is blocked by their confirmation bias.
Fundamentally this is just a continuation of the all-but-lost cultural war on gays and lesbians. Twenty-five years ago, social conservatives were using the same hysterical talking points and accusations about gays and lesbians to oppose medical care and societal inclusion. These same conservatives dislike lesbians and gays as much as they ever did, but it has become a political and legal liability to express it openly. Attacking the transgender community does not (yet) carry the same penalties.
In their 2012 election post-mortem, the Republican Party identified a lack of inclusiveness of women, minorities, and the LGBT community as a primary cause of their failure to unseat President Obama. While some outreach efforts have been made to other communities since, LGBT people have essentially been dropped from any further consideration. The GOP's social conservative wing has made it clear that that sort of LGBT inclusion is unacceptable.
They're scared, though. Transgender issues have become the last socially acceptable way of kicking the dog when it comes to the LGBT community. If social conservatives can't use transgender people as a bogeyman anymore, they'll have a hard time finding another target that touches so many of their hot-button issues at once while riling the base so effectively. They have convinced the GOP faithful that if transgender people gain acceptance, it will be the end of everything: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the destruction of health care, and an end to personal privacy.
It remains to be seen who will replace transgender people as the right wing's whipping boy when absolutely none of this happens. I'm sure they'll find a new group to be terrified of, though. They always do.